Black Catholics in Philadelphia and The Journal

A major part of the American Catholic Historical Society’s collection housed at PAHRC is its collection of Catholic newspapers. This collection contains Catholic newspapers, mostly from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries, that were published throughout the United States, as well as some foreign newspapers.  

One of these periodicals is The Journal, a weekly Philadelphia newspaper published in 1892. The paper was created by black Catholics for the African American Catholic community. PAHRC has several issues of the paper.  

July 9, 1892 issue

Black Catholics, made up of both free and enslaved African Americans, had been a presence in Philadelphia since the establishment of the city’s Catholic community. Black Catholics worshiped at the oldest Catholic churches in Philadelphia, including Old St. Joseph (1733), Old St. Mary (1763), and Holy Trinity (1788), although they worshipped separately from the white congregation. When they did attend mass with whites, blacks often had to sit in certain designated areas which were usually the back of the church or the balcony. However, researchers have recently noted that some black families were able to rent pews in the gallery of Old St. Joseph.  

The number of black Catholics in Philadelphia grew considerably during the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) when many refugees immigrated to the city. Evidence of black Catholics can be found within the sacramental registers of the older parishes, particularly Old St. Joseph. Old St. Joseph’s baptismal and marriage records include notations for those parishioners who were “slaves” or “negroes”. Most of these records do not include surnames of the family or individual.  

Old St. Joseph baptismal records from May 1796

The above baptismal records from May 1796 include the following entries:  

Josephine Louisa, negress, born March 1773, of London and Phyllis, (Ethiopian?) slaves; baptized May 1 (1796) by Rev. L. Neale  

Rachel, born March 17, 1789, of Margaret Felia and Phanice, negroes, unbelievers; baptized May 2 by Rev. M. Ennis  

Louis, negro; aged about 6 months, born of John Lewis and Ophelia, negroes; baptized May 6, by Rev. R. Houdet  

Old St. Joseph marriage record: John Louis Lindor and Louisa Rosette, negroes of the Colored Island of San Domingo were married June 9, 1801 by Rev. George Staunton; witnesses were Peter Michel and John King

The Black Catholic community continued to grow during the 19th century. The Jesuit priest Father Barbelin opened a school, Blessed St. Peter Claver, for black children on Lombard St. in 1859, which was later taught by the Sisters of Providence from Baltimore. By the 1880s, black Catholics began a concerted effort to establish a church and accompanying school for the community. In 1886, the St. Peter Claver Union, which Father Ernest Hiltermann of Holy Trinity Church had formed for black Catholics, along with the help of others within the Catholic community, most notably Katharine Drexel, purchased the former Fourth Presbyterian Church located on the southwest corner of 12th and Lombard Streets, renaming it St. Peter Claver Church. The church was dedicated in 1892.  

St. Peter Claver Church, circa 1961

 The Journal, most likely associated with the founding of the new parish, devoted its coverage to local and national news relating to black Catholics as well as news about black issues in the United States. It also covered news concerning St. Peter Claver. The top of the newspaper’s title page read “The Catholic Church is the only Liberator of the Negro.” The paper’s proprietors and publishers were Swann and Hart, located at 20 N. 13th Street. The Journal only ran from about February to September 1892. In the September 25th issue the editors note, “The Journal is having a hard struggle to keep its head above water and live, but with all our drawbacks we’ll live.”  

References:  

Early Records: Saint Joseph’s Church, Philadelphia, PA. American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1947.  

Souvenir of the Diamond Jubilee of St. Peter Claver’s Parish, 1886-1961. (PH0120)  

Willging, Eugene P.  and Herta Hatzfeld. Catholic serials of the nineteenth century in the United States; a descriptive bibliography and union list. Second series: Part Five, Pennsylvania. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1964.

Interesting film history finds in the Parish Calendar collection

Over the summer, I served as a volunteer mainly working with PAHRC’s collection of parish calendars. My task was to catalog the calendars into PastPerfect so that the collection could be accessible to researchers online. In all, the collection contains calendars for over three hundred parishes. The date range for most is from about 1920 to 1955. Most of the calendars are those from parishes currently located within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  Others are from parishes located in surrounding dioceses as well as from parishes located throughout the country.

The Parish Calendars are similar to current parish bulletins in that they contain such information as parish events as well as marriage and death announcements. Unlike the weekly bulletins, however, the calendars were printed monthly and include much more content. They provide parish history information, including reprinted articles or excerpts from the diocesan newspaper The Catholic Standard and Times that covered prominent events such as the dedication of a church or an anniversary celebration of the founding of a parish. They also have articles on various topics that were reprinted from notable Catholic newspapers throughout the country as well as editorials concerning proper Catholic behavior.

Parish calendars can prove useful for researchers interested in the history of a parish or even for those conducting genealogical research. For social and cultural historians, they offer a glimpse into parish, and more broadly, Catholic life during the first half of the 20th century.

As someone with an interest in film, I actually came across some intriguing  film history finds finds while going through this collection.


This  article entitled “Faith of an Actress” is from St. Cyril’s (East Lansdowne, Pa.) Parish Monthly Calendar dating from July of 1939. The article is about a Catholic actress named Elinor Flynn who was in movies during the late 1920s and 1930s. Although the article says Flynn appeared in 39 films, she only has 5 credits on IMDB. I am guessing that this is because most of her movie roles were as bit parts that were uncredited. Flynn also did work on Broadway and radio. Sadly, Flynn died at the age of 28 in an automobile accident.


The article praises Flynn not only for her career, but also for her strong Catholic faith. Flynn is noted for saying the rosary every evening as well as making the sign of the cross before she went on stage. The article tells us that Flynn was a close friend of Rt. Rev. Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, better known as Archbishop Sheen. Yes, this is the same Sheen who became famous as one of the first televangelists. His television show Life is Worth Living ran from 1951 through 1957 and drew tens of millions of viewers each week.

This article, entitled “A Generous Non-Catholic”,  appeared in St. Joseph Church’s (Downingtown, Pa.) Feb. 1927 monthly parish calendar. The piece praises American actor James K. Hackett for entertaining the troops in WWI. Hackett was ineligible to fight in the war due to a knee injury he sustained while performing in Macbeth (as the title character) on stage. Although Hackett was not a Catholic himself, this Catholic publication was impressed that he helped the Knights of Columbus and supported the troops by entertaining them. The article also serves as an obituary since it informs us that Hackett died in Paris on November 8th, 1926 at the age of 57.


The article is noteworthy for its praise of a non-Catholic at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was commonplace. Hackett was able to put religious differences aside to work with Catholics and entertain the troops, which the tone of the article seems to imply did not happen too often back then. Hackett is virtually unknown in 2011, but he was certainly a popular actor in his day and still remains an interesting historical figure.


There are two related articles within this August 1940 calendar on the topic of children watching movies. Both articles are fascinating as they show that children were a large demographic of the movie-going public in 1940. I’ve heard some people say that movie audiences are younger in 2011 than ever before, but I’d like to see some data to back that up. The first article not only says kids see a lot of movies, but that they are going by themselves without parents/families.

Where the first article brings up religion and morals, the second article is secular as it is about a doctor discussing the effects of movies on children. The doctor says that constant movie watching may cause youngster to be high strung and want to be “always on the go.”

While I didn’t have time to go through each page of these calendars, another parish that stood out was Church of the Holy Infancy in Bethlehem, Pa. which showed “motion pictures” each Sunday in a parish building. Here is the first article announcing the showing of these movies from October, 1926.



The Bishop’s Bank

by Shawn Weldon

In the wake of the potato famine in Ireland in the mid 1840’s, thousands of Irish-Catholic immigrants poured into the city of Philadelphia. Although looked at with suspicion by the native population, these immigrants met the needs of a rapidly growing city looking for a pool of ready labor.

Irishmen filled the manufacturing and construction jobs of an expanding industrial city. Irish women served as domestic servants, an occupation that was becoming an essential part of the lifestyle of the middle and upper classes.

Although life was not easy, many of these workers were able to save some money with the hope of purchasing a home or opening their own business. One problem facing these workers was the safekeeping of their hard earned pay. Many took advantage of the savings institutions which existed in the city at this time. Many others did not trust their savings with a private institution. Perhaps their unfamiliarity with a new environment or the anti-Catholic prejudice they encountered made them distrustful.

Bishop Francis P. Kenrick recognized the problem these workers faced. In May of 1848 he opened a bank to receive, and pay interest on, the deposits of working Catholics who did not want to use the private savings institutions. Popularly known as the “Bishop’s Bank”, it was managed by Mark Antony Frenaye, a Philadelphia Catholic businessman who served for many years as the financier and treasurer of the Diocese of Philadelphia.

Mark Antony Frenaye, n.d.

Mark Antony Frenaye, n.d.

The rules of the bank for conducting business are written in the front of the bank’s first ledger book in Frenaye’s own hand. They illustrate that the Diocese ran that bank according to sound business practices. Customer relations and secure investments were the guiding principles of the Bishop’s bank.

According to Frenaye’s rules office hours were to be posted on the door and adhered to punctually. Depositors were always to be treated politely. Impatience should never be shown. Payment should never be made in “uncurrent” money (a constant concern during this period) but should be in gold or city notes. Concerning disagreements over money owed he wrote, “With depositors never contend on small matters; if you cannot mildly convince them, pay; it is better to lose a few dollars, than to send abroad a discontented trumpet!”

Bishop's Bank Rules, 1848

Bishop's Bank Rules, 1848

Regarding investments Frenaye was adamant. The rules state, “Bear in mind that investments must always be made in stock of ready sale: City, or State of Pennsylvania. No other; City is the best. County stock is good, but of slow sale. Never purchase any other stock. Beware of Banks, Canals, railroads, other States of the Union, and all kinds of fancy stocks. Some of them may be good, but they are liable to ruinous fluctuations: Safety and quick sale, when needed, and not speculation, must always be the rule”.

The story of the Bishop’s Bank is not just the history of an institution but also of its individual depositors. The Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center holds the ledgers and journals of the Bishop’s bank. The ledger books contain the individual accounts for each depositor, and serve as a rich source of historical information.

In addition to account information, they include notations on the depositors. Most of these notations are brief and contain only age and place of origin or residence. Although the bank was intended to serve the needs of all Catholics in the diocese, the majority of depositors were Irish. This is evident from the large number of Irish surnames and the notations listing the various counties in Ireland as the place of origin.

Other notations are more lengthy. They might include personal information about the depositor or instructions on distributing money. They provide a brief but fascinating glimpse of the life of the depositor.

The notation for Johanna Reilly, who opened an account in 1852, reads “42 years old, St. Paul’s Parish: a tall woman, pockmarked”. This kind of description is not unusual at this time. If a person was illiterate and unable to write their name, a physical description or personal information was the only way to prove identification.

Other notations, though brief, offer insights into the personal life of the depositor. Mary Reynold’s opened an account in 1848. Her notation reads, “wife of John Masterson. She does not want him to know of this deposit”. John Strain also opened an account in 1848. His notation reads only “45 years in 1846″. A later notation has been added which reads in bold letters, “he drinks, pay his wife only”.

Some notations show how public events and private life overlap, sometimes with tragic results. John Hughes opened his account in April 1864. The first notation reads, “69th Reg. Pa. Vols. In case of death in the army he desires this money to be donated to St. John’s Orphan Asylum, W. Phi.” Written underneath is, “The depositor is dead. John McCue, his brother-in-law, is appointed guardian of Hughes daughter Ann-14 years”.

John Hughes' entry in Bishop's Bank Ledger, 1864

John Hughes' entry in Bishop's Bank Ledger, 1864

Mark Frenaye managed the bank until September 23, 1857, when Bishop Wood, who had been a bank clerk before entering the priesthood, took over management. When a similar bank in Cincinnati failed, Archbishop Wood decided to liquidate the Bishop’s Bank. However, confidence in the bank was so great that depositors refused to withdraw their money, even after Wood ordered that no interest be paid.

The bank continued in this way until Archbishop Ryan ordered that no more money be received. The bank lingered on until all deposits were returned. By the end of 1889 the Bishop’s Bank no longer existed.