12 November 2015
For those who insist that life is just as it always was I offer this glimpse into a day out of my own childhood. World War Two had ended in August 1945 and now in May 1946 the young men, some of them my older brothers, cousins and neighbors, had returned from that horror and were settled into civilian life. Most didn’t seem to have changed but that was typical of that generation. They kept the changes to themselves. Of course there were many who came back seriously damaged or not at all. While the war still raged these were evidenced by the red, white and blue-edged banners hanging in the windows of the row-houses of East Germantown as well as all other parts of the city. A blue star set in the white center of the banner had stood for a family member serving in the military forces. A gold star meant a member of that family had died serving. Every combination of these symbols could be seen in windows throughout the city and in cities and towns across the United States.
On 28 October 2013 My Church, as I still think of it after so many years, that magnificent cathedral, was sold to developers. A variety of uses are being considered for it. It had stood empty, for sale, for about five years.
But on this sunny May morning of blue skies and puffy white clouds, an ideal spring temperature, Immaculate Conception Church and Grammar School stood fully prepared to begin the annual May Day Procession. The students who had assembled in their classrooms filed into the schoolyard where they lined up in columns, two abreast, the girls in their white dresses and veils, the boys wearing the suits or sport jackets, most of these recently purchased for Easter Sunday. Each boy wore a blue and white striped tie. At the left of the two boys or girls heading each column would stand the sister who had taught that class during the year now ending.
Leading the entire pageant and now in their places were the parish pastor, regally attired, and four of his senior fellows in equally appropriate cassocks and surplises. Each of these four gripped a pole supporting, above them, an ornate canopy. As the parade began its march into the streets outside the pastor would swing a gold censor, containing burning incense . This he would gently swing, forward and back, smoke from the incense wafting into the surrounding air. Other priests followed and following them, a phenomenon that to this day – especially in this day – strikes me as nearly unbelievable: Two hundred altar boys! Two hundred! Chosen carefully from the fifth to eighth graders, they walked slowly and solemnly, in two’s, oldest and tallest leading, the younger and smaller following. Can anyone picture this now? Especially those who weren’t born then?
After filing along the side of the imposing cathedral we were actually in the street. Ardleigh Street which fronted the face of the edifice. Not on the sidewalk; in the middle of the street. Already neighbors filled the sidewalks, standing in front of their homes. They were not all Catholics. We knew some of them. Some were doctors and dentists who had treated our illnesses or dental problems. Common in those days. A doctor would hang a shingle – as they say – in the middle of a block of row homes, a dentist on the corner. So Jews, Protestants and, naturally, mobs of Catholics, stood and clapped, even cheered as we marched by singing,Tantum Ergo Sacramentum… Or,turning left into Price Street, O Salutaris Hostia…I wore my Frank Sinatra jacket, a style Sinatra himself had intoduced. Solid colored sleeves and lapels with complementing plaid body, quite snappy at the time. Passing a pack of my war veteran cousins, the Cassidys, I struggled to maintain my solemn demeanor, not to look at them. But their toothy grins, their wise-guy expressions wouldn’t let my eyes stay fixed straight ahead. I kept glancing sideways, anticipating. They whistled and cheered, they clapped, then Chick, the oldest of those brothers, not very long out of a year in a German prison camp, yelled, “What’s this, Cholly? You the new Frank Sinatra now?” And the brothers applauded Chick. I sang, as seriously as I could, veneremur cernui… The massive stone side of the church along with the rectory on our left, the politely encouraging neighbors – and the Cassidys – on our right we sang, Sa al ve Sa al ve Sa al ve Regina… By the end of the block I saw my own brothers standing with the crowd, smiling and waving. There were other relatives and family friends, my parents of course, aunts and uncles still to be seen on Chelten Avenue, a busy street of mostly businesses but some residents. Then came the turn onto Ardleigh Street and entering the church through the main, the front, entrance. A long Mass, high or solemn high, I can’t remember, was the finale, which reminds me of another astonishing, to me at least, fact. I don’t remember anyone complaining. Even the kids who were not well-behaved in school or the few whose after-school activities bordered on criminal never uttered a groan. Maybe there’s something in all of us that loves a pageant.
The pupils of The Immaculate Conception School, the parishioners who attended and the neighbors of non-Catholic denominations who encouraged this spectacle did it every year for many years. Isn’t it amazing that nobody complained, even the city of Philadelphia, about our occupying the streets for that length of time? Something for recent generations who believe they invented egalitarianism to ponder.Not that there weren’t prejudices and discrimination. Was there ever such a period?
Under the canopy leading the procession were five priests and among the ranks behind them were enough clergy to man five average parishes today. Scattered through the demonstration an assembly of forty Sisters Of The Immaculate Heart Of Mary walked proudly, proud of their order and proud of the students they’d helped prepare for the world they’d soon enter.
The image of that cathedral, as I approached it on Stafford Street, is printed indelibly on my mind. On cold, dark mornings, often foggy, there were the women, middle-aged and some quite elderly, walking to the six a.m. mass. Every day. I still see them. Ghostly in that cold dark, fog. Icy sidewalks. It didn’t matter. They were there. Who knew it wouldn’t always be that way?
So they’ve sold it. To developers.
In 1971 the school itself burned down. Gone completely. I had been laid off from a job in Los Angeles and was back working in Pennsylvania. Driving to work on the Pennsylvania Turnpike one morning I heard on the radio that my grammar school was burning. I got off at the next exit, drove down to Germantown and watched it burn. Stood there all day unbelieving. The end of a long major period of Philadelphia (and Catholic) history. Things change.
Why did it change? Not just this church but churches everywhere? I know. I can answer the question. People changed. Why? There were culprits at the controls. I can name them.
But not now. Not here. This isn’t the place.