Mater Dolorosa: A century of history

It’s time to celebrate at Mater Dolorosa.

The Frankford-based Roman Catholic parish is 100 years old.

There are 20 or so committee members doing all of the heavy lifting that it takes to organize a gala set for Sunday at a Far Northeast union hall.

Since the Rev. John J. Large, the popular pastor, arrived in 2005, he has been impressed with the year-round volunteer work that keeps the parish going.

“We don’t have the resources of other parishes, but we try to do what other parishes do,” he said.

The celebration will begin with an 11:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday. It’ll be trilingual (Italian, English and Spanish).

Cardinal Justin Rigali had been scheduled to celebrate the Mass. In July, however, Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation as archbishop of Philadelphia.

Perhaps Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, installed last week as Rigali’s replacement, will celebrate the Mass, but no formal word has come from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

A party will follow from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Emerald Room, located on McNulty Road.

The origins of the parish date to 1908, when Italian immigrants petitioned the archdiocese to build a church for them. The archdiocese agreed, and St. Peter’s Parish was created, with the first Mass in a storefront on Unity Street in March 1908. Later, the parish used a property at 4330 Paul St. for services.

By 1911, parishioners voted to change the name to St. Rocco’s. An April 1911 edition of the Catholic Standard and Times dubbed the parish “Saint Rocco’s Chapel for Frankford Italians.”

On Dec. 11, 1911, parishioners again voted to change the name, this time to Mater Dolorosa. The permanent church at Paul and Ruan streets opened in 1914.

The parish operated a school from 1926 to 2003, when the archdiocese closed Mater Dolorosa, St. Joachim and St. Joan of Arc, citing dwindling enrollment.

Today, there are 300 families registered at Mater Dolorosa. Large, known fondly to some as “Johnny The Mot,” also serves as pastor at St. Joan of Arc.

Large said Mater Dolorosa parishioners past and present should be proud to have kept a church, especially an ethnic one, thriving for a century.

“That’s special, to keep it going a hundred years,” he said.

Large credits Mater Dolorosa’s long operation to loyal longtime parishioners who have remained as the neighborhood has changed. He’s also grateful to those who, although they have moved, still contribute to the parish in various ways.

Among the staples of the parish are the regular spaghetti suppers and casino trips.

The parish offers a Spanish Mass every Saturday at 6 p.m., and there was a special trilingual service on Sunday night to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

The former school building is now operated by the Sankofa Academy Charter School.

The pastor marvels at the proactive skills of Sister Linda Lukiewski, the director of parish outreach, and Sister Eileen Cooke, the director of religious education.

Longtime parishioners are glad Large has remained pastor for six years.

“He’s absolutely marvelous,” said Rosemarie Flemming, citing his sermons and love of children, among other qualities. “He’s so caring and loving. He’s been the greatest thing that ever happened to us.”

Flemming has an adult son and daughter who attended Mater Dolorosa from kindergarten through eighth grade.

A parishioner for 36 years, she continues to live on Romain Street and is pleasantly surprised that more than 400 people plan to attend Sunday’s event.

“The fact that all these people are coming back proves they loved their parish,” she said.

All of the planning will be worth it on Sunday, Flemming believes.

“Going through the one-hundredth has been a joy ride. It’s such a big thing,” she said. “It should be really, really nice. We have a beautiful church and a beautiful parish with beautiful people.” ••

Tickets are still available for Sunday’s 100th-anniversary celebration of Mater Dolorosa Parish. The party will take place from 2 to 6 p.m. at Sprinkler Fitters Local 692’s Emerald Room, at 14002 McNulty Road.

The cost is $25 for kids ages 4 to 10 and $50 for anyone 11 and older. Children 3 and under will be admitted free. Tickets will not be sold at the door.

The day starts with a Mass at 11:30 a.m. at the church, at Paul and Ruan streets.

For tickets or more information, call the rectory at 215–535–4036 or visit

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or