Society Hill church gets a historical marker

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Old St. Joseph's Church will hold a dedication ceremony for its new historical marker on Thursday.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Old St. Joseph's Church will hold a dedication ceremony for its new historical marker on Thursday.
Posted: July 29, 2014

FOR CELESTE A. Morello, a local historian who has applied for historical markers at various sites in the area for two decades, Old St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, in Society Hill, had the significance worthy of such an honor:

It's the oldest Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia.

The problem was, no one had prepared the in-depth paperwork. So, with the blessings of the church's pastor, that's exactly what she set out to do before the Dec. 1 deadline.

"Because it needed it," said Morello, 56, of Norristown. "It needed it a long time ago."

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission agreed. And at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, a marker will be unveiled on Walnut Street near 4th honoring the historical significance of the church. The dedication falls on the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Established in 1733 by the Rev. Joseph Greaton, a Jesuit, Old St. Joseph's was founded during a time of discrimination toward Catholics. And in a landmark decision, Pennsylvania's laws overruled the British and allowed the church to stay open.

St. Joseph's University and St. Joseph's Preparatory School trace their roots to the church, which also helped with the spread of Catholicism in New Jersey and Delaware. The current building was dedicated in 1839.

Pennsylvania has more than 2,000 historical markers. "By far" the most - more than 250 - are in Philadelphia, said Karen Galle, the historical-marker coordinator at the commission, which approves the signs. The commission gets about 50 applications per year, she said, about 16 of which are accepted.

Galle said that a five-person panel of staffers and independent historians vets the applications, then makes a recommendation to the full commission. The person, place or event must have at least statewide significance, she said. The aluminum markers are blue and gold, and cost $1,400 or $1,875 - depending on the size.

"You know, it's very nice," the Rev. Daniel Ruff, pastor at Old St. Joseph's, said of the marker. "It's a nice recognition."

Ruff said that his congregation is composed of 800 households, about one-third of which have been members for 20 to 30 years.

He said tourists often come to worship at the church. And he said it's rewarding to tell them that the congregation is "vibrant and active."

"The important thing is: We're still here," Ruff said.

On Twitter: @dylan_segelbaum

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