ABOUT THE PARISH
Two very different worlds existed in the Gladwyne community in 1927. One was the quiet village clustered around the intersection of Righters Mill and Youngsford Roads. The other was a world of large farms and beautiful estates.
The Catholic population in Gladwyne was small in 1927. There was a handful of Catholic families living in the village and on the farms. It was a hardship to be a practicing Catholic in Gladwyne in 1927. The closest church was about 3 miles away, and horse and wagon transportation over the hills was difficult.
So, in 1926, a man named John A. Doran wrote to His Eminence Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, requesting that a parish be established in Gladwyne. Mr. Doran's letter pointed out that being a Catholic in Gladwyne was very difficult - and often, Catholics fell away from the Faith. His final point to drive home the need was, "If we were dying, where would we turn for a priest?"
The Founding of A New Parish in Gladwyne
A short time later, Father Augustine J. Schulte II (pictured left) arrived. Father Augustine Schulte had attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, had been ordained in 1916, and had earned a good reputation by tireless work in hospitals during the 1918 flu epidemic. He came to Gladwyne to investigate on behalf of the Archdiocese. Finally, on April 4, 1927, it was decided to locate a parish in Gladwyne.
Father Schulte, who had originally come to investigate the letter, became the first pastor of the new parish name St. John Baptist Vianney. His first job was to find a suitable location for the church. He purchased the Thomas H. Barker home at the corner of Conshohocken State Road and Youngsford Road, then called Ardmore Road. It was to serve as a combination church and rectory. This house, which is still in use today and is called the "parish house," is the famous birthplace of Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold in 1886. Gen. Hap Arnold, taught by the Wright Brothers themselves, was the first general and father of the US Air Force.
Father Schulte moved into the dwelling in the spring of 1927 and immediately began to alter the first floor to accommodate his congregation. He took two downstairs rooms, the parlor and the sitting room, and made them into one. He placed a wooden altar at one end of the room and a small foot-pumped organ at the other. Folder chairs and wooden kneelers completed the new “church.” Mass was said here for the first time on July 24, 1927.
Less than two years earlier, in 19th century France, Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney had been famous for his holiness and his ability to read penitents’ hearts in the confessional; many thousands of people came from all over France to confess to Father Vianney. Father Vianney was canonized in 1925 and is the patron saint of parish priests. Saint John Vianney parish, established just two years later in 1927, was one of the first parishes in the world named after the French priest.
A New Church is Built
Until 1940 the house on the corner served as church and rectory. Money to support the church was scarce in those Depression years. To keep expenses down, Father Schulte raised vegetables out back, kept chickens and goats, and hunted for meat. The closet under the staircase served as confessional and sacristy.
In 1939, with the backing of $25,000 pledged by local families, Father Schulte obtained the Archdiocese's permission to build a church on adjacent property. He took a personal interest in the details; for example, he stationed himself at the nearby quarry to make sure the stones had the right shade. Rather than being elaborate and imposing, the church was designed to be simple, in the style of an English country church.
At the time of the church's construction, the Percival Roberts, Jr., estate, “Pennhurst,” in Penn Valley was being dismantled. The Roberts family reportedly had selected and imported much of the fine wood interior of the mansion from a 300-year-old European castle. The fine woodwork is paneled oak of the French Renaissance style of the period of Francis I. Father Schulte admired the ancient wood and, because he was a friend of Mr. Roberts, he was able to obtain some of the fine ancient wood to incorporate in his church. Three elements from the estate are used in the church: the massive front oak doors with the ornate medieval hinges, the interior oak paneling in the sanctuary, and the choir loft railing are all part of these treasures.
An article from the Catholic Standard and Times at the time of the church's dedication read: “…. the completion of the present edifice fulfills a desire always uppermost in Father Schulte’s mind and bring to the Main Line of the best example of ecclesiastical art….” The article also notes that the famous liturgical artist, Anton Albers, executed the painting of the Crucifixion behind the altar and the Stations of the Cross.
The appeal of the little country church was immediately recognized. The unusual beauty and warmth that the interior exudes still brings worshipers here regularly from outside the parish boundaries.
On Sunday, December 1, 1940, the church was blessed and dedicated by the Most Rev. Hugh L. Lamb, Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia.
A Parish School is Built
In the 1940s and 50s, Gladwyne changed drastically. Many large estates were broken up, and many new homes were built. The construction of the Schuylkill Expressway made access to the city very easy. As the population of Gladwyne grew, so did the congregation of St. John’s.
Father Schulte died at the age of 72 on April 25, 1961. In the 34 years that he served the parish, he displayed much courage, dedication, and perseverance. He took a dream and developed it into a growing, vital congregation. He lies buried on the front lawn of the church.
In May 1961, Father Ignatius C. Reynolds was appointed pastor of St. John’s by Archbishop John J. Krol. The appointment provided a real challenged for Father Reynolds, for in the letter were instructions to build a school and convent for the parish. Another era of growth was about to begin. The parish would be complete with the new facilities.
Soon after his arrival in the parish, Father Reynolds began his task. He purchased 7 ½ acres of ground about one block from the church, southeast on Conshohocken State Road at the corner of Vaughan Lane. Then, on January 13, 1963, less than two years after his appointment to Gladwyne, he broke ground for a school and convent.
Both the school and convent were designed by Dagit Associates. The school, built by McKenzie and Nimmer, is a one-story brick structure with a low-pitched roof to conform with the surrounding contours of the site. The building contains six classrooms, a library, a kitchen, and an auditorium, which also serves as a chapel and houses learning centers.
The brick convent is colonial in design and conforms to the prevailing architecture of the neighborhood. It accommodated eight nuns and had a chapel, community room, parlors, and kitchen. Pancoast and Company was the builder.
Next, Father Reynolds was faced with the task of finding an order of nuns to staff the school. It was natural to appeal to the Bernardine Sister, Order of Saint Francis, since their Generalate, “Maryview,” was located within the parish confines on Spring Mill Road. The Bernadine Sisters agreed to staff the school in August 1963; four nuns moved into a completed convent to prepare for the opening of school and the arrival of 80 students in September.
The dedication of the school and convent was an important day in the life of the parish. His Eminence John Cardinal Krol dedicated the buildings on May 4, 1963.
In the early 1980s, the school was closed, and the property was sold to a Jewish congregation. The original convent, which housed the Bernardine Sisters, was transformed into the Rectory and Parish Offices at 1110 Vaughan Lane, Gladwyne.
A Famous Wedding
On Saturday, February 3, 1979, Joseph P. Kennedy III, eldest son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was married at Saint John Vianney to Sheila Brewster Rauch.
Sheila was the daughter of R. Stewart Rauch Jr., chairman of the Philadelphia Saving Funds Society, the nation's largest savings bank at the time.
The Rauch family had been secretive about arrangements, refusing even to say who designed the wedding gown or what hymns would be sung or scriptures read at the ceremony. According to the pastor at that time, Fr. Ignatius C. Reynolds, there was to be no Mass but congregational singing and readings. From 150 to 200 guests were expected.
Apart from Joe's mother Ethel, his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy; his cousin Caroline, and aunts Eunice Shriver, Pat Lawford, and Jean Smith were present, but grandmother Rose and President Kennedy's son John sent regrets. Jackie Kennedy Onassis also attended.
A Bright Future
Today, Saint John Vianney continues to be a thriving Catholic community in Gladwyne. Over 3,000 registered members call this parish "home." Likewise, about 125 children continue to receive their religious education here each year. The parish sponsors many liturgical, spiritual, educational, and service-oriented programs.
Many parishioners have given generously in many different ways to make the parish grow. Most go unmentioned in such a history, but they are not forgotten. Likewise, a thriving parish stands as a testimonial to the pastors and priests who guided them. We look to a bright future and ask for God’s blessing, through the intercession of St. John Vianney, to guide us!