A Brief History of Holy Saviour Parish, Norristown
The development of the Catholic Church in the United States
In the nineteenth century, the reality of the United States of America presented a unique dilemma for those entrusted with the pastoral care of Catholics in this country. It must be kept in mind that within the British Empire, the practice of the Catholic religion was forbidden and Catholics throughout that Empire were unable to vote or hold public office. This would have been the condition of the few Catholics living in the original thirteen colonies, with the interesting exception of Pennsylvania!
William Penn’s “noble experiment,” which included religious freedom for all, was quietly “tested” by Catholics in Philadelphia. St. Joseph’s Parish (known as “Old St. Joseph’s”) was founded in 1733, while the thirteen colonies were still under British rule. Given Penn’s founding principle, they were allowed to exist. It is interesting to visit Old St. Joseph’s. It was built in Willings Alley, literally an alley, with no grandiose entrance, in order not to antagonize the anti-Catholic sentiments of the British rulers. Outside the Church, there is an interesting plaque, which notes the fact that when Old St. Joseph’s Church was founded, and for fifty years thereafter, it was the only place in the entire British Empire in which the Sacrifice of the Mass could be celebrated legally!
When immigrants began to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century, the number of Catholics in the United States quickly increased because many of these immigrants, especially those from Ireland, were Catholics. This did not present a great language or cultural dilemma, because most of the missionaries sent to the young country were Irish themselves and the Irish spoke the language of their new country. When Catholics began to arrive in great numbers later in the century, they were from varying countries and cultural backgrounds. Their faith was the same, but the customs they associated with their Catholic religion and the language they spoke, were different from what they found in their new country. The Bishops of the United States, acknowledging that the Catholic faith is indeed universal, but possessing customs and practices according to the culture and traditions of a people, sought to preserve these among the immigrants and their descendants, since these customs were associated so much with their faith. The Bishops showed great zeal in obtaining priests who spoke the language of the newly arrived immigrants and understood their outlook on life. In this way, they could go to Confession, hear sermons, and seek the counsel of the priest, who would not only understand and speak their language, but also understand their culture and manner of thinking. In many cases, priests had to be obtained from the native countries of the immigrants and these priests acted as missionaries, leaving their own homes to come and serve their countrymen in the United States.
These realities led to the formation of what are called “National” or “Personal Parishes,” for people of a particular ethnic background and their descendants. The present Code of Canon Law (1983) continues to make provision for these parishes. We read in Canon 518: “As a general rule a parish is to be territorial, that is embracing all the Catholics within a certain territory; whenever it is judged useful, however, personal parishes are to be established based upon rite, language, the nationality of Catholics within some territory or even upon some other determining factor.”
Italian Immigration to Southeastern Pennsylvania
The first Italian National Parish founded in the entire United States was established in Philadelphia in 1852: Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi at 7th and Montrose Streets. It is now a worship site of St. Paul Parish, but the Church is still open for Mass on Sundays and Holydays. You may wish to visit the excellent website of St. Paul Parish to see some photographs of thebeautiful Church of St. Mary Magdalen De Pazzi (stpaulparishsouthphilly.com). This Parish was actually settled by Italian artisans and professional people from the northern Italian area near Genoa. It was not until the latter part of the nineteenth centuries that the period called that of “mass immigration” began. Most of the millions of Italians who came to this country during this great wave of immigration, were from southern Italy.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century large numbers of Italian began to arrive in the area of Norristown in Montgomery County. The principal areas they come from in Italy, still very much represented in the Parish today, are: Sciacca in Sicily, Montella, near Naples in Campania, Ascoli Piceno in the Marche Region and Casaldune, near Benevento, also in Campania. Here is a photograph taken in front of a mural painted on the wall of Holy Saviour Church Hall, indicating the places in Italy from which Italians came to Norristown. To show the remarkable continuity of the community and the parish, the photo shows the present pastor of the Parish, with an Italian seminarian, now a priest, visiting from Montella, whose uncle and cousins live in Norristown, having emigrated from Montella to Norristown in the early 1970’s.
The Founding of Holy Saviour Parish
The account that follows, of the actual founding of Holy Saviour Parish, the second Italian National Parish founded in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is adapted from the Souvenir Book (“Golden Jubilee, San Salvatore Church, Norristown, Pa.”), published on the occasion of the Parish’s 50th anniversary.
The Italian Catholics arriving in Norristown first attended St. Patrick’s Church. In 1903, two Italian missionary priests arrived in Norristown, Father Ottavio Lionne and Father Nicola Rufo. The Pastor of St. Patrick’s kindly put the Church and Rectory at the disposal of these priests so that they could conduct a mission for the Italians of Norristown. The response was overwhelming. Father Michele Maggio then arrived, after having founded an Italian Parish in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. To quote directly from the Souvenir Book:
“The arrival of these priests brought new life and hope to the hearts of the people. They welcomed them with great joy and with sincere devotion. There is no denying the Word of God exercised a tremendous influence of their lives. Religion, the beauty of the Faith, the effect of Divine Truths on he hearts of a people steeped in religion carry with them a supernatural force which no earthly influence could ever begin to imitate. The Italian Catholics gave a noble example of lively faith, by attending the mission in great numbers. In fact, many brought in with them friends and relatives from surrounding localities so that the Mission proved a tremendous spiritual success…The Mission, therefore, proved to be the beginning of Holy Saviour (Parish). The vast gathering of people to hear the priests who spoke their own language indicated their desire for a Church of their own. A committee was soon organized by Father Maggio, to achieve this purpose. The members of the committee represented a few men from different communities of Italy. They were as follows: Giovanni Lauro, Antonio Mirabile, Matteo Baldassano, Domenico Catanese, Antonio Zummo, Angelo Marinari, Fortunato Rascionato, Raffaele Bello, Luigi Roncace, Silvio Roncace, Casimiro Alleva, Adamo Diccio, Giovanni Durante, Theodore Basile.”
It is remarkable to note that almost every family name in this list of founding members of the Parish is still represented among the present-day parishioners of Holy Saviour! In the case of the one or two exceptions where we do not still hear the family name, their descendants are present through different lines and they are very aware of the work of their ancestors.
The cornerstone for the Church of San Salvatore was laid on September 20, 1903, on the very spot where the present Church stands. After three years, Father Maggio was transferred and replaced by Father Lambert Travi. Father Travi was the Pastor of Holy Saviour for 29 years. In the Rectory, we still marvel at his beautiful handwriting in which he entered hundreds and hundreds of Baptisms and Weddings into the Registers, in impeccable Latin. Father Travi zealously worked for the spiritual welfare of the people and he enlarged the Church and founded the first Holy Saviour School at Marshall and Walnut Streets. As he became older and worn out with work, he was transferred to a smaller Parish in Marcus Hook. The present Pastor of Holy Saviour recalls that during his time as an Assistant at Holy Saviour, a dedicated parishioner, Joseph Melle, used to relate to him that he had maintained a friendship with Father Travi. He would pick him up from time to time and drive him back to Holy Saviour in later years. He recalled that Father Travi would marvel at the many stately buildings that were now a part of the parish, because he well remembered the early years of struggle and poverty.
Sanctuary of the original Holy Saviour Church before the 1954 Expansion
Father James Burgoyne was appointed to succeed Father Travi in 1935, but he remained only a short while and was succeeded by Father, later Monsignor, Michael Pasto. Father Pasto renovated part of the church and the school hall and, perhaps most significantly, established our Mission Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in 1940. Father Pasto founded this Mission to make it easier for those who lived in the Mogeetown and Black Horse sections of the Parish to get to Mass. Although it is only a mile away from the Main Church, when transportation was difficult and there were few cars, that mile constituted a long distance. This beautiful Mission Church was built by the people themselves, principally those from Casaldune and Benevento, whose Patroness is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Their descendants are very aware of the work of their ancestors and they continue to show their loyalty to our Mission Church. Its use also continues because it is the location for the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass every Sunday at 11:30, in addition to the regular 10:00AM Mass. In 1942, Father Pasto was transferred to St. Donato Parish in Philadelphia. Thirty-nine years later, St. Donato’s would return the favor when their Pastor, Monsignor J. John Busco, became the Pastor of Holy Saviour!
The Arrival of Father George Delia
In 1942, Father George Delia became the Pastor of Holy Saviour and began a period of tremendous growth. Father Delia’s background is a tribute to the zeal of the Church for her immigrant children throughout the world. He was born in Italy and ordained a priest there. He then attended what was called the “College of Immigration” for priests who sought to work among the Italians who had gone to North and South America. During their year of preparation at this school, they studied English or Spanish, depending upon where they were going to labor. They then left their beloved native land to go to far off places to care for the Italian immigrants and their descendants. Father Delia had labored in Minnesota and in upstate Pennsylvania before coming to Holy Saviour.
Father Delia, of course, arrived in Norristown during the Second World War. Many young Italian-American men from the Parish fought in that war, even though their relatives in Italy were technically on the enemy side. Just recently, an event was held in the Church commemorating all those men from the Parish who died in our country’s wars. The list, which our Catholic War Veterans provided, and which was confirmed by the Department of Defense, is made up of a very considerable number of men who gave their lives for their country. After the War, Father Delia was instrumental in founding the local Catholic War Veterans Post, which originally bore the name “Holy Saviour Post.” The present members of the Post and its Ladies’ Auxiliary are very conscious of their history and the role that the parish played in it.
Father Delia was so zealous in encouraging the parents of the Parish to enroll their children in the Parish School, that he wound up buying the local Public School in order to accommodate the large number of children enrolling in Holy Saviour School! This School was Father Delia’s pride and joy and many remember the attention he paid to it and the zeal he showed in promoting it. Eventually, Holy Saviour School had almost 1,000 pupils at the height of its enrollment, which coincided with the great American “baby boom.”
Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
When Holy Saviour School was founded, the Parish was fortunate in receiving the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to teach in the School. These Sisters were a magnificent influence on the children of the Parish and, eventually, upon the Parish itself. Many of you reading this website may recall with gratitude and affection one or many of the Sisters who taught you in Holy Saviour School. Thousands of Parish children passed through the very capable care of the Sisters and a bond between the Parish and the Sisters was formed which can never be effaced.
About 20 years ago, what has happened in many Parishes throughout the country happened in our beloved Parish when the Sisters had to withdraw from serving Holy Saviour School, because of the lack of Religious vocations to their Congregation. A wonderful thank-you celebration took place to thank the Sisters for their many years of service. Likewise, at the Parish Centennial many Sisters formerly stationed at Holy Savoir School returned for the celebration, and wrote wonderful notes to the Pastor afterwards praising the people of Holy Saviour, and expressing their fond memories. The late Sister Michael Francis (Chinchilli), herself a vocation from the Parish, used to relate how proud she was over the years when she would hear Sisters stationed at Holy Saviour speak with such admiration about the people and the Parish.
The priests also remember the Sisters with gratitude and affection. At the Funeral of one of the Sisters stationed at Holy Saviour for a number of years, Mother Mary Stephen (Ford), Father James Joseph Kelly, himself an assistant at Holy Saviour many years ago, paid a wonderful tribute to the goodness of the Sisters to the priests in the Parishes in which they were stationed. He lovingly related their many kindnesses, especially to young priests in need of encouragement and support.
Completion of the Parish Building Complex
Father Delia’s dream was to have a complete, adequate and up-to-date set of Parish buildings in proportion to the number of parishioners and the dignity of the Parish. During his years as Pastor a new Convent was purchased and expanded; a new school building was established in the former Welsh School; the Church was expanded greatly to its present capacity of 900 people and a new Rectory was added as the final jewel in the parish crown.
In September of 1960, a great honor came to Holy Saviour Parish and its zealous Pastor, when Father Delia was named a Monsignor by Pope John XXIII. Great was the rejoicing in the Parish! The children in the grade school at the time, especially those who later became priests, have fondly recalled many times their memory of this event. They recall the police escort meeting the newly named Monsignor Delia at the Norristown border upon his arrival from New York, where his ship from Italy had landed. All the school children has been taught to sing “We’re for you, Monsignor Delia, we’re for you!”
Unfortunately, Monsignor Delia did not live very long to enjoy his new honor. He died at the early age of 56 on April 28, 1962. His dear friend, Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, celebrated the Solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass for Monsignor Delia in the presence of Archbishop Krol, the Archbishop of Philadelphia.
Arrival of Father Cavallucci
as the New Pastor of Holy Saviour
Shortly after Monsignor Delia’s death, Father Peter Cavallucci, who had been the Pastor of St. Michael of the Saints Parish in the Germantown section of Philadelphia for many years, became the new Pastor of Holy Saviour Parish. He brought with him the experience of many years of zealously serving the Italian and Italian-American communities of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He too was zealous for the children in the school and their welfare, and was always most appreciative of the work of the Sisters.
Father Cavallucci increased the number of Masses celebrated at the Mission Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and oversaw the building of a beautiful Gym and Recreation Center on Walnut and Airy Streets. In 1965, Father Cavallucci was named a Monsignor by Pope Paul VI, which was another honor for the Parish as well as its Pastor. Monsignor Cavallucci is still lovingly remembered by many parishioners for his zeal in visiting the sick and his kindness. Many of his sayings remain in use by the priests and parishioners! “Dio vede e Dio provvede” (God sees and God provides) is one of his sayings, and the most famous is: “You do your best and God will do the rest!” The priests stationed with him also remember his reaction when anyone described some “way out” activity they had observed in a Church during the 1970’s, which Monsignor didn’t find too appealing! He would look at the person and with a complete deadpan expression say: “Oh, is that good?”
In June of 1981, Monsignor Cavallucci was required to submit his resignation as Pastor, since he would soon be 75 years old. According to the policy in force at that time, retired pastors were permitted to remain in residence at the Parish where they had been the Pastor, and so Monsignor Cavallucci continued to reside at Holy Saviour and assist with Masses, Confessions and the visitation of his beloved sick. After a comparatively short illness, Monsignor Cavallucci died at Villa St. Joseph on November 30, 1987.
Monsignor J. John Busco Appointed Pastor
Upon the retirement of Monsignor Cavallucci, a well-known and very talented priest was appointed to succeed him. Monsignor J. John Busco had been the Pastor of St. Donato Parish in West Philadelphia since 1966 and, before that had been for many years the Pastor of St. Mary of the Eternal Parish in North Philadelphia. At St. Mary’s, the then-Father Busco worked wonders to build up that Parish both spiritually and materially. He increased the number of children in the grade school, opened a kindergarten in a completely separate building from the school and converted three houses into a beautiful Rectory. Monsignor Busco’s financial prowess, along with his pastoral zeal benefited the parishes in which he was stationed, and would benefit Holy Saviour Parish as well.
Arriving in June of 1981, Monsignor Busco immediately addressed the finances of the Parish and conducted a very successful increased offertory effort. With his usual prowess in the maintenance of the parish buildings, he undertook many projects for the repair and maintenance of the many parish properties. Monsignor Busco has also been engaged in many extra-parochial activities over the years, primarily those, which aided the Italian community in the United States. As a recognition for these efforts, Monsignor Busco was named a Cavaliere by the government of Italy, a very prestigious and rare award for someone who has labored for the welfare of Italians in all parts of the world.
In 1990, Monsignor Busco was required to submit his resignation, as Monsignor Cavallucci did before him, upon reaching the mandatory age. He continued to live at Holy Saviour Rectory and assist with Masses, Confessions and the Spiritual Direction of the Padre Pio Prayer Group and Holy Name Society. He enjoyed remarkable good health for many years but, as he approached 90, he went to reside at Villa St. Joseph, the excellent facility for our retired priests in Darby. Monsignor Busco died on November 11, 2011, having lived 71 years as a faithful priest!
Monsignor Arthur J. Centrella
Upon Monsignor Busco’s retirement, Monsignor Arthur Centrella, who had been the Pastor of Our Lady of Consolation Parish in the Tacony section of Philadelphia for nineteen years, was appointed Pastor of Holy Saviour. Monsignor Centrella oversaw the creation of the large Parish Parking Lot on Main Street and led the Catholic Life 2000 Campaign to a successful conclusion. He was a prayerful and priestly man who loved his priesthood and lived it out zealously, especially in the care of the sick and the dying. He had to face the challenge of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary leaving the Parish School and made the wise decision of appointing Miss Angela Ciccanti, who had been a long time teacher at Holy Saviour School, gaining the deep respect of the Faculty and Parents alike, as the first lay principal of the Parish School. We are now blessed to have Miss Ciccanti as the Principal of our Regional School of Our Lady of Victory.
Before his mandatory retirement in 2002, Monsignor Centrella laid the foundations for the celebration of the Parish’s Hundredth Anniversary. The present rule of the Archdiocese is that a retired Pastor may not live in the Parish where he was the Pastor and Monsignor Centrella went to live at Holy Cross Parish in Springfield, Delaware County. He assisted there with the celebration of Mass, Confessions and other priestly work, finally free from administrative responsibility. After suffering with cancer for several months, he passed away on September 29, 2007. Monsignor Centrella’s Funeral Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Rigali at Holy Saviour. The homilist was Monsignor Sangermano, present Pastor of Holy Saviour, Monsignor Centrella’s successor and also his former Assistant at Our Lady of Consolation Parish.
This section will be brief because the present Pastor is also the person writing this history! In June of 2002, upon Monsignor Centrella’s retirement, Father Charles L. Sangermano, at the time Pastor of St. Paul Parish in South Philadelphia, was appointed to succeed him. Father Sangermano had been an assistant at Holy Saviour from March of 1981 until June of 1986, so he was familiar with the goodness of the people, their deep faith and their loyalty to their parish.
Among the things that have been accomplished since 2002, because of the fine support of the people, have been the following physical projects: replacement of the school roof; replacement of the Church roof; renovation of Msgr Delia Hall (now Savior Hall); renovation of Holy Saviour Church Hall; replacement of the entire concrete sidewalk in front of the Church properties; repaving of the parking lot at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Mission Church; air-conditioning of the Church Hall; restoration of the Sanctuary at the Mission Church; replacement of the bathrooms in the Church Hall and other smaller projects. During these years, we have also had the joy of celebrating our Parish Centennial and we were blessed in reaching over 100% of our parish goal for the Archdiocesan Campaign: Heritage of Faith: Vision of Hope.
In June of 2005, another honor came to the Parish when the Pastor was named a Prelate of Honor, with the title of Monsignor.
Most importantly, in 2010 we experienced the largest number of Baptisms in 10 years and this trend has continued through the following years. We have been able to add a new parish organization, the Figlie di Maria, to our existing parish organizations and our parish feasts continue to draw large crowds. In 2016, we were able to care an Eldercare Program to our parish’s list of services, with a full-time Director.
In these years also, as with many other parishes these days, we had to come to the decision that it was no longer beneficial to the parish as a whole to maintain our own parish school. Buildings built to respond to the “baby boom’s” large birth rate are no longer as feasible as they once were. We were able to come together with other parishes to form Holy Rosary Regional Catholic School, which we are very much a part of, and where we generously subsidize the Catholic education of Holy Saviour Parish children.