History of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Cathedral Road
The origins of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Parish go back to plans for a Cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania that would rival those of Europe. In 1919 Bishop Philip Mercer 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 — the large, jeweled cross set against the West Window came from the Pro-Cathedral.
In 1926, his successor, Bishop Thomas James Garland, selected the present site owned by Mrs. Samuel Houston which was roughly the geographic center of 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. The dream was still alive, however, and the name of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral would be The Cathedral Church of Christ. Bishop Francis Marion Taitt continued the efforts for the creation of the Cathedral during his tenure as Diocesan Bishop of Pennsylvania between 1931 and 1943.
The dream of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Roxborough, Philadelphia, was in conjunction with other plans for an extension of Cathedral Road with proposed bridges (never built) over both the Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River. More on this fascinatingly ambitious plan can be found on Bradley Maul's "Hidden City" Blog
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 that would hold the twelve bells previously given to St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Philadelphia as a memorial to William V. Lippincott and cast by Mears and Stainbank, Whitechapel, England in 1896:
The two-ton tenor bell stands outside the present building; the others are stored in the crypt below the Nave.
A gift in memory of Mary Masden Vaughan, the towering structure that now dominates the grounds was only the apse for the “Lady Chapel of St. Mary.” The Holy Eucharist was first celebrated there on All Saints’ Day, 1934.
The small side chapel given by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Frederic 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 made out 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. A 12th-century stone column from Lincoln Cathedral, England centrally supports it. 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.
Bishops Thomas James Garland and Francis Marion Taitt requested that they be buried underneath the altar at the Cathedral, which would later be known as St. Mary's Episcopal Church. The two bishops are buried in the crypt under the church's nave.
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 other ideas, including the creation of a retirement community. There were also discussions of having St. Mary’s Chapel transition into a neighborhood parish church.
While the plans for building the Cathedral were put aside, the “St. Mary’s Chapel-at-the-Cathedral” was still used for many Diocesan functions throughout the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Meetings of clergy occurred at St. Mary’s, as well as large events for the Diocese of Pennsylvania were held on the grounds of what many still called “The Cathedral.”
The first Rector of St. Mary’s, the Reverend 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. This is now the building where the Church offices, the Parish Hall, and the second-floor rooms are located. The Rectory was built to house the Rector and served in this function for both Fr. Berger and his successor, Fr. Clark. The Rectory is the free-standing stone building across the parking lot from the church and has also been known as the Guest House, as it provided guest housing for visitors to Cathedral Village until 2019.
The Reverend John D. Clark arrived in 1969. Establishing a retirement community greatly interested him. He worked to form the community “Cathedral Village”, and to bring it into a supportive partnership with the Diocese, the Cathedral Chapter, and the parishioners of St. Mary’s. Fr. Clark and the Houston Family were instrumental in the vision for and creation of Cathedral Village. Opened in 1979, Cathedral Village is a community of three hundred residents. For its first three decades, Cathedral Village was governed by the Diocese of Pennsylvania, with the Rector of St. Mary’s serving on the Cathedral Village Board of Directors. Also under Fr. Clark, St. Mary’s became an independent, incorporated Parish of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, now called St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Cathedral Road.
In 1981, the Reverend Thomas McLellan became the third Rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Cathedral Road. Fr. McLellan worked with the vestry to lead a major building renovation which was completed in 1987. The church utilized the architecture firm J.S. Cornell & Son, builders for this building renovation.
Improvements included the opening of the entire height of the Nave by removing the false sound-absorbing ceiling, bathing the entire space in natural light, the Moller pipe organ, later artfully expanded by organ-builders Patrick J. Murphy and Associates, and a new roof. More on the Moller pipe organ can be viewed in this YouTube Video and on the general St. Mary's YouTube Channel HERE.
Later, the stained glass windows above the altar were installed by artisan Charles Z. Lawrence using hand-blown German glass. The Parish focused its mission and ministry to the Upper Roxborough neighborhood and the community at Cathedral Village.
In 2017, the Reverend Peter M. Carey became the fourth rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Cathedral Road, and the parish’s mission and ministry to the community and to the residents at Cathedral Village has continued through the obstacles of COVID-19 and the changing culture. In the Fall of 2019, a long-discussed dream to make the parish handicapped accessible was finally approved by the courage and leadership of the Vestry. Once the uncertainties of 2020 and 2021 were behind us, the Parish embarked upon yet another major renovation, with the goal, after 90 years of inaccessibility, to be truly welcoming to all. Working with the expert guidance of architects from the firm VSBA, and general contractors from FlatIron Construction, the church was made fully accessible in the Summer of 2023. You can view the finished product in this Video HERE, and you can see the progress of the project through this YouTube Playlist HERE.
A former parishioner, Marjorie R. Maurer, captured something of the spirit of the church of St. Mary’s:
“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.”
More on the History of St. Mary's Episcopal Church,
From Michael Krasulski's blog "PhiladelphiaStudies"
More on the plans for a Unbuilt Vision for a Grand Cathedral Road on Bradley Maul's "Hidden City Phila" Blog
Sunday Service of Holy Eucharist
Posted Online on YouTube
215.482.6300 Church office
215.392.0906 Rector's cell