St. Francis de Sales parish evolved as a mission church organized from St. Thomas the Apostle parish late in the 1880s. An original cornerstone laid in 1889. The Reverend William F. Cook, for some years the Pastor of St. Thomas, started the erection of the new parish, St. Francis de Sales. Work was discontinued shortly after it began because of the great financial panic of 1893. By 1894 the Depression had subsided and work was resumed and completed. The Reverend Edward J. O'Reilly was named Pastor at this time.
On May 26, 1894, Archbishop Ryan presided over the Solemn High Mass of Dedication. During this Mass many of the children received their First Communion and Confirmation. The Archbishop was assisted by the Reverend C. F. Patterson and the Reverend Hugh T. Henry as Deacons of Honor. The Celebrant of the Mass was the Reverend James J. Smith with the Reverends Thomas C. McCarthy and John J. Rooney assisting as Deacon and Sub-Deacon, respectively. In August of 1894, Father Reilly recorded in a clear and precise hand that the first two baptisms in the parish were James Edward Nangle, son of John Nangle and Alice Mahoney, and James Henry Mahoney, son of James Mahoney and Anna Fitzgerald Mahoney. His first wedding is recorded as between John Francis Bonner and Anna C. Mahoney. His running of his little parish was apparently a very successful one. That he was a popular leader was noted in the articles written about him at the time of his death on March 22, 1903 at the age of 44. He is buried in the parish cemetery. There were approximately 1,000 people at his funeral and a special train was needed to transport the mourners to Lenni from Philadelphia. Over 60 priests were at the ceremony.
Father O'Reilly was succeeded in 1903 by the Reverend William J. Kane who remained as Pastor until 1910. Not too much history is available for the period starting in 1903, although it is to be assumed that it was a reasonably long and successful tenure. During that time, the Sister of St. Francis began teaching the children from the parish at their Motherhouse, Our Lady of Angels Convent. In the year and a half following the Pastorate of Father Kane, the leadership saw many changes, for in that time three priests came. Two were moved to other parishes and once again death claimed one Pastor after a stay of about a week - the cause pneumonia. His name was not even recorded.
In the year 1910, the Reverend William C. Farrell came to Lenni. Father Farrell's first concern was transforming the basement of the Church into classrooms so that the children could attend a school in their own parish. With the opening of our own school, the nuns who did the teaching were transported each day by horse and buggy from the Motherhouse to St. Francis. This was the daily routine for many years until a home could be set up for them on Drayton Road. In 1946, a second home on the same road was renovated for them; in 1960, the present convent was built.
In the early days, affairs to raise money were held in Rockdale Hall. This was the Community Building across from Ahearn's Market and is now a parking area. These affairs were in the form of suppers, card parties, fairs, minstrel shows and plays. In the years 1914 and 1915, St. Francis had a very good baseball team and played in a league representing the nearby communities. In August of 1915, they played a team of Chinese players who were on tour in the United States.
Father Farrell's leadership progressed reasonably smoothly through 1922.
In 1922, the leadership of the parish was turned over to Reverend Joseph A. Dougherty and continued under him until 1925, when he left. It was during the tenure of Father Dougherty when our present school was built. The school provided a springboard for religious education because several of the girls later became nuns - Catherine Murphy, Rose Kerrigan and Grace McCarthy.
Father Dougherty, promoted to Philadelphia, was replaced in 1926 by the Reverend Joseph McDowell. At first, Father McDowell was to lead a fairly quiet life. He, however, did the lion's share of debt reduction on the school. Father Dougherty had paid interest only on the bank loans amounting to $722 or one quarter of the year. Father McDowell inherited three bank loans totaling $43,554 with an additional mortgage loan of $25,000. In his first two years in office, Father McDowell paid off $42,554, leaving only a note of $1,000 and a mortgage of $25,000. To do this, Father McDowell took his plight to 35 different parishes in the Archdiocese. He was a real financial wizard. In all, Father McDowell through his efforts and zeal, contributed some $55,000 to his parish school and much of it when the Depression had reached its depths. Father McDowell left in 1932.
Reverend Thomas Colahan became the Pastor in 1932; a worse time no one could imagine. The Depression had really laid the parish low, the mills were shut down, and money was in very short supply. There was scarcely a house in the parish that was not hit. Father Colahan worked night and day trying to keep our respective noses above water. During his five years here, not too much could be accomplished except to retire the final $1,000 note and meet all the interest payments on the mortgage. It was a herculean test and the parish owed him much. He left in 1937 and was dead four months later. Father Colahan had literally worked himself to death. It has been said that despite the heroics of Father McDowell and Father Colahan, the real stars of the day were our parishioners, who despite the hardship brought by the Depression, raised about 87% of the total cost of the school.
In 1937, Reverend Joseph G. Martin became the Pastor (and later Pastor Emeritus.) From the depths of despair, he lifted us into a period when the parish grew from the East to the West, from the North to the South. He was, at once, a visionary and an achiever. He had a bold plan which was always in his mind. He was years ahead of his time in the ideas he promoted. He rarely waited to introduce a new program before the previous one had exhausted itself.
In the beginning, he stepped into a parish almost defeated by the Depression. To restore self respect to the parishioners, he rolled up his sleeves and with Dutch cleanser in hand, helped clean up the dingy church which had been left him. Since there were no relief roles in the beginning, Father Martin began a program to get some people fed and clothed - a program which involved some of his more influential friends. He commissioned some parishioners to clean up the weeds which apparently were everywhere. All in all, there came a satisfaction that we had something worthwhile to protect and nourish. By 1944, the parish was free of debt and looking for some major projects in which to invest. It was about this time that he was given the opportunity to make the move to the Lima section on the Baltimore Pike. The original plan called for the building of a large new church and rectory at that site, and to utilize the present church as a Mission Chapel. He had a bankroll of $20,000 to start with. We're sure he went down on this knees to make the final decision. The thought of the injustice to the people of Lenni, of their sacrifices for 50 years was too strong. It evolved that where expediency and faith are in conflict, faith should be the determining course. So we stayed where we were, raising the money to modernize the church and the school: "A wise choice had been made."
A review of Father Martin's papers made it apparent that his concerns for his flock were always uppermost in his mind. Through the final four years of the Depression, and the war years when so many of our young men were in action from one end of the world to the other, he never lost faith or hope for their safety and welfare. In his time, he had developed and promoted such things as school lunch programs, theatrical groups, youth sports programs and religious discussion groups. As indicated earlier, he was not above begging and borrowing from his wide circle of friends to accomplish what he had done. In rapid succession, starting in 1960, he built a new fieldhouse and rectory at a cost of $119,000.
During the building of the rectory, it was not uncommon for Father Martin and his assistant, Father Boland, to drop in on unsuspecting parishioners' homes for a meal and a shower. Living in a construction trailer was no picnic, but Father Martin and Father Boland made the most of it. For all the trials and tribulations during those post-war years, life in the parish was not without some niceties. Father Martin always described our youngsters as "an ebullient, vivacious bunch," always ready to attack a problem and bursting with energy.
The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were formed along with the CYO which established itself in competitive athletics. The 1950s, 60s and 70s saw Chuck Garland, Wayne Lesky and Celie Brown do a marvelous job with our young people. They competed well though their numbers were small. Within the parish, very successful social events were constantly well attended - the final school day picnics at Lenape Park, the annual Christmas party in the school and later at the Fieldhouse, "Sock" dances for the teenagers. Adult fund raising dances at such spots as the Brandywine Club, Media Inn, The Towne House and the Springfield Country Club, always drew large crowds. Religious discussion groups were formed in various areas such as Riddlewood and Wyncroft to provide mental stimulation (and social gratification) with Father Martin or one of the curates acting as moderator.
In the early 1960s, the parish became the leader with its "Citizens for Educational Freedom" group in its successful drive to get get public bussing for private school children. Who can forget the public debates pitting Father Martin (and St. Francis) on the one side and the public school administrator and the NEA bent on preventing public bussing on the other. Ultimately, we won!
Father Martin retired to a well-earned rest in 1973 after having led the parish for 36 years. He remained as Pastor Emeritus for several years thereafter, until his death in 1977. He is buried in the cemetery behind the church.
Reverend Thomas F. Walsh succeeded Father Martin as Pastor from 1973 to September of 1974, when he asked to be relieved because of health reasons. We hardly got to know him.
We were confronted with the need for a new pastor and we got one. Curiously, he was another Walsh, but no relation. In the next 17 years, Reverend Joseph E. Walsh was to be our Pastor, friend and confidant. Starting in 1974, he was not only responsible for our physical plant, but took the effective lead in the community effort to make Pope John XXIII's dream of ecumenism a reality. At the same time, he was successful in binding the parish into a unified group. After being here a year, Father Walsh undertook the task of remodeling the church building, making it a beautifully harmonious structure of which the congregation could be proud.
Father Walsh attended St. John the Baptist Grade and High Schools in Manayunk, and then moved to St. Joseph's Preparatory School before entering the Seminary at St. Charles Borromeo, being ordained in 1947. Father Walsh's first assignment was at St. Paul's in South Philadelphia. He also served at St. Catherine's in Reading, Old St. Mary's in Philadelphia, St. Francis in Norristown, St. Francis Cabrini in Fairless Hills and St. David's in Willow Grove before coming to St. Francis de Sales in Lenni. In retrospect, he calls his years at our parish the happiest of his life. They have not been without trial. After the renovation of the church mentioned above, a disastrous fire almost demolished the inside of our school. The fire started on January 2, 1977, when an explosion occurred in the lower area and spread rapidly to the roof. Fortunately, no one was hurt because the children were still on Christmas holiday. In the calm, efficient way characteristic of Father Walsh, he organized all available resources, making arrangements for the eight grades to continue their education. The top three grades were housed in Nativity in Media, and the other five grades at the Green Ridge Public School. All eight grades were back in our own school by September the same year. The Public School Administrator received a special thanks for his efforts to house our students.
In his years here, the second longest Pastorate in our parish, Father Walsh has been responsible for instituting the Home and School Association with Sister Paula, then the School Principal, the Mothers Club changeover to the "Ladies of St. Francis", and the new school cafeteria (after the fire.) He also formed the Parish Action Committee with Dr. Richard Barr as President. This paved the way for the Parish Council. His greatest accomplishment, in his own opinion, was the formation and training of the first group of Eucharistic Ministers under his assistant, Father Fred Britto.
Father Walsh was assigned as Pastor Emeritus in 1990 and remained actively involved in the parish until his death on December 29, 2008
Reverend Charles P. Vance became Pastor on February 3, 1990. He entered the Seminary at St. Charles Borromeo from Bishop Kenrick High School from which he graduated in June 1961. He came to St. Francis de Sales as Pastor after being at Our Lady of the Holy Souls at 19th and Tioga in Philadelphia, and among others, St. Paul's in Norristown. Each year, he has brought his former choir to sing at our church to form strong ties between his former parish and his new one.
Father Vance reorganized the Parish Action Committee, which was primarily focused on fundraising and upgrading the physical plant, into the Parish Council, which is more broadly focused on all parish activities and acts as advisor to the pastor. Next, he organized a Parish Development Campaign to raise money for the upgrading of the grounds and buildings. The campaign raised over $450,000 and off he went. The cemetery, which had been identified and zoned by Father Walsh, has been beautified and extended. The parking lots were expanded and had lighting installed. Various walls were repaired, stairways were rebuilt, new stained glass windows were installed, a new meeting room was created in the rectory, and a kindergarten was established for the little ones in the church basement. A new building was built to house the school library and computer center, which allowed the kindergarten to be relocated into the school building. In addition to the physical changes, Father Vance oversaw the expansion of the CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) for public school children, the formation of the Men's Prayer Group, and the establishment of a Pre-Cana program.
In June 2000, Father Vance left St. Francis to accept an assignment as Pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Lafayette Hill, Pa.
Reverend William J. Teverzczuk (Father Bill) accepted his assignment as Pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in June of 2000. He continued to build upon the programs that were already in place. He was noted for his well-prepared homilies.
In June 2002, Father Teverzczuk accepted an assignment at the newly founded Mary, Mother of the Redeemer Parish in North Wales.
Reverend Thomas P. Gillin was appointed Pastor of St. Francis de Sales in June 2002. After one year at St. Francis, Father Gillin requested and received permission for a Sabbatical to begin in June 2003.
Reverend Michael A. Colagreco came to the Parish in 2003 as Pastor. He came at a time when the Parish was struggling to become whole having gone through a period of turmoil.
In the First Letter of St. Peter in the New Testament (Chapter 5:1-4) we read:
I exhort the Presbyters (Pastors) among you, as a fellow Presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it. Not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. This scriptural reference states well the gift Father Colagreco brought to St. Francis De Sales Parish during his tenure as Pastor.
He lead as a shepherd who cared for his flock - even being able to call each one by name. He re-established the Parish Pastoral Council and Finance Council and invited all to be part of each of the Programs called for by the Archdiocesan Planning Committee. Committees were brought back to life and new ones were created. People were invited to use the gifts they had and to work together for the good of all. Father encouraged leadership among the staff and among the parishioners. A true sense of ownership of the parish was felt by the people. This ownership was evident in many ways but most surely recognized in the Winter of 2012 when St. Francis de Sales Parish School was scheduled to close as a school and merge with St. Thomas the Apostle. Father supported Sister Mary Farrell OSF, Principal and her Team as they appealed this decision to the Archdiocese. Not only did the school families come forth but they were joined by families of children attending Public School as well as many of the older parishioners. The Appeal was won and on February 16, 2012 notice came that St. Francis de Sales would remain in Lenni as a Parish School.
During his tenure he undertook the projects of replacing the church roof, painting the church and carpeting it. The stain glass windows were cleaned and clear glass inserts replaced the plastic inserts allowing for more light to enter the church. He had the school repointed and attended to upkeep of the convent.
Father was no stranger to the School or to the CCD Program and knew most of the children enrolled in both programs by name. He and his dog Buddy, the Parish Hospitality Mascot, could often be seen with the children.
His ability to accept people for who they were endeared him to many and won the trust of all. Once asked, what do you think the parish goal should be he responded: "St. Francis de Sales Parish should be a place where God can be found."
He helped that goal to become a reality - that was one of his gifts to the parishioners. Father concluded his ministry at St. Francis de Sales on July 2, 2012 when he left to begin his assignment as Pastor of St. Anastasia Parish in Newtown Square, West Chester.
On the afternoon of July 2, 2012, Father Alan Okon arrived as Pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish. Although Father spent the earlier years of his priesthood in parish work he spent most of his priestly life in Secondary Education. His most recent assignment was that of President of John Paul II High School in Royersford, Pa. He was very involved in the building of the school and in its administration.
His assignment as pastor is something he is very excited about. He is looking forward to working with the parishioners and all of the organizations to maintain and strengthen the Parish Community of St. Francis de Sales Church in Lenni.
We wish Father many years of blessings here at St. Francis de Sales Parish.
Source: St. Francis de Sales Church Centennial Anniversary Book (published 1994)