The Birth of St. Charles Parish
Holy Mass is said to have been celebrated within the confines of the present parish of St. Charles as early as the year 1740. In that year, it is related, Mass was said by a Jesuit priest “in a Catholic house on the banks of Darby Creek at the place now called Kellyville.” Jesuit missionaries from Bohemia Manor, Cecil County, Maryland, founded a missionary station at the home of Thomas Wilcox at Ivy Mills as early as 1730. In 1732 they opened Saint Joseph’s Chapel in Philadelphia. They then made this headquarters and from there attended the stations of Ivy Mills and West Chester. It was probably one of these traveling Jesuits who celebrated the first Mass in the area of St. Charles parish.
In 1765 in all of Chester County, which at that time included all of Delaware County, there were only 40 Catholics. In his report to the Secretary of the Provence, the Reverend Robert Harding, S.J., second pastor of Philadelphia, listed 25 males and 15 females residing in Chester County.
Charles Kelly began operating the Lobb Mills in 1821, and through his effort, many Irish immigrants began to settle in the vicinity of the mills. To meet the spiritual needs of this rapidly growing Catholic community, a Mission was established at Kellyville, probably in the year 1827. The priest from St. Denis Church attended the Missions stations, celebrating Mass at infrequent intervals in the mill office. By 1845 Mass was being celebrated with some regularity at Kellyville, probably once or twice a month. On the other Sundays the Catholics of Kellyville were accustomed to walk to the Church of St. Denis (in Havertown). The first time the Mission at Kellyville appeared in the Catholic Directories was in the year 1848. Reverend James C. McGinniss was listed as pastor of St. Denis, and in addition, as caring for a temporary chapel “on Darby Creek.” The Catholics at Kellyville were becoming numerous, and they felt entitled to their own church. So, in the year 1847 they began making plans.
Charles Kelly and a group of Catholic laymen undertook the responsibility of building the Church at Kellyville. Kelly himself, donated one acre of land, the present site of the church, He also donated the stone for the church, but it was quarried and hauled at parish expense.
From the old accounting books of the parish, it is apparent that a campaign was conducted to raise the necessary funds. Charles Kelly acted as chairman of the committee and as general business agent of the undertaking. The first funds ($43.00) were collected in November, 1847. In the next thirteen months, the sim had reached $250.00, including a collection taken up in the church of St. Denis to help the project.
Nicholas LeBrun was the architect of the church and the actual work of construction began in the summer of 1849. At three-thirty o’clock on Sunday afternoon, September 23, 1849, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick solemnly laid the cornerstone of the new church and preached to the assembled parishioners and visitors. The parish books record that on this occasion the collection amounted to $125.68.
The church, seating 450 people, measured 63 feet in length and 43 feet in width. The original church did not face towards Dennison Avenue as the present church, but faced east towards the school. There were the usual well-kept lawn, shrubs, and trees enclosed by a white picket fence that typified the country church and churchyard of the times.
From the old accounting books of the parish, we have an accurate account of the cost of the Church. Excluding the ground and stone which were donated by Charles Kelly, the total cost of the building was $3,896.36
When the building was complete as of December 31, 1849, the parish was $738.13 in debt. Charles Kelly loaned the parish this amount which was repaid in installments. In the next four years, the debt had been reduced to $511.80. The parish of St. Charles Borromeo then became the fourth regularly constituted parish in Delaware County. It was preceded by the Church of St. Denis in Havertown, Old St. Michael’s in Chester, and by the Church of St. Thomas of Villanova. The oldest place of Catholic worship in Delaware County was the old missionary station at Ivy Mills. This has since become the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle at Chester Heights.