Thursday, July 30, 2009

St. Cecilia's Vistation, Redux

Project reader Tom Lochhead got back to us regarding the mysterious name change of Visitation BVM.

He says:

A little
Viso folklore follows:

We were taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. One of them (don't remember which) told us that the parish was originally St. Cecelia's but that it was changed after the following: Seems an elderly widow was dying in Episcopal Hospital and her daughter went to the rectory to arrange for the priest to visit and to administer Extreme Unction (an oldie but a goodie) to her. The priest went to the hospital and did this. As he was preparing to leave, the woman asked how he came to visit her and the priest told her that her daughter had come to the rectory and requested such. The woman replied that this was impossible as her daughter (an only child) was dead. The woman had a old photo plate of her daughter and the priest confirmed that that was the woman. The widow always prayed to the Blessed Virgin and it was proposed that Mary had interceded and made a Visitation to the priest on her behalf. Spooky, eh? Kept us in line for weeks.

I asked my dad (91 years old, Viso '33) about this and he said that he knew the parish name was once St. Cecelia's but wasn't sure about the story. However, he did remember that Viso published a pamphlet on the 100th anniversary of the parish which he could not find. I checked with the Archdiocesan Historical Center and they have it - "Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church: A Century Together in Christ" published in 1974. I'll be in Philly in a few weeks and I'll check it out.

Now, a bit of a confounder regarding the date of the name change.- the Philadelphia GeoHistory Network has a website ( ) that has an interactive map viewer which allows you to look at old maps and atlases on line. Two atlases available are a 1875 one by Hopkins and a 1910 one by Bromley. The 1875 one shows the Viso property as a vacant lot owned by Price Pallon but the 1910 shows the church and school and they are clearly labeled as St. Cecelia's RC Church and school. Would/could a city atlas be wrong? The St. Cecelia's on Rhawn St. was founded in 1911.

My family genealogy research shows our first American born child being baptized at Viso in 1888. Of course, they would have just changed the name on the parish record book when they changed the parish name.

Interesting, no doubt. The Project looks forward to what your PAHRC visit reveals. In the meantime, of course, alternate theories and evidence are encouraged.

Oh, and P.S., that GeoHistory Network is one of the coolest things the Project has seen in a long time. Tom is right, though. The 1910 map does says "St. Cecilia." If the maps were created by the city, then yes, they quite possibly could be wrong. The Project doesn't trust the city to tie its own shoes, let alone make accurate maps.

(We do trust the City Planning Commission, but only so much.)


  1. I graduated from Visitation in 1990 and wrote a short parish history a few years ago for the parish's 120th anniversary and came across the same story, but, according to the 1974 book, "Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church: A Century Together in Christ," the story goes that it was two or three children who were found in the church chapel in the wee hours of the morning by the pastor who asked what they were doing there. They said their father was dying in the Episcopal Hospital and that he needed the Last Rites. When the priest got there, he explained to the dying man how he knew about him and the man explained that he was alone in the world and then sat up in bed, exclaiming that the children had cme to save him (or something to that effect) and fell back on the bed dead.

    After this encounter, the pastor continued construction on the church with such fervor that the lower church was opened up later that year for worship ("B" Street was then known as Leamy Street).

    The true story behind the visitation will probably never be known, but it's safe to say the two stories presented here (the book's and Mr. Lochhead's) are the basic framework for the name change of the church.

  2. It turns out that you may be more right than you think--stayed tuned.