St. Joachim Church in Frankford, established in 1844, is the oldest Catholic parish in Northeast Philadelphia, and was the mother church for many parishes that were formed later in this section of the city.
Like most Catholic parishes of the time, St. Joachim was founded to serve a particular ethnic group, in this case the Irish. Many of the workers in the mills of Frankford and surrounding areas were Irish Catholics who had to travel to St. Michael in Kensington or St. Stephen in North Philadelphia to worship. In 1843, a group of five of these men held a meeting in the home of William Keenan in Frankford, where they decided to petition the diocese to form their own parish.
For $600, they purchased a plot of land at Harrison Street and Frankford Avenue for the future church. Later, this property was traded for one on Church Street that would become the site of St. Joachim. The Most Rev. Francis Kendrick, Bishop of Philadelphia, approved formation of the new parish in 1844.
Before the cornerstone for the new church could be laid, however, a tumultuous series of events delayed its construction. Long-simmering anti-Irish/anti-Catholic sentiments in Philadelphia, exacerbated by the dramatic increase in Irish immigrants to the city in the 1840s, exploded into the infamous Nativist Riots of 1844. Nativist mobs burned two Irish Catholic churches, St. Michael in Kensington and St. Augustine in Old City, to the ground. While there was no rioting in Frankford, laying of the cornerstone for St. Joachim was delayed until 1845.
Another problem for the new congregation was the cost of building the church. Traditionally, the diocese would procure a mortgage for property and/or secure loans to finance the creation of a parish, and it was the responsibility of the parishioners to make the loan payments and support the church. While the parishioners of St. Joachim were not wealthy, they were determined. They gave what they could, and sometimes more than they could afford. The building was completed and the first Mass was celebrated in the new St. Joachim church in late 1847. Unfortunately, the founding pastor, the Rev. Dominick Forestal, died earlier that year and did not live to celebrate Mass in his new church.
As the only Catholic church in Northeast Philadelphia, St. Joachim became a mission parish to the neighborhoods of Holmesburg, Bustleton, Tacony, and others. St. Joachim priests traveled to these places to administer the sacraments. Like St. Joachim, these missions were serving Irish Catholics who were mostly mill workers and their families. Eventually, Catholics in these neighborhoods were able to establish their own parishes: St. Dominic in Holmesburg was founded in 1849 for the Catholic population that included Irish employees of the mills along Pennypack Creek; Maternity B.V.M. in Bustleton was founded in 1870 for the Irish mill workers at LaGrange Print Works; and St. Leo the Great was established in 1884 in Tacony for the Irish workers at Disston Saw Works.
The religious staff of St. Joachim has a long tradition of reaching out to help others. In 1849, a cholera outbreak ravaged the Frankford area. The Rev. James O’Kane, pastor of St. Joachim, and the Rev. Henry S. Spackman, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, worked tirelessly, ignoring their personal safety to help the sick and dying.
When St. William Catholic School opened in Lawndale in 1924, two nuns from St. Joachim traveled daily to teach there. The sisters were from the order of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. St. Joachim was the IHM order’s first mission when the sisters began teaching in Philadelphia in 1863.
The original 1845 St. Joachim building was replaced by a Gothic-style structure that was dedicated in 1880. Again, parishioners contributed to the new building. St. Joachim continued to expand over the years as the Catholic population of the Northeast grew.
In June 1978, Philadelphia Archdiocesan priests left St. Joachim and were replaced by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who continue to administer the parish. In 1979, the church and rectory were destroyed by fire. Once again, parishioners contributed to the construction of new church buildings, which were dedicated in 1981. ••
Jack McCarthy is a Philadelphia area archival/historical consultant. He is director of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame and co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network. Patty McCarthy is an active member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network.