St. Vincent de Paul told his Congregation that “the poor are our inheritance.” He wanted his missionaries to have hearts aflame and to bring that fire of love everywhere—to the poor, the abandoned, the outcast. It’s no wonder, then, that this place of great need was the very spot where God sent a small band of Vincentian priests to re-ignite that spark of faith.
Where it all began – St. Vincent Parish Hall in 1849.
Early Photo of Immaculate Conception Chapel before the Shrine was built.
He looked in the chalice with dismay. It happened again. The Precious Blood had become a small chunk of ice. Fr. Felix De Andreis summoned the altar servers who brought a small fire to the altar to melt the frozen Sacrament so he could consume it. Although he was born and raised in Piedmont, a region of Italy that sits at the foot of the Alps, this intense cold was unlike anything he experienced at home; the biting air felt like it was piercing his every limb.
The year was 1818, and Fr. De Andreis was in the territory of Missouri, a diocese six times the size of Italy. While a large number of the people were French (Creole), they had lacked priests and catechesis for such a long period of time, their culture was devoid of all religion—and the heart of their Catholic faith was dying. There were a small number of Catholic Americans and English, but most of the population were “Protestants of a thousand different sects,” he wrote in a letter. There were also self-professed Nullifidians: people who claimed to have no religion at all. Yes, this dearth of faith struck Fr. De Andreis as deeply as the bitter winter. The icy weather was only an external confirmation of what was occurring internally—and spiritually—to the culture. Some of the Catholics in the region could see the faith dwindling around them. “If Bishop Duboug had not come in time to our relief,” one devout Catholic told him, “the last spark of faith would have been extinguished in our country.”
St. Vincent de Paul told his Congregation that “the poor are our inheritance.” He wanted his missionaries to have hearts aflame and to bring that fire of love everywhere—to the poor, the abandoned, the outcast. It’s no wonder, then, that this place of great need was the very spot where God sent a small band of Vincentian priests to re-ignite that spark of faith.
The Roman Vincentians
Two years earlier, in 1816, Bishop Louis Dubourg, a Sulpician priest who had recently been appointed the first bishop of Louisiana (which encompassed the entire Louisiana Purchase), visited Rome and heard Fr. De Andreis, a Vincentian, speaking to a group of priests. He was giving them a spiritual retreat, and he was exuberant about the faith. That was precisely what Bishop Dubourg was looking for: fervent priests for his new diocese. Little did he know that Fr. De Andreis had felt the call to be a missionary in America. After the retreat, the bishop approached Fr. De Andreis and asked him if he would be willing to establish a seminary in New Orleans. Fr. De Andreis’ smile told him all he needed to know.
The appropriate permissions were sought and approved, and six months later, Fr. De Andreis and a small group of Italian Vincentians eagerly set sail for Baltimore, Maryland. However, Bishop Dubourg needed to remain in Europe, so he appointed Fr. De Andries as his representative in America and as Superior of the group. He also informed them that their destination was no longer New Orleans, but St. Louis.
The voyage was not an easy one—storms rocked the boat mercilessly and seasickness plagued a number of the men. But, to the best of their ability, the Vincentians kept to their regular life of prayer and classes in theology and English. Throughout the long and wearying journey, Fr. De Andreis sought God’s will alone, and with that, he was “at peace,” he wrote, “restricting my wishes to what God has called me to do.” These men knew that they would probably never see their homeland or their families again. They knew that their life as missionaries in America would be more arduous than the life of poverty they had chosen as Vincentians. They knew that they would face challenges they couldn’t even imagine. But they also knew that God was at their side. “We must rely not on men but on God alone,” Fr. De Andreis penned in a letter. His entire mission would prove his valiant efforts in living that sentiment.
Group of priests: Vincentian Priests, May 24, 1897
After a taxing month on the seas, the little group landed in Baltimore, carrying only their luggage and a modest knowledge of English. The Sulpician Fathers at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore gave them lodging, helped them acclimate to their new land, and even collected funds for their continued journey westward; the Jesuits at Georgetown, too, contributed to their cause. On September 10th, Fr. De Andreis led the small group of Vincentians on the next leg of the journey—to Kentucky, where they would wait until Bishop Dubourg arrived from Europe. The roads were dangerous, the carriage broke, their guide left them, one of the rivers flooded so they were forced to canoe to the other side, and then they had to put their possessions on a wagon and walk the remainder of the journey to Pittsburgh. During his life, St. Vincent stressed to his missionaries the importance of remaining dedicated to the unromantic, ordinary tasks of the apostolate. This perilous trip went well beyond the boundaries of “unromantic” and “ordinary,” but the band of Vincentians persevered, and finally, in November, they reached their destination.
It was in Kentucky that the priests experienced the full weight and hardships of the American mission. As they had prepared for this work back in Rome, they couldn’t help but envision it according to their experience of life in Europe: various lands dotted with towns, each of which was centered around a church and a community who shared a common language and culture. But what they discovered in their new home was an immense territory of land dotted with homesteads, few towns, and even less churches—and peoples with varying languages, customs, and religions.
“Besides the discharge of our daily duties,” Fr. De Andreis wrote, “we are obliged to work hard to translate our sermons into French and English. Our greatest difficulty is not in writing, but in speaking and pronouncing the language.” The complicated and ever-changing rules of English pronunciation was a source of frustration for the men, and there were other languages, as well, that they tried to understand in their new home. Fr. De Andreis even started writing a small dictionary to help him communicate with the Illini, Pian, and Mi Indians, and he translated the Our Father to their native tongue, as well. But lack of time and opportunity put an end to those efforts.
They also discovered that, with the scarcity of priests, Catholics could easily wait up to six months before seeing a priest and receiving the Sacraments. The land was so vast, the few priests available spent most of their time riding on horseback to visit the sick, offer Mass, and care for the parishioners. “How many sick people die without a priest and, without a priest, are buried!” Fr. De Andreis lamented. “In this diocese of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, states with a size equal to half of Europe, there are scarcely twelve priests, including the bishop. He is always on horseback going all over like the youngest missionary, all alone, without any distinction, to say nothing of taking for himself the most difficult and painful part of the ministry.”
“The cold was so extreme that once it even made me collapse nearly lifeless at the altar,” Fr. De Andreis wrote.
The freezing winter temperatures didn’t help the men in their labors, either. “The cold was so extreme that once it even made me collapse nearly lifeless at the altar,” Fr. De Andreis wrote, “since little by little the cold crept in to freeze the blood in my heart; it took a lot to bring me around.” Unlike the grand, stone-built churches in Europe, the log cabin churches of Kentucky were no match for the wind and rain, which forced their way through the smallest crevices. And, instead of paintings and resplendent tabernacles, these churches were completely unadorned, holding only small, wooden altars. Yet, the simplicity and poverty they faced was the very foundation of the Vincentians’ charism—something Fr. De Andreis treasured; surely, if St. Vincent were alive, he would have joyfully embraced this remote area to bring God’s love to the people. “We are being consoled by the good that is being done,” Fr. Andreis wrote, “and by our hope.”
St. Vincent de Paul founded the Congregation of the Mission to preach the Gospel to the poor, to help priests acquire the knowledge and virtues they needed to live up to their vocation, and to strive for their own perfection by persistently practicing the virtues Jesus taught. These counsels guided the first American Vincentians in every facet of their lives. They traveled endlessly throughout the region hearing Confessions, preaching, visiting the sick, performing Baptisms, and offering Mass. Oftentimes, the families they visited were so poor they couldn’t offer lodging or food to the priests, so at the end of the day, exhausted by their work and travel, the Vincentians would beg for their meals. They did so humbly, without complaint, in imitation of Jesus. And, Fr. De Andreis wrote that all of “the sweat, the money, the fatigues, the study, the pains” would be worth it “were they but to save a single soul or prevent one sin.”
Father John Timon
After spending nearly two years in Kentucky, the Vincentians continued to Missouri, where they eventually bought land, established a seminary, and constructed a college. In true Vincentian style, Fr. De Andreis named this first Seminary after our Blessed Mother, and he continued working diligently to respond to the needs he witnessed. “In this country,” Fr. De Andreis wrote, “we must be like a regiment of cavalry or mobile infantry, ready to run here and there whenever the salvation of souls may require our presence. We make ourselves all unto all, to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
Men began arriving from Europe to join the Vincentians in their first American establishment, the Catholic culture was growing, and Fr. De Andreis was at peace, “happier each day and … swept away by the dear calling in which I find myself occupied.” The heart of their lives as Vincentians was aflame.
But the formidable challenges of the life had taken their toll on Fr. De Andreis’ health, which had always been poor. He who was born on the Feast of St. Lucia (meaning “light”), had brought the Light of Christ to some of the most remote areas of American soil. Although only 42 years old, the heart of his personal mission was coming to a close. When he died in October 1820, like St. Vincent de Paul, his reputation for holiness was well known amongst lay people and his fellow priests. He who had once written, “I believe that the Congregation is for the Church, and not the Church for the Congregation” had lived his statement to the full—by tirelessly laboring to bring the love of Christ to the poor. While the Church has declared him Venerable, of even greater importance is the legacy he left to the next generation of Vincentians: like his beloved Founder, St. Vincent, the heritage he passed on was his heart—ablaze with love.
Fr. Rosati succeeded Fr. De Andreis as superior, and in 1825, he ordained Fr. John Timon, a native of Philadelphia who had joined the Congregation under Fr. De Andreis, to the priesthood. Fr. Timon’s first few years as a priest were spent teaching at the Seminary and giving missions in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas with his confrere, Fr. John Mary Odin. He described this experience as “a continual mission among a population that had never seen a priest.” He and Fr. Odin “ministered to both Catholics and Protestants” in this journey, while giving the Sacraments to Catholics who hadn’t received them in forty years.
In 1835, less than twenty years after the small band of Vincentians arrived in America, the Congregation became an independent province—the first Vincentian province outside of Europe—and Fr. John Timon was appointed its first Provincial. In Philadelphia, God had been setting the stage for the Vincentians’ next adventure.
Mission to Philadelphia
The bishop of Philadelphia, Francis Patrick Kenrick, was born in Dublin, Ireland and had studied in Rome for the priesthood. He especially respected one of his professors, Fr. John Tornatore, a Vincentian, for his theological expertise and holiness. After his ordination, Fr. Kenrick accepted an invitation to teach at a Seminary in the United States, and in 1830, at the age of thirty-four, he was appointed the third bishop of Philadelphia. At that time, there were approximately 100,000 Catholics living in the Diocese of Philadelphia—with 25,000 of them residing in the city. As Bishop Kenrick eyed the situation, he could see that his 38 priests were not enough to minister to the needs of so large a community. In 1832 he founded the Seminary of St. Charles Seminary—and then immediately battled the first epidemic of cholera in Philadelphia. He converted the rectory of St. Augustine Church into a temporary hospital and engaged the Sisters of Charity and the local priests in helping the sick.
Slowly, the number of seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo grew, and, as Bishop Kenrick remembered fondly his studies under the Vincentians, he asked Fr. Timon for confreres to staff and manage it. Fr. Tornatore, who was already in the United States, became the Professor of Theology, and Fr. Michael Domenec, who had joined the American mission at Fr. Timon’s request, also joined the staff. This mission ended up holding an added bonus for the Vincentians: as the young seminarians experienced St. Vincent’s charisms played out in everyday life, many of them joined the Congregation.
While running the Seminary, the Vincentians also served Catholics in Hamilton Village (West Philadelphia), Kellyville, Concord, Chester, Nicetown, and even as far away as Burlington, Camden, Pleasant Mills, Port Elizabeth, and Salem. The Seminary flourished under their care, and the number of students increased every year. The only time studies were interrupted was during the Nativist riots of 1844, when the students had to suspend their education for two months.
The bishop had other hopes for the Vincentians: he wanted them to establish the first Catholic church in Germantown. It wasn’t long before God intervened to put the pieces in place.
Top: Early 1902 Vincentians
Bottom: 1916 Ordination
Saint Vincent dePaul Chapel
Germantown the Episcopal ‘Movement’
Germantown was founded by Quaker and Mennonite families in 1683. They were hard-working people who lived simply and protested against slavery within five years of establishing their community. Already fine linen weavers, they not only continued producing textiles, they also built the first paper mill in America. During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Germantown was fought in October of 1777. Later, during his presidency, George Washington fled to Germantown to escape the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.
At the beginning of the industrial era, when transportation, expansion, and the middle class were on the rise, the Congregation of the Mission was the second largest religious community in the United States, following only the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). It was during this period that the Vincentians were invited by Bishop Kenrick to establish a Catholic parish in Germantown to minister to the small, but growing, Irish immigrant community. He asked Fr. Michael Domenec, who had been pastor at St. Stephen church in Nicetown while also working at the Seminary, to be the pastor of the new church: St. Vincent de Paul.
In his later years, Fr. Domenec would relate the difficulties he encountered in his attempt to establish St. Vincent’s parish. While some people claimed it was foolishness to build a Catholic church in the area, others tried to prevent him from achieving his work, including the Know-Nothing party, a group who was opposed to immigrants, especially Roman Catholics. On September 2, 1849, the day that the cornerstone was to be placed, Fr. Domenec and Bishop Kenrick were surrounded by seminarians and friends, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who were eager for St. Vincent’s to be built. Amongst the crowd, however, were people who tried to interrupt the ceremony by jeering and throwing rocks. Through it all, Fr. Domenec and Bishop Kenrick were resolved to peacefully continue their celebration, and soon the unruly contingent departed. Bishop Kenrick solemnly blessed the cornerstone and placed it in position at Price and Lena Streets. It took two years to build St. Vincent’s, as the congregation was small and poor, and during that time, the building was frequently referred to as “Father Domenec’s folly.” On July 13, 1851, Fr. Domenec offered the first Mass in the completed church. In its beginnings, the parish boundaries extended from Nicetown to Chestnut Hill and as far east as Jenkintown. And in ministering to the parishioners, the priests ventured out in all sorts of weather to make sick calls and administer the Sacraments.
During the 1850’s and 60s, the Vincentians continued responding to the numerous requests of the bishops, even those that had never been part of the Vincentian apostolate—like establishing parishes. Yet, in this mission land, they adapted to the needs of the Church and accepted the bishops’ requests, agreeing to found a seminary in Buffalo, to create a parish and school in Brooklyn, and to accept parishes in Maryland. While they staffed the seminaries themselves, they still needed support to manage the many requirements of running these institutions, so they opened the seminaries to lay students. This was the genesis for the Vincentian universities: the Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels, founded and named by Fr. John Lynch, became Niagara University; likewise, St. John’s and de Paul, as well, started as seminaries (read our Messenger article, More Than an Education, to learn how St. John’s University is instilling Vincentian values in its students). It was precisely this type of ingenuity and flexibility that St. Vincent de Paul desired to instill in his priests. Whenever they saw a need or were asked to serve, they were encouraged to respond enthusiastically, so that as many people as possible could experience the love of Christ. Sometimes their response came at the expense of the Congregation.
In its beginnings, the parish boundaries extended from Nicetown to Chestnut Hill and as far east as Jenkintown.
Prior to 1888, the Vincentians suffered the loss of some of their best priests—not in death but in their being appointed to the office of bishop. Fr. Joseph Rosati became the bishop of St. Louis; Fr. John Mary Odin was appointed archbishop of New Orleans; Fr. Thaddeus Amat became the bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles in California; Fr. John Lynch was appointed the first bishop of Toronto, Canada; Fr. Michael Domenec, the pastor of St. Vincent, was assigned as Pittsburgh’s bishop; even Fr. John Timon, the Provincial, was appointed bishop. In 1847, he became the first bishop of Buffalo, New York, and after his death, Fr. Stephen Ryan—who joined the Congregation while he was studying in St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia—was appointed the second bishop. Most of the Vincentians initially declined Rome’s requests for their episcopacy; they loved their Congregation and had no interest in becoming bishops. One amusing story depicts a surprised Fr. Mariano Maller, who had been superior of St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, learning that he was going to be named bishop. He immediately asked the Superior General to move him out of the country—which he did. Fr. Maller concentrated his efforts in creating the union of the Daughters of Charity (the Congregation of sisters that St. Vincent de Paul founded in Paris) with the Sisters of Charity (the Congregation founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton). Decades after the union was solidified, the Church canonized both, Catherine Labouré, the sister from the Daughters of Charity to whom Our Blessed Mother gave the Miraculous Medal, and Elizabeth Ann Seton.
While these American Vincentian bishops were of great benefit to the Catholic Church, their departure from the Congregation was deeply felt. At one point, the Superior General of the Vincentians complained to Pope Pius IX about the many episcopal assignments he was taking from the Congregation. It’s been rumored that the Pope responded, “You plant the garden and we will pluck the flowers.”
The Shift to the East
It’s not surprising that the American Province, which spanned the United States from Missouri to Philadelphia, would also respond to—and feel the effects of—of the Civil War. The Emmitsburg house was “within earshot” of the battle at Gettysburg, and the Daughters of Charity, as well as other religious sisters and priests, ran to the battlefield to assist the men on both sides of the conflict.
Men had come from the south and the north to join the Congregation, so at a personal level, loyalties were divided. However, while Fr. John Timon was provincial, he was vehemently opposed to slavery. His sentiments, coupled with the fact that most of the Vincentian houses were in the north, aided the Congregation in supporting the Union. Along with Emmitsburg, the Missouri house was affected by the war; it had to be closed to ensure the safety of the students, many of whom were southerners; and the students were moved to St. Louis and then Germantown. This helped solidify the shift from the center of the province from the west to the east.
The American provincial, two priests, five seminarians, eight novices, and two lay brothers made the journey to Germantown. As soon as they arrived, they went to St. Vincent’s parish and were greeted by the pastor and Sr. Mary Gonzaga Grace, a Daughter of Charity who was renowned for her tremendous help during the Civil War. After hearing that the Province would be centered in Germantown, she wrote to the Superior General and asked if she could help the seminarians and priests as they made their new transition. He was only too pleased to accept her generous offer.
It was clear that with this transition, an official seminary needed to be erected, so the Congregation set about finding property and building St. Vincent Seminary. As Fr. John Moore, CM wrote in 1904, the only property that was available “was out in the woods; corn fields were all around, and farm houses stood where now stand many beautiful residences.”
Fr. Michael Carroll, the Miraculous Medal Shrine Director and CAMM Spiritual Director, explains this period of the Vincentians in Germantown: “Only 20 years after we arrived, the property for the Shrine was purchased. This was the only property that would be sold to Catholics; it wasn’t like we had a lot of choices.” But in God’s providence, this property, and the chapel that was subsequently built, would have far-reaching effects, not only in Germantown, but throughout the world.
The Vincentians created a full-time group of missionary priests whose home base would be St. Vincent’s Seminary.
St. Vincent’s Seminary was completed in 1872. A year later, the plans for a chapel for the Vincentian priests and seminarians was begun. Once again, God intervened through the mouth of the bishop. Upon hearing about the chapel, Bishop James Frederick Wood, who succeeded (St.) John Neumann as the bishop of Philadelphia, asked the Congregation to alter their original plans so that the chapel would be available to the public. In humility and obedience, the Congregation agreed and changed the design so that the entrance of the chapel faced Chelten Avenue.
On a sunny day in July 1875, a large crowd of people gathered for the ceremony of laying the cornerstone, during which Bishop John Ryan of Buffalo preached. But like the Vincentians experienced while building St. Vincent’s parish, the lack of funds prolonged the construction. It wasn’t until November of 1879 that the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception (which we currently call the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal) was solemnly dedicated by Bishop Ryan. The building was filled to capacity—and resplendent with light from the candles that highlighted the beauty of the architecture, marble altars, and exquisite artwork.
Serving the Needs of the Local Church
While the Chapel was being constructed, the Congregation in Germantown took its first step to focus on missions. Mission work was a part of their inheritance from St. Vincent de Paul, but their pastoral and seminary work in America left little time and resources for them to dedicate to a widespread mission program. In July of 1873, the Vincentians created a full-time group of missionary priests whose home base would be St. Vincent’s Seminary. Yet, there were still so many needs within the local Church, it wasn’t until many years later that extensive mission work could be fully realized.
The American Province of the Vincentians had seminaries and houses scattered throughout the Midwest and Eastern United States. Although the Congregation was growing, the vast space of the province was far too great for one provincial to manage, so in 1888, the province was separated into two. The superior general was solicitous in ensuring the unity of the Congregation, as he wrote: “I have great confidence, my brothers, that this territorial division will in no way change the perfect union which has always existed among all the members of your large family. It only remains for me to ask God, from Whom proceeds all that is perfect, to bless the action which I have taken, so that it will result in the spiritual good of each of you, bring about an increase in the number of your houses, and, ultimately, the sanctification of the souls whom Divine Providence has entrusted to your zeal.”
In Germantown, the Vincentians kept responding to the many needs of the changing Church. “Our community began to grow because we opened a seminary here,” explains Fr. Carroll, “and as the community began to grow, our service in Germantown also began to grow.”
Likewise, when the confreres saw the needs of the African American community, they ministered to them at St. Vincent’s parish, and later helped them build St. Catherine of Siena’s parish. St. Katherine Drexel herself helped pay for the parish’s convent and school and contributed generously towards building the church and rectory.
Father Joseph Skelly
Fr. Joseph Skelly, CAMM, and the Miraculous Medal Shrine
In the hustle and bustle of the Vincentians caring for the various communities in Germantown, God was planning His next move—one that would honor Mary Immaculate for years to come. In March of 1874, Joseph A. Skelly was born in Germantown, and from his youth, his mother instilled in him a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Miraculous Medal. At the age of 16 when he left home to study for the priesthood, his mother placed a Medal around his neck and told him to “wear this medal always.” She couldn’t have known that her tiny gesture would have lasting effects—not only in Germantown but throughout the world.
Fr. Skelly was professed as a Vincentian in 1895 and was ordained a priest in 1900. After his ordination, he served in the Immaculate Conception parish in Germantown and then worked at St. Vincent’s Seminary, where he was often heard to say that “the Chapel was the seminarians’ most important classroom.”
In 1912, Fr. Skelly was asked to raise funds to build St. Joseph’s College in Princeton, New Jersey. Whether divine inspiration or remembering the Miraculous Medal his mother placed around his neck, he enclosed a Miraculous Medal in each of the appeal letters he sent. There was nothing new about his promoting the Medal. Since the days of St. Catherine Labouré, the Daughters of Charity and the Vincentians made every effort to spread devotion to Our Lady and her Miraculous Medal. Yet, Fr. Skelly was not prepared for the incredible generosity from the people who received the Medals. He knew this outpouring could only be due to the Blessed Mother, and he decided to find a way to thank her.
In 1915 he found that way: he created The Central Association of the Miraculous Medal to promote Mary and her Miraculous Medal. The Association (or CAMM, as it’s lovingly called), was also established to help support the poor through the many services the Vincentians provide, the education of the seminarians, and the care of the sick and aged priests. In response, the Vincentians pray daily for CAMM’s members, for everyone who wears the Miraculous Medal, for the Church, and, of course, for the poor.
In 1927, Fr. Skelly decided to build a Shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. He chose the spot where the altar of St. Vincent de Paul had originally been placed, and three years later, on Monday, December 8, 1930, he created the Perpetual Novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Many people think that this Perpetual Novena is an ancient devotion, but its beginning was at our Germantown Shrine. During World War II, 15,000 people came to the Shrine every Monday. The crowds were so great that the city ran extra trolly cars on Chelten Ave. to accommodate all of the people. Our Blessed Mother and her Miraculous Medal was a source of comfort and strength during such a difficult time.
Thirty five years after CAMM’s founding, it was outgrowing its small facilities, so the Congregation purchased Scatchard’s Woolen Mill, which traced its beginnings back to the late 1870’s. A funny story is told of Fr. Skelly taking a few employees on tour of the Mill while it was undergoing renovations. As the small group was walking through the second floor, they came across a ten-foot opening, upon which was laid an 8” wide, sagging board. Without hesitation, 76-year old Fr. Skelly walked across the plank nonchalantly while continuing the discussion, unaware that the remainder of the group had stopped. Embarrassed by their own reluctance, they each walked across the board to catch up with their spry Director.
Through everything, Fr. Skelly and his devotion to the Blessed Mother remained simple and pure. He would frequently light vigil candles at the Shrine—and then search his pockets for the money to put in the offering box. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fr. Skelly always carried Miraculous Medals in his pocket to hand out, that he furthered the cause of canonization for St. Catherine Labouré, or that he was an integral part of building the Miraculous Medal chapel, St. Vincent de Paul chapel, and St. Louise de Marillac chapel within the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the day the chapels were being dedicated, Fr. Skelly was laying in his sick bed.
Faithful packed the Shrine in times of war
Medals: Early Miraculous Medal and commemorative medals minted in celebration of Fr. Skelly’s 35th and 50th ordination anniversaries
Katrina, the novices’ dog
Although Fr. Skelly could be exacting, he also embodied the virtues so characteristic of Vincentian spirituality. Through all his success in promoting the Miraculous Medal, Fr. Skelly insisted it was truly “the Blessed Mother who accomplished everything.” His relationship with her was that of a devoted son—he gave to her the ‘first fruits’ of all his labors, even going so far as to place the first box of CAMM’s Christmas cards or appeal letters at the foot of her statue. Although he was the Director of CAMM, everything he did was directed to her.
While no one can be summed up in a handful of stories, there is another story, written by Fr. Joseph Dirvin, Fr. Skelly’s assistant for fourteen years, that paints a good picture of the man who was so deeply devoted to the Blessed Mother:
When the Association was celebrating its forty-sixth anniversary in 1961, Father Skelly threw off the burden of his years and rose to address his guests, as had always been his wont. He rambled as old men will, but not aimlessly; he had always something to say, and everyone strained to listen to the feeble tones of the old voice. Toward the end, he expressed only one wish: to live the four years more until the Association’s fiftieth birthday. A secular priest turned to me, smiling, and asked in a whisper: “How can she refuse him?” I knew what he meant. Where Father Skelly was concerned, it was a natural question. Again, on the occasion of the Association’s next birthday celebration, the venerable Director struggled to his feet again. Another year of bearing the ailments of old age had made him wiser. He did not ask to cling to life now; he merely said: “I am just sitting, waiting for the divine call.” And just then, the telephone rang. The whole company roared with laughter: not at Father Skelly; with him. Without simple faith like his, the humorous coincidence would have had no point. No one ever worked harder, or longer hours, for money or fame or power, than Father Skelly did to advance the glory of Mary Immaculate.
At the time of his death in 1963, it was estimated that 75,000,000 Miraculous Medals and 40,000,000 booklets about the Blessed Mother had been mailed out of CAMM. Fr. Skelly had been in correspondence with people as far away as the Philippines, and countless visitors came to the Shrine and to his office at CAMM, yet he refused to be called a Founder. In his typical humor, he preferred to be called “a letter writer.”
Germantown and Beyond
Through the Vincentian houses and parishes—as well as the works of the Vincentians, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Daughters of Charity—the Vincentians and their founder slowly became more recognized throughout the United States. And with that recognition came more requests and opportunities for the Germantown Vincentians to serve the poor. Once again, God’s hand can be clearly seen, as the Eastern Province had already strengthened their missionary efforts, so they were well situated to respond these appeals courageously.
In 1915, the archbishop of Philadelphia, Edmund Prendergast, wanted to establish missions in the Slate Belt area of Pennsylvania for the Italian immigrants who came to find work in the quarries. So he asked the Eastern Province to open two new parishes, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Roseto, and St. Vincent (now Our Lady of Good Counsel) in Bangor to serve the Italian community (read our Messenger article, A Prior Commitment, to see how three Vincentian priests—and brothers—continue to work in this area).
Frs. Jim and Tom Prior at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Bangor, PA
Today, the Vincentians continue to be a vibrant presence in myriad ministries throughout Philadelphia, the Eastern Province and the world.
The bishop of Mobile, Alabama, also invited the Vincentians to his diocese. At its earliest stages, they encountered many difficulties, not the least of which was one priest being attacked as he was on his way to minister to the sick. Later, one of his assailants, a Catholic, was struck by a train, and the confrere went to the hospital to administer the Sacraments to his attacker. Throughout their struggles, the Vincentian priests—and sisters—persevered and established Catholic mission parishes, ministered to the small number of Catholics in the large territory, responded heroically to the influenza epidemic of 1918, and created new undertakings from their missionary efforts. Fr. Thomas Judge, a Vincentian, was one of the priests who served the poor in the Alabama mission. The task before him was immense, and in true Vincentian style, he responded with resourcefulness, creating two religious communities to train lay people in serving the poor: the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity (for men) and the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity (for women).
In 1911, the bishop of Panama invited confreres from the Eastern province to serve the Americans who were building the Panama Canal. They eventually moved into the city of Panama and then into rural areas, sharing the Gospel and developing parishes and missions. The Vincentians continue to work in Panama—in Colon, one of the poorest cities in the western world (second only to Port Au Prince). Fr. Michael Carroll explains that there are so many poor who live there, in many ways Colon is an abandoned city. “It’s one of the toughest places where our province works,” he says, “and our confreres are admirable in the wonderful work they accomplish.”
Although the first Vincentians arrived in China in 1699, in 1920 the Superior General of the Vincentians was asked by Rome to send missionaries to China. The Eastern Province enthusiastically volunteered, and a group of priests and students from St. Vincent’s Seminary left Philadelphia in July of 1921 and arrived in the Jiangxi Province in September. In his “Historical Survey,” Fr. John Rybolt, CM, wrote of this experience: “American Vincentians remained in Kiangsi until expelled by the Communist government. For about 30 years, they had suffered from nearly constant wars and unrest: nationalist insurgents, the Japanese during the second World War, and then the Communist revolution. In 1952, almost immediately after their expulsion, two priests with missionary experience went to Taiwan where they began to minister to mainland Chinese Catholics who had fled there. This mission grew, and by 1987, the American missioners, together with their Chinese and Dutch confreres, joined to form a new Province of China.”
The Germantown Vincentians also readily volunteered to serve in the different branches of the military as chaplains: in World War II (after the United States entered the War), in the Korean conflict, and in Vietnam. Fr. Frederic Gehring not only served in our China mission for six years, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he volunteered as a Navy chaplain and served during the Guadacanal Campaign. Fr. Gehring was the first U.S. Naval Chaplain decorated with the Presidential Legion of Merit for his outstanding bravery.
The Eastern Province also responded to invitations to open a parish in Florida, minister on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation near Niagara, establish mission houses in Ohio, Canada, and North Carolina, and staff High schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Today in Germantown, the Vincentians continue serving the poor and forgotten through a wide variety of ministries. In imitation of St. Vincent de Paul, who was a chaplain of galley slaves, the Vincentians established PAR-Recycle Works, a program that provides transitional employment to people returning from prison. As Fr. Timothy Lyons explains, “Our society has responded to our social problems by putting people in jail, treating them harshly, letting them out, and then arresting them again. It’s taking a giant amount of resources, yet we’re doing nothing – or very little – for their rehabilitation. In colonial society, people were put in jail until their case was adjudicated. In the free world, we’ve turned prisons into a business, but we haven’t turned the rehabilitation of people into a business. PAR is a little, tiny project, but it works. If you help a person who has never had a job or an opportunity, it makes a huge difference.” (Read our Messenger Article, A Walk in My Shoes, to see how PAR is changing lives).
At St. Vincent de Paul parish, hundreds of meals are provided for anyone in need, on-site social workers and drop-in legal services are available, and programs for art and writing are offered. St. Vincent’s also maintains the St. Vincent de Paul Youth and Young Adult Center, which offers homework and SAT/ACT preparation assistance, and gives young adults throughout the country the opportunity to serve those who are materially poor (read our Messenger article, The Journey of an Inner City Servant, to learn about Brother Al and the incredible programs he developed at St. Vincent’s Parish).
Germantown is a huge part of who the Vincentians are. “You don’t stay in a place unless the place has your heart,” Fr. Carroll says, smiling. “And the Vincentians continue to make this a place that people come to because of the work of the Shrine and the Vincentian spirit in the community. The Vincentian family is invested in the area, working side by side with the poor. The same words that rang in the ears of the confreres in 1849 will continue to ring in the ears of Vincentians as we move in the future: The poor are our inheritance. It is the poor, like Christ, who we serve.”
The agility of the Vincentian charism to take action and make incredible impact with a poverty of resources has helped plant St. Vincent de Paul’s roots in the soil of Germantown. It’s allowed the Vincentians to adapt to changing circumstances and respond to the needs of the Church and the poor. It’s enabled them to remain dedicated to helping individuals—and the greater community—overcome problems as they arise. Of course, that’s not merely the charism of the Vincentians, it’s the heritage they’ve received from St. Vincent de Paul, from Fr. De Andreis and his confreres, and from the countless men and women who have followed in their footsteps, with quiet and humble lives—and with Vincentian hearts.
“We had a Provincial who died young,” says Fr. Carroll. “He had worked at the Seminary and had been a University President. When we held the funeral here at the Shrine, everyone was touched by the poor people who were crying their eyes out. Even though he had all these administrative tasks, the Provincial had come to know the poor in our area because he made time for them—because he knew that’s where a Vincentian’s heart should be. The poor we touch in life will be at the gate of Heaven to speak on our behalf. Jesus came to be poor, to serve the poor, and to bring the message of hope to the poor. When we die, who will be the poor that will speak on our behalf?”