Our Lady of Calvary Parish on Knights Road began like the proverbial mustard seed. It was nourished, planned, worked on and supported, driven by faithful parishioners to become what OLC is today. It wasn’t always like this, it began with a brief story in the “Catholic Standard and Times” of February 21, 1958, stating: “The foundation of a new parish in Torresdale” was announced this week by the Most Rev. John F. O’Hara, C.S.C.D.D., Archbishop of Philadelphia.
The parish will be known as Our Lady of Calvary and the Rev. George S. Wierzalis, rector of St. Mary’s Church, Ringtown, has been named the first pastor. The new canonical parish is a further development of the mission church known since 1956 as Our Lady of Calvary, founded originally as St. Michael’s Mission in November, 1922, and attended by priests of St. John Cantius Church in Bridesburg. The mission church was located on the old Red Lion Road (now Knights Road) off Frankford Avenue. The new parish, which becomes effective Tuesday, February 25th, will take in the territory formerly part of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cornwell Heights, and the following boundaries have been established.
West: From the juncture of Red Lion Road, and Decatur Road, along Decatur Road to Comly Road; along Comly Road to Thornton Road.
North: Thornton Road to Byberry Road to Townsend Road; Townsend Road to Mechanicsvillc Road (Philadelphia County).
East Mechanicsville Road (Bucks County) to Poquessing Creek: Poquessing Creek to Red Lion Road.
South Red Lion Road to Academy Road; Academy Road to Red lion Road; Red lion Road to Decatur Road.”
The late Cardinal O’Hara instructed Father Wierzalis to plan parish facilities for a maximum of 800 families. At the time there were 625 families in the new parish, with a population of 2371. There were 334 children for whom schools had to be provided because OLC did not have its own facilities and 69 in the Diocesan high schools.
A NEW OUTPOST OF THE ARCHDIOCESE
Cardinal O’Hara’s instructions to plan for 800 families were rescinded within three years because of the unprecedented construction of new homes in the area and the number of Catholic families that moved in. OLC became a new outpost of the Archdiocese in the northeast extremity of Philadelphia.
It preceded an era of pioneering effort and some personal sacrifice to reap the anticipated rewards. Such effort, to achieve maximum success, is not engendered from a chosen few, but from the cooperation and assistance of many, each prideful of the fruits of individual labors, each benefiting from the contributions of others.
45 years later, it is the spiritual home for 3000 families, with 950 years and, in its own parish school, and 300 enrolled in the Archdiocesan High Schools.
With the tremendous population explosion, the original boundaries of the parish were narrowed to form two additional parishes — St. Anselm’s (1962) and St. Martha’s (1966).
EARLY PIONEERING DAYS
During those early pioneering days, OLC was without a school, rectory or convent, but it had people willing to work and to pray — and they did both. Prior to constructing the first OLC grade school building, some 230 children attended classes at St. Charles Borromeo, in Cornwell Heights, and another 100 boys and girls were sent to Nazareth Academy grade school. Accordingly, plans were drawn for a grade school of ten classrooms — with provision for expansion later, if necessary.
At the same time, plans were made for a convent to house the teaching Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Action was the byword, and things began to happen fast. But the parish population, it seemed, grew even faster. The first spade of earth was turned for the convent in July, 1958. That September the bulldozers began excavating for the school, an oddity in those days to see bulldozers in these parts which were primarily accustomed to tractors and other farm machinery.
It became apparent then that a rectory would have to be constructed as part of the building complex, and by the following Spring, construction began on the third unit. Speed was of the essence, but nothing was sacrificed in its interest. The blueprints gave way to the brick, the stone, and the mortar constituting the buildings of the parish today — functional and with a dignity of design befitting their purpose.
GROWING PAINS AND PLEASURES
In August 1959, the convent was ready for occupancy and the seven Sisters moved into it. Also opening its doors in September 1959 was the brand new school. There were eight classrooms. The classrooms were crowded, however, before they opened because of the influx of new parishioners.
An enrollment of 494 pupils completed the first year. It was a testimonial to the original plans which provided for future expansion of the school. A year later, construction started on the expansion — six additional classrooms, with more than 600 pupils expected for the second year of operation.
The school today features 33 classrooms in operation, with additional classrooms serving as a Resource Center, CCD Room, Reading Center and Parish Adult Education Room. The staff, including four teaching sisters is headed by Sister Mildred, the Principal, who also serves as Director of Religious Education.
The school admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin, to all the services and activities of the school, without discrimination, and operates with the goals of self-worth, Christian values, potential, self living by the gospel, and community and service. OLC School is accredited by the Middle States Association’s Assembly of Elementary Schools, and its pupils score consistently above the national norms.
A month after the school was opened, the new rectory was ready. Father Wierzalis and his assistant, the Rev. Michael V. Marek, moved into the new building, abandoning the house they had occupied on the corner of Red Lion and Orchard Roads. Within a few years, however, both the convent and the rectory were to be expanded.
BURSTING AT THE SEAMS
Not only were the parish classrooms crowded almost immediately, so was the church itself. The original mission church could seat 360 worshippers, with 20 pews on each side. Standees crowded each Holy Mass on Sundays, so plans were drawn to double the seating capacity.
As the builders put their finishing touches to the school in August of 1959, the sledges began knocking down the front wall of the original church. The expansion construction was carried on without interruption of normal services and finally, on the first Sunday of April 1960, the first Holy Mass was celebrated in the enlarged church.
Instead of 20 pews on each side, there were 39 on each side. Instead of 360 worshippers, the expanded church held 720. Also constructed were a choir loft and a special soundproof room so that parents of infants could bring them to services without disturbing others. The expansion was in keeping with the original architecture and is not apparent to the newcomer. A distinctive embellishment marked the facade, with the three crosses of Calvary over the stained glass windows that bear the symbols f the Passion.
The growing parish welcomed a third priest, the newly ordained Father Charles H. Diamond, a Cardinal Dougherty High School teacher, as a resident in May 1961, and the following September, with 949 pupils registered for the 16 classrooms, six lay teachers were hired to bolster the faculty of 10 sisters. Still the parish was growing.
Holy Masses, which were celebrated four times on Sunday, were now set at 6:30, 8:30, 10, 11 and 12:15 —and all were crowded. The Holy Mass schedule was then changed to 6,7,8, 9:30, 11 and 12:15, and even that was not enough. It became necessary to use the basement for an extra 9:30 Holy Mass. Many of the men of the parish will long remember how they glued acoustical tiles to the ceiling and painted the walls to prepare it for Holy Masses, The preparation came none too soon, because two more Holy Masses were added to the Sunday Schedule in the lower church, at 11 and 12:15, requiring an extra visiting priest for weekends.
NEW BOUNDARIES SET
A solution to the constant growth came on June 6, 1962, with the formation of St. Anselm’s parish which received over 700 families. Father Edmond Walsh, new pastor of St. Anselm’s, resided at the OLC rectory for three months, until he obtained his own rectory, and conducted Holy Masses with his parishioners in the OLC Lower Church, until he built his own.
Thus, the boundaries of the OLC Parish were shrunk again from the original boundaries set in 1958. They became:
Poquessing Creek, from Knights Road, to Red Lion Road, to Decatur Road, to Comley Road, to Academy Road, to Woodhaven Road, to Knights Road, to Poquessing Creek.
The population expansions in the Northeast continued. Each Sunday, the weekly Parish Apostolate chronicled the growth; more babies were being baptized increasing Christ’s Mystical Body; more families were registering.
On August 9, 1963, Father Wierzalis concluded the purchase of necessary additional land, approximately two acres adjacent to the church ground. The land contained one of the few remaining farm houses and barn in the area. It gave way to progress, providing necessary space for another school building and the schoolyard
St. Anselm’s church and school were finally ready, and in November of 1963 the OLC Lower Church was returned to its original parishioners. Meanwhile, the OLC school was bursting at the seems, with 1060 pupils in 16 classrooms, so the following year ground was broken for an additional school building with eight classrooms plus a gymnasium and service room. Some relief came two years later when the parish split again, with the creation of St. Martha’s parish in July of 1966, adjoining the new Archbishop Ryan High School. It took families from:
Modena Park, Pennswood and Woodhaven Gardens on the other side of Waldemire Drive, reducing the OLC parish by 327 familiies Thus, the new OLC boundaries became the present Waldemire Drive (adjoining the creek) from Red Lion Road to Woodhaven Road.
With the construction of Archbishop Ryan High School there came add relief Instead of “double sessions,” OLC pupils could use five of the high school rooms, pending completion of the third addition to the parish school building. The great day came on April 27, 1967, when the children returned with the opening of eight new classrooms. The Lower Church also was improved with the installation of 50 pews.
A STEWARDSHIP PARISH: TIME – TALENT – TREASURE
Our Lady of Calvary Church is much more than the bricks and mortar of its physical plant. It is the parishioners who gave of their time, talent and treasures to make it what it is today, It is the men, women and children of the parish, led by the faithful devotion and prayerful efforts of its founding pastor, Monsignor Wierzalis, and his successors, the Rev. Monsignor John E. Gillespie and Rev. John P. Paul.
Monsignor Weirzalis, or Father George, as he was affectionately called, set the pattern in building the parish physically and spiritually. Father Gillespie, who as assigned to OLC as Administrator in 1984 when Father George became ill, became Pastor the following year, and in 1986 be was named a Monsignor. Monsignor Wierzalis remained at the rectory until his death on January 31, 1989.
The tradition continues of Our Lady of Calvary in bringing as many members of the parish as possible into the scope of its activities. Where once the major activities consisted of the Holy Name Society, Choir, Altar Boys, Ushers, Altar Society and sports, there is now fully-rounded scope of more than 50 organizations to utilize every ounce of talent in spiritual, educational, temporal, and social activity coordinated a Parish Council.
Monsignor Gillespie was well-equipped for the job at hand and OLC had continued to progress under his leadership. He came to OLC from Our Lady of Lourdes in West Philadelphia, where he was pastor. Prior to that he was Spiritual Director of Students at St. Charles Seminary, where he was a seminarian until his ordination in 1953. His assignments also included Holy Family Church in New Philadelphia, (Schuylkill County), Immaculate Conception Church in Levittown and the chaplaincy at Norristown State Hospital.
Reverend John P. Paul came to OLC in June 2000 as Pastor. He brought leadership and enthusiasm for further building OLC as a vibrant and giving Parish Community. Prior to joining OLC he was in residence at St. Andrew Parish while serving as School Minister at Archbishop Wood High School. Since his ordination in 1972, Fr. Paul spent most of his years of priestly service as teacher and school minister for many of our Archdiocesan High Schools. He was also assigned as Administrator to Our Mother of Sorrows in Bridgeport in 1995.
AN UNENDING HISTORY
Our Lady of Calvary, forty-five years young, represents a magnificent and wholesome testimonial of dedication and devotion, sacrifice and service, cooperation and compassion, on the part of those who serve and who are served.
Be they in the green or golden years, the parishioners are the heart — indeed the life’s blood — of the parish. OLC has been blessed with an abundance of willing and talented parishioners who are responding effectively to the new challenges of our times….as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be…
Excerpts from: The First Forty Years by Anthony P. Zecca