A Parish History of St. Basil the Great Church
The First 20 Years (1965-1985)
Our parish was founded on June 9, 1965, when our original 275 families received word from Philadelphia that a parish would be established in Kimberton and would be called the Parish of St. Basil the Great. Rev. William H. Finigan, who was the Assistant Pastor at the Church of St. Matthew in Conshohocken at the time, was named as our first Pastor. His date of ordination was May 26. 1938.
The location of the new parish was to be on the rolling farmland hills of East Pikeland Township in Chester County at the Junction of Kimberton Road and Route 113. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia had purchased 18 acres of land from Allen J. Bevan for the price of $54,000. This land was slated to eventually become the site of a church, a rectory, a convent, and a school. The boundaries of the new parish covered about 60 square miles, which were mostly made up of land originally designated as St. Ann’s Parish in Phoenixville, and which were found in parts of six surrounding townships. The original parish boundaries ran from Ridge Road. or Route 23, from Sheeder Road to Township Line Road in East Pikeland Township; to Pothouse Road; to Route 29; to Hollow Road; to Yellow Springs Road; to Lower Pine Creek Road; to Conestoga Road. or Route 401: to Davis Road: to Birch Run Creek; to French Creek; and back to Sheeder Road and Ridge Road. Father Fogarty, Pastor of St. Ann’s, invited our new Pastor to take up temporary residence at St. Ann’s rectory.
The first General Parish Meeting was held at the Kimberton Fire House on June 30, 1963, and was attended by about 220 parishioners. The meeting was devoted to getting acquainted and to a lively discussion regarding the future planning and organization of the parish. A great deal of activity quickly followed this meeting. Plans were put in place for monthly parish meetings, questionnaires to be distributed to parish members, the writing of parish bulletins, the creation of schedules for altar boys, ushers, lectors, a choir, weekly work crews and so on. In November of 1963, we began to have regular 50/50 drawings as a way to raise the funds needed for the new parish. This drawing, combined with the revenues received in weekly collections, allowed the parish to grow and to thrive. The official groundbreaking for our first church took place on November 14, 1965. (See Video) The plans included a small, temporary church with an attached hall, and a parking lot for our Parishioners.
Through the kind generosity of Paul Roberts, a good neighbor and friend of the parish, we made use of his ‘Spring house” as a temporary rectory for Father Finigan and a Chapel for daily Mass. The first parish Mass was said in the Spring House on July 4. 1965. Our use of that building continued for about two years. The structure is still standing today on the corner of Coldstream Road and Route 113. This very kind gesture allowed Father Finigan to move into our community immediately and begin his plans for our parish.
Every Sunday and Holy Day after that initial Mass, the Holy Eucharist was offered to the people of St. Basil the Great at the Kimberton Grange Hall. The Grange Hall accommodated a larger congregation and was used as a temporary church until our first church was completed on April 3, 1966, Palm Sunday. In our first church, the altar, tabernacle, vestment case, Stations of the Cross, candlesticks and all of the sanctuary necessities were either made by our parishioners or gathered and donated from other parishes. Many months of planning and construction by a group of volunteers from the Holy Name Society yielded pews for our new church. There were many late nights and long hours, but, thanks to the hard work of these volunteers, our first church was ready to begin celebrating Mass. Our church was dedicated by Archbishop John Krol (who would later be named Cardinal) on Saturday June 18, 1966... just a little over a year from the date the parish was established. Other construction on the site followed and our current rectory and convent were completed about a year later, in August of 1967.
Everyone pitched in to help our parish. We had volunteers for the cleaning and maintenance of our parish buildings as well as grass cutters and amateur gardeners who shaped our rugged farmland into the beautiful landscape we enjoy today. It didn’t matter what skill level you brought to the parish. Everyone was involved and their individual talents were put to good use in those early days. The beautiful Japanese cherry trees that adorn our property were donated and planted by Harold S. Finigan, Fr. Finigan’s brother.
From its inception, the parish of St. Basil the Great has been a center of seemingly limitless activity. Events, both religious and social, all of which were directed towards the spiritual growth of our parish and each of our parishioners, were regularly held during those early years. The meetings of both the Holy Name Society and the Women’s Club were held monthly, and those meetings led to many parish activities such as cake sales, picnics, clambakes, swim parties, dances, newspaper drives, clothing drives, penny auctions, race nights, Christmas bazaars, garage sales, church suppers, bingo nights and various sweepstakes, all of which were planned and designed to engage the parish in community activities and involve each participant in becoming an active member of St. Basil the Great.
Religious activities at the beginning of the parish included many of the same activities that can be found today. Those included Communion breakfasts, retreats, missions, Stations of the Cross, evening devotions, 40 Hours, discussion groups and CCD classes. CCD formation was under the direction of volunteers Joan Betres and Mary Jo Gaydos. Years later Barbara Patton, CRE, and then Patricia Kowaleski, CRE, coordinated this program. Academically, the children of our parish continued to attend St. Ann’s School from that first September in 1965. But by mid. November of 1966, the construction that had already begun on our future rectory and convent now included plans for a new school. We began to build the first phase of our current school building in March of 1967. Once again, it was up to the toil and “sweat-equity” of our parishioners to make this dream become a reality. There were generous donations of equipment and desks for our students and teachers, as well as many hours spent getting the building ready for instruction. Our school opened on September 11, 1967 and had a grand total of 113 students. We were quite fortunate in those early days to have had the help of four religious sisters from the order of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and two lay teachers who made up the first faculty at our new school. The founding Principal, who also taught fourth grade at that time, was Sr. Ruth Held, ACJ. The first class to complete eighth grade at our school numbered 18 students. The first Commencement was held on June 12, 1970.
During the early years, our school and CYO athletic teams were busy with activities for our youth. Many Supplemental improvements to our parish property, again done with mostly voluntary assistance, have been accomplished in the years since. After the main buildings were constructed, our parishioners helped to landscape the grounds and extend the pipeline from our well to provide water to all four of our buildings. Also, a small kitchen was designed and built in our church hail to provide a place to prepare meals both during social activities and for school lunches.
In 1971 a large garage was built behind the rectory. This structure provided badly needed storage space and was used to protect Father’s car and the lawn service equipment used on the property. The garage was also used, as one can imagine, for the many garage sales that the Women’s Club conducted annually.
At the close of our first ten years of development as a parish, we found ourselves with a strong foundation and a desire to continue to grow towards even greater things.
The parish continued through its second decade with the same community spirit, participating in card parties, bloodmobiles, retreats, garage sales, clothing drives, dances, covered dish dinners, Night at the Races fundraisers, etc. Philadelphia hosted the International Eucharistic Congress in 1976. We were fortunate to be in such close proximity to the week-long event, and our parish was represented by several choir members. The year after the Eucharistic Congress people were given the option to receive communion the hand or by mouth.
Through the years the sisters who served as Principal of our school were Sr. Pilar Ymas, ACJ, Sr. Ana Maria Gaston. ACJ, Sr. Gloria Petrone, ACJ, Sr. Philomena Monte, ACJ, Sr. Kathleen Doherty, ACJ, and Sr. Patricia Wiekenheiser, OSF.
The first big change for St. Basil’s happened in 1977. After 12 years as Pastor, Fr. Finigan was transferred to be Pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church in Philadelphia. Our new Pastor was to be Rev. Joseph A. Shields, JCD. Following his ordination on May 26, 1949, Fr. Shields attended Catholic University, and in 1962 he received a Doctorate in Canon Law. Prior to the St. Basil assignment, he had been in the field of education for 21 years, most recently being the founding Principal of Archbishop Wood High School for Girls and remaining for 13 years.
That first summer Fr. Shields requested and encouraged the lay people of the parish to assist and advise him in matters pertaining to the functioning of the parish as a religious, social and financial entity. The first committee established was the commission on Finance (presently, the Finance Committee). Fr. Shields was ahead of his time since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made it mandatory six years later that parishes have a separate Finance Committee.
On Labor Day 1977, Rev. Robert A. McLaughlin arrived to assist at St. Basil’s. At the time, Fr. McLaughlin had just begun his teaching assignment at Bishop Kenrick High School in Norristown. On September 19, 1977, the new priests got an uninvited house-guest. Early that Sunday morning, a burglar entered the rectory through a basement window and went through the first and second floors opening drawers. He took a key to the convent where he entered and continued his search until one of the sisters was awakened at 3:30 am. She phoned Fr. Shields, who called the police. He then called Fr. McLaughlin to tell him. Fr. Shields always slept with his door locked, a habit he learned from an earlier assignment. Fr. McLaughlin did not. He awoke to see all the drawers open in his room. The newspaper reported the robber made off with a small amount of cash. What it did not print was that the robber also took Fr. McLaughlin’s first paycheck!
Fr. Finigan returned to St. Basil’s on September 11. 1977, for the installation and blessing of a wood-carved statue of St. Basil which was commissioned by our founding Pastor as a memorial to his mother, Florence S. Finigan. The artist was James Moody, a wood carver from Colwyn, PA.
The statue, carved out of a telephone pole with a chainsaw, was paid for through the generosity of the parishioners.
Early 1978 Fr. Shields continued to carry out his endeavor for laity involvement. He formed the first Parish Council (now, Pastoral Council), and, this time, he was ten years ahead of the Archdiocesan mandate. Other commissions formed were: Activities, Communications, Education, Liturgy and Properties. At the request of the Education Commission, Fr. McLaughlin conducted an adult education Lenten program dealing with the Christian faith experience as found in the Sacred Scriptures, the Church and the Liturgy. It was billed as “an informal booster shot of spiritual Geritol for tired Christian blood.
September, 1978 brought the first Fall Festival with its “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” around our oak tree theme. Sr. Philomena Monte, ACJ, Principal, and Sylvia Ambrose were the chairpersons. Rides, Monte Carlo games, food booths and Prizes filled the grounds for three nights and most of Saturday. These popular festivals continued on and off through the years and occasionally included auctions or special drawings for vacation trips. Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia in the fall of 1979. Again we were fortunate to be represented by members of our choir and parishioners who traveled by bus to attend Mass celebrated by the Pope on Logan Circle. In August 1981, Sister Kathleen Doherty, ACJ, became our new school Principal. Sister came to us from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Sister Philomena Monte, ACJ, departed after being here for five years (three years as Principal) to become Superior of St. Raphaela Mary Retreat House in Haverford.
In 1981-1982 the church received a facelift through the hard work of many parishioners under the direction of Fr. McLaughlin. The existing moldings and rosettes on the sanctuary walls were stripped as well as the birch paneling. Some talented parishioners made the wainscoting and built the reredos from procured mahogany and gold molding. They installed new doors under the wall that separated the church from the hall and hung the folding walls. The large window behind the altar was closed in with insulation, paneling and bricks to match the outside walls, the altar walls were papered, the cement block walls were covered with fieldstone façade and the windows were “stained.’ Father Mc Laughlin asked the art teacher at Bishop Kenrick High School if her students would design panels to be applied over the existing windows, thus, our ‘stained glass windows. Window treatments and loft curtains were made by parishioners. The largest part of the renovations which included rare chestnut molding, sanctuary chairs, stained glass doors and the ceiling lamps were procured from the old St Francis Industrial School in Bucks County, which was being torn down by the Archdiocese. As St. John the Evangelist Church in Lower Makefield, Bucks County, was building a new church, they donated their more comfortable pews to us. A baptismal font was obtained from St. Gregory’s. The reredos tapestry was ordered from the Trappist Monks. Because of the many hours of stripping, staining, papering, etc., the renovated church created a warm atmosphere thanks to volunteer carpenters, electricians and anyone who had a desire to help. The structural engineers also had the foresight to wire for the possible addition of air conditioning in the future. Unsolicited donations and funds raised by bingo financed the costs incurred from these renovations.
In June of 1982, Fr. McLaughlin was transferred to be Chaplain at Temple University Newman Center, Philadelphia. Friday night bingo had been a part of parish life since November 1972, but in December 1982, the parish took it one step further. The largest licensed bingo game in Pennsylvania was about to make an appearance on television, and it was going to be broadcast live from St. Basil’s rectory! Cable Radio Network was going to broadcast each weeknight from churches around the area on Channel 8, the weather channel, for customers of Suburban Communications in the Phoenixville, Royersford and Spring City areas. Other broadcasting churches were in Bryn Mawr, Lansdale, Springfield and Ambler. After about a year, Cablevision ended because a few local priests complained that the network’s plan to expand televised games might decrease the amount of money raised by Montgomery County churches.
The church renovations were complete, but one thing was missing. In early 1983, Carolyn Walton, a parishioner, donated her time and skill to the Church Renovation Project. She was commissioned to design and execute in terra cotta new Stations of the Cross to be added to the fieldstone walls. These Stations were first used during Lenten Stations of the Cross that year.
Also in 1983 the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus moved out of the Convent, and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia moved in and took over the staffing of the school. Sister Patricia Wickenheiser, OSF became Principal.