Reprinted with permission from the South Philadelphia Public Record. Photos by Jim Tayoun
Though most Italian-American Catholics consider the parishes in which they live as their home base, few are aware that they have parish membership in another church in the area. That church, hidden away on a side street in South Philadelphia, is St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi. In fact, it has priority over local parishes for them.
It is the first Italian national parish in the United States, formed in 1852 by Bishop John Neumann to meet the spiritual needs of Philadelphia’s Italian immigrant community within the Irish-dominated archdiocese.
Church leaders saw ethnic churches as a way to fortify the Catholic faith in immigrants and acclimate them to an American style of worship, while staving off the temptations of secularism and the proselytizing of Protestants, whose charities often aided immigrant groups. The immigrant parishioners held their national parishes dear because they were centers of both spirituality and community. The parish church supported immigrant communities that were learning to negotiate the wider society of work and urban life.
The original parishioners of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi were northern Italian immigrants, who were more highly skilled than the southern Italian immigrants who followed them, and were fairly well established by the time the poorer, mostly unskilled southern immigrants arrived in the 19th century and early 20th century. The southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants were made to feel unwelcome by the Irish clerics at St. Paul Parish, located at 10th and Christian streets, but they also sometimes felt like unwanted interlopers at St. Mary Magdalen’s.
By 1897, South Philadelphia’s Italian immigrant population was approaching 30,000, leading Archbishop Ryan to announce that Italians living west of Eighth Street would be given their own church. Our Lady of Good Counsel was established on the site of the old St. Paul school building at 816 Christian St. in May 1899. It eventually closed in the mid-1940s and became the home of the two lower grades of Southeast Catholic High School, which hosted upper classes at Seventh and Christian streets.
In 2000, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia merged the parishes of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Paul at 10th and Christian streets, and designated St. Mary Magdalen’s as a “worship site”—a satellite church offering limited Masses and funerals.
Next door to the church is the Mario Lanza Institute & Museum, established in 1962 and housed in the church’s former rectory at 712 Montrose St. since 2002. Mario Lanza, known then as Freddie Cocozza, sang the “Ave Maria” at his old parish. The church holds a memorial Mass in Lanza’s honor every year.
On March 15, Consul General of Italy Andrea Canepari and his family attended Sunday Mass to help kick off a “Get to Know Us” drive by supporters and those loyal parishioners who hope to raise attention to this unique historic legacy for Italians everywhere.
Father John Large, who pastors at St. Paul’s and St. Mary Magdalen’s, welcomed the effort, saying, “We know Catholics of Italian origin will take pride in the knowledge [that] this church is really their first home parish and visit us. The support they give us is sorely needed to maintain the upkeep of this amazing and historic edifice.”
This home of the Delaware Valley’s largest Italian-population church is a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission landmark, complete with an official blue-and-gold sign. The church itself isn’t that large, although the smart use of pillars and vaults gives it the appearance of being much bigger.
The real surprise is that this church features not one but two balconies, which the Philadelphia Church Project has never seen before. The lower one is for seating, and the top one holds the typical organ and choir loft. It’s rather remarkable.
Those interested in Mass schedules and other church activities are invited to call (215) 923-0355. Father Large indicated he’d be happy to provide any information needed.