The origins of St. Mary’s Parish go back to plans for a Cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania that would rival those of Europe. In 1919 Bishop Rhinelander organized a Cathedral Foundation. By 1921 his dreams for a great Cathedral were progressing and the Pro-Cathedral he established at Broad and South Streets was closed — our large, jeweled cross set against the West Window came from the Pro-Cathedral. In 1926, his successor, Bishop Garland, selected the present site owned by Mrs. Samuel Houston which was roughly the geographic center for the Diocese. The Diocese paid $502,000 to the Houston estate for 102 acres, but 34 acres were forfeited back when the mortgage was in default at the time of the Great Depression.
On May 21, 1927 the first religious service was held on the cathedral property. In 1932 ground was broken for an immense Cathedral with a three hundred foot gothic tower which would hold the twelve bells previously given as a memorial to William V. Lippincott and cast by Mears and Stainbank, Whitechapel, England in 1896: http://www.phillyringers.com/stmarys/. The two ton tenor bell stands outside the present building; the others wait in storage.
A gift in memory of Mary Masden Vaughan, the towering structure that now dominates the grounds was only the apse for the Chapel of St. Mary. The Holy Eucharist was first celebrated there on All Saints’ Day, 1934. Pennsylvania’s Bishops Garland and Tait are buried in the crypt beneath St. Mary’s Altar.
The small side chapel given by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Houston, who are buried beneath its floor, was begun in 1938. The Chapel, dedicated to St. Michael and All Angels, boasts an outstanding window by Philadelphia Stained Glass artisan, Nicola D’Ascenzo . The Altar is of stone from Israel.
At the bases of the arch ribs, sheaves of wheat and bunches of grapes are carved representing the bread and wine in the Eucharist. The contemporary aumbry for the Reserved Sacrament is from Belgium. Near St. Michael’s Chapel is an Altar with a Norman pillar, given in memory of Florence P Scull, who with her husband, is buried beneath it. It is centrally supported by a 12th century stone column from Lincoln Cathedral. The altar stone is from Bath, England and rests on Tennessee marble. The D’Asccnzo window above shows St. Hugh, Lincoln’s 12th century monk bishop.
Although from the beginning services had been held regularly in St. Mary’s Chapel, with the Great Depression and World War II, enthusiasm faded for finishing the Cathedral. The Chapter (the Board of the Cathedral Church of Christ), the Bishops, and committees pondered building a smaller Cathedral, converting the property to secular use or perhaps creating a retirement community. A plan for offering the site for the United Nations was even considered. Then too, there was the possibility of a ministry to the neighborhood.
To that end, the first resident priest, the Rev. James T. Berger, was appointed in 1955. During his tenure the congregation grew and the Cathedral grounds were developed and maintained. As the congregation increased, additional buildings were needed. Bishop Hart, using funds bequeathed by James and Martha B. Hay, started the large Chapter House building in 1956.
The Rev. John D. Clark arrived in 1969. Establishing a retirement community greatly interested him. He worked to form the community, named by him “Cathedral Village”, and to bring it into a supportive partnership with the Diocese, the Cathedral Chapter, and the parishioners of St. Mary’s. Opened in 1979, Cathedral Village is a community of over four hundred residents and three hundred and sixty-five employees. Also under Fr. Clark St. Mary’s became an independent, incorporated Parish of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.
By 1987 St. Mary’s Parish had finally moved beyond the ambiguities of the past. Major building renovations were completed under the supervision of J.S. Cornell & Son, builders. Later, the stained glass windows above the altar were installed by artisan Charles Z. Lawrence using hand-blown German glass. With its separation from the Cathedral Foundation, the Parish confidently focused its mission and ministry toward its neighborhood and the new community at Cathedral Village.
Our building still reflects its rather tortured beginnings. A parishioner, Marjorie R. Maurer, perhaps best captures the spirit of St. Mary’s today: “So, you have discovered that St. Mary’s is an unfinished church. Those soaring arches and unfinished upper walls are awaiting completion with timeless patience. The symbolism of the unfinished structure is a parable. The Church is not yet finished either. The Church is as unfinished as is every human soul. We, the Church, have not yet become all we are called to be. St. Mary’s is beautiful in its incompleteness.”
As the body of Christ, we, the Church, are called to serve, are called to bring to others the reconciling love of Christ, and to heal the world. Our work is unfinished.