Our Parish History

Among the most meaningful measures of time is 100 years, ten consecutive decades, strung together and held like blessed beads, that at once shout and whisper of triumph and tragedy, of good times and trying ones, of laughter and tears, of hearts and minds united, of constancy and change, of faith, hope and charity.   

At St. Donato, the parish we call our own, with devotion and dedication, 2010 marks its 100th anniversary, 100 years of the events of our lives, and the lives of parishioners long before us and those to come long after us--births, marriages, deaths, festivals, carnivals, feasts, graduations, May processions and other celebrations--linked and tied unfailingly to fixed and focused centers--the celebration of Mass, the Seven Sacraments and other sacred devotions--that sustain our beliefs, enliven our traditions and deepen our heritage, in a church of singular beauty and serenity.

“The centennial celebration of a parish is a very important event.  Both parishioners and former parishioners become enthused and excited as the day of the celebration approaches.  All these people are joyous and proud that they have been baptized, made First Holy Communion, were Confirmed and married at St. Donato, as well as have had their children receive their sacraments here.

“So, they correctly have an emotional attachment and a sense of loyalty to the parish.  With great excitement, they make preparations and look forward to the day, Sept. 12th, when His Eminence Cardinal Justin Rigali will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving, and then all go to enjoy a wonderful banquet,” stated Rev. Ferdinand Buccafurni, St. Donato’s beloved pastor, a position he has held since Oct. 10, 1984. 

Before that Fr. Buccafurni, ninth pastor in the parish’s history and the one with the longest tenure, had been an assistant at St. Donato from 1969 to 1975.  According to recent Vatican statistics, St. Donato is one of the Catholic Church’s more than 360,000 parishes in nearly 2,500 dioceses worldwide.  While each parish and each diocese is different, each is exactly the same in its commitment to Christ and His Church.  Other parishes founded in 1910 in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were Sacred Heart, Clifton Heights; and St. Catherine of Siena, and Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, both in Philadelphia and both of which closed in 1972.        

St. Donato’s 100 years have been years of hope, too, always hope--c’e sempre speranza--bathed in bright, encircling arcs of enduring faith and unending love, epitomized by the life and times of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), known affectionately as Mother Cabrini.

The virtues of faith, hope and charity, are cornerstones that led to the establishment of our parish, that spell the beginnings of every parish, of every noble undertaking inspired by God and led to fulfillment by Him through us.

Birth Of The Parish

The St. Donato story has its roots in the thousands upon thousands of Italian immigrants, who came to the United States in search of better lives.  As their numbers here grew, their need for a parish of their own grew also.

It was Bishop John Neumann (1811-1860), named fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, who in 1854, set in motion measures that addressed the pressing needs of growing numbers of immigrants from many nations.  His actions led to the creation St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi Parish in South Philadelphia 1855, the first national parish for Italians in the U.S.  The building had been a Methodist church that Bishop Neumann purchased.  He was canonized St. John Neumann by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977.  

Ultimately, the steps initiated by Bishop Neumann were furthered by Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan in 1906.  It was he who authorized the creation of St. Donato Parish as a national parish for Italians in 1910.  Upon that decree, Rev. Pietro Michetti, who became a Monsignor years later, the parish’s first pastor, born and educated in Italy; and, who, with the aid of hundreds of fellow Italians, among them many experienced builders, such as stone masons, and skilled artisans, was charged with beginning construction of St. Donato Church, the structure we know today as the lower church and  St. Frances Cabrini Chapel, since she worshipped there.  Immediately before being named pastor of St. Donato, Fr. Michetti had been pastor of Our Lady of Angels. 

Construction of St. Donato’s began on May 24, 1910 on land whose history can be traced to 1877 and that was acquired from the heirs of William Keichline by Archbishop Ryan for the sum of $1, but encumbered with a mortgage of $3,300.  The Lower Church was completed remarkably by the middle of July of that year at a cost of $7,000 and founded officially on July 16, 1910, the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. 

The beautiful upper church, famed for its magnificent stained glass windows, and the awe-inspiring art that adorns the apse (the semi-circular wall behind the main altar) and ceiling, was dedicated by Dennis Cardinal Dougherty on Aug. 7, 1921.

On the day the lower church opened, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, a daily newspaper that was published from March 1836 to January 1941, ran a front page story about the attendant celebration that included processions, fireworks and block parties in what the paper termed “Little Italy.”

But we’ve only scratched the proverbial surface of the St. Donato story.  The roots and history of the parish run much more deeply than that.

The Lower Church

The parish’s religious and familial roots were put down in various regions of Italy--in Calabria, Sicily, Molise, Apulia, the Abruzzo, the Basilicata and elsewhere--among Italian men and women who were devoted to the Italian bishop St. Donato.  Those roots spread like nourishing umbilical cords, like secure and unbroken sustaining vines, across the depth and breadth of the Atlantic Ocean, to find renewed life, renewed fulfillment in the rich, fertile soil of possibilities and dreams realized that existed, and exists still in the U.S.

The need for a parish to call their own was so strong in the early years of the 20th Century that many of the Italian immigrants, who settled in Overbrook, not only attended Mass at other Catholic parishes, including at Our Mother of Sorrows and Our Lady of Angels, both some distance away, and also at Our Lady of the Rosary (now Our Lady of The Blessed Sacrament); but, at times, actually resorted to attending services at the Protestant church that stands directly behind our church to this day.

From the day the lower church opened, Fr. Michetti devoted himself to learning and meeting the needs of the parish’s parishioners, including the effects of World War I, that began in Europe in 1914, and the outbreak of the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that reached its peak in 1918 and affected one out of every three families in the parish.

During the first 10 years of the parish’s existence, for example, he baptized an average of 125 infants a year.  Fr. Michetti remained pastor for 19 years, until July 6, 1929.  He returned eventually to Italy where he became a Chamberlain of St. Peter’s Basillica, and was named a Domestic Prelate of His Holiness, who conferred on him the title Right Reverand Monsignor.  Msgr. Michetti died in Rome on Nov. 23, 1952.

The Upper Church     

In 1921, as mentioned, St. Donato’s Upper Church, that cost $90,000 to build, opened.

Designed with simple beauty within and without, the new church’s interior was in perfect harmony with its uncluttered exterior.

It featured 16 of the finest and most-detailed stained-glass windows in Philadelphia--17 counting the so-called rose window above the choir loft--the same windows we see and at which we marvel today, that glow to life as sunlight streams through them.  Facing the main altar and beginning on the left side, 10 of the windows at floor level depict the five Joyful and five Glorious mysteries of the Rosary.  Subjects of the remaining six windows are Jesus with the children, Purgatory, St. Anthony receiving the Christ Child, the Good Shepherd, Death of a Saint and, on the far right front, St. Michael slaying the dragon.

Growth And Challenges

From the time St. Donato’s Upper Church came into being, and through the years of the 1920s, that ushered in waves of prosperity only to end in the crash of 1929 and the crushing poverty of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the parish echoed the times as it grew and thrived, and learned to survive through hard times. 

The year 1935 brought with it the silver anniversary of the founding of St. Donato’s, an event that went unnoticed largely and unobserved for the most part because of difficult economic times.

Three years later, on Dec. 24, 1938, an electrical fire, that began when a Christmas ornament short-circuited, caused a fire on the second floor of the rectory.  Tragically, it claimed the life of Rev. John J. Brennan; and injured Fr. Guasco, his assistant Rev. Joseph A. Daly and resident Rev. Daniel Toner, all due to smoke inhalation.  Another fire occurred on March 22, 1945, this time in St. Donato School, but the blaze was brought under control and no one was injured.  Flames were confined to the kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms.  

During World War II, many of the parish’s men and women served in the Armed Forces, as had a number of the parish’s men during World War I.  A plaque in the vestibule of the upper church commemorates and honors the service of the 38 who died in the Second World War.  A number of parishioners served during the Korean and Vietnam Wars also.      

Silver Jubilee Of The Upper Church    

In 1946, a year after the Second World War ended, St. Donato celebrated the silver jubilee of the Upper Church with Masses, parades and parties.  Three years earlier, in 1943, when Rev. Msgr. Michael Pasto, D.D., had been pastor for a year, the parish’s sixth pastor (Aug.12, 1942 to Jan. 11, 1967), his first major initiative was to renovate the Upper Church completely.  He became a monsignor in 1951.

In connection, Fr. Pasto hired Antonio D’Ambrosio of New York City to paint and decorate the church.  While D’Ambrosio focused appropriately on the Passion and Death of Jesus, he set this against the background of the entire Old Testament using individual figures to represent each book.    

The clean, delicate, uncomplicated lines that delineate the upper church’s interior space lent themselves to accepting and projecting the artist’s exceptional creations in ways that impress initially and linger long in memory.

Above the church’s great windows, the five Sorrowful Mysteries are painted on the central ceiling and apse.  Here are Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, Scourging at the Pillar, Crowning with Thorns, Jesus bearing His cross and the Crucifixion.  The Sorrowful Mysteries on the ceiling, each circular in form, are four great signs and seals of Christian faith.  Dividing the four scenes and running across the ceiling from one side of the church to the other to nearly the top of the windows are narrow bands decorated with artwork, angels, saints and prophets.

Directly above each window is an arcing field of heavenly blue, studded with golden stars and graced by the face of a cherub. 

As the eye studies the windows and ceiling, it’s drawn ultimately, and actually, perhaps, on first entering the church, to the altar apse and the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, the perpetually tragic yet ironically beautiful painting of the Crucifixion, a work that dominates the front of the church .  All eyes find themselves resting there in contemplation and with thankful praise for Jesus’ world-altering sacrifice.

Between the apse of the main altar and the stunning rose window above the choir loft, the congregation is held in the mysteries of the sacred mass and the sounds of sacred music, with the blessings of both pouring out freely.

The 1950s, 60s And 70s       

It was in the 1950s that St. Donato Parish reached its peak in population with more than 2,300 families, a number that equaled nearly 6,000 people.   

In 1952, St. Donato School was refurbished and expanded through the addition of a second floor to the original structure, and the construction of a two-story annex complete with a gymnasium.  The new school was dedicated by Cardinal John F. O’Hara on Oct. 5, 1952.

Next came the construction of a new three-story rectory, the current one, that was dedicated and occupied on March 15, 1954.  In commemoration of the 1954 “Marian Year,” a statue of Our Lady was placed above the entrance of the rectory.

In advance of the parish’s Golden Jubilee in 1960, Msgr. Pasto organized parishioners for renovations of the Lower and Upper Churches.  The Upper Church’s main altar and two side altars were replaced with splendid marble ones from Pietrasanta, Carrara, Italy, (the same place from which Michelangelo obtained marble, including for his world-famous Pieta sculpture), and marble wainscot (lining of an interior wall irrespective of the material used) was added to the lower portion of the walls throughout the church.

The ceiling was cleaned and all paintings retouched, including the one behind the main altar.  Stations of the Cross were brightened and retouched, all of the walls were painted and a new sound system was installed.

The Lower Church, that had been converted from a chapel into a meeting room during Fr. Guasco’s time as pastor, was made into chapel again in 1946, and named officially St. Frances Cabrini Chapel.  Among its principal features are its Stations of the Cross-- figures etched into black marble.

With the renovations completed, St. Donato’s Golden Jubliee was celebrated on June 19, 1960 with a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McShea and a gala dinner immediately afterwards in the parish hall.

A major innovation of the 1960s was the institution of an Italian Carnival by Msgr. Pasto on June 8, 1966.  While the first one was held on the grounds of the Cabrini Home, as were a number of subsequent ones, the event was moved to the parish’s buildings and grounds eventually.  To this day, the St. Donato Carnival is an ongoing annual event.

During the pastorate of Fr. J. John Busco, who was St. Donato’s seventh pastor from Jan. 11, 1967 to June 3, 1981, and who was named a monsignor in 1973, the main altars of the upper and lower churches were brought into compliance with a principle directive of the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, that stated the priest was to celebrate mass facing the congregation.  In accordance, permanent new altars were installed.

Vatican II (1962-65), was the twenty-first general or ecumenical council in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.  It was convoked by Pope John XXIII, who was Beatified on Sept. 3, 2000, and continued by his successor Pope Paul VI.

Incidentally, the First Vatican Council or Vatican I (1869-70), the twentieth general or ecumenical council in the Church’s history, was convoked by Pope Pius IX.

In 1976, the Bicentennial of the United States, the 41st International Eucharistic Congress was held in Philadelphia.  In connection, St. Donato’s parishioners joined with thousands of faithful from around the U.S. and the world to celebrate various liturgies, as well as attend conferences, concerts and other functions.  Catholics account for one-fourth of the U.S. population and number nearly 1 billion worldwide today.    

On Oct. 3, 1979, His Holiness Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia.  Highlights of that visit were an open-air Mass at Logan Circle, at which more than 1 million people, including a number of parishioners from St. Donato, heard the Pontiff’s message of peace and hope, and a visit to St. Charles Seminary.   

Diamond Jubilee Of The Parish   

As the parish’s 75th, or Diamond Anniversary in 1985, approached, Fr. Buccafurni, who had been named the parish’s ninth pastor by Cardinal Krol on Oct. 10, 1984, headed the first meeting of the Jubilee Committee just one day later on Oct. 11, 1984.  Groundwork for the work of the committee had been laid by the parish’s priests at a meeting on July 13, 1984.

When Fr. Buccafurni became pastor of St. Donato, he assumed administration of Our Lady of Angels, known by nearly everyone as O.L.A., as well.  Fr. George Ettorre, who was the eighth pastor of St. Donato’s from June 3, 1981 to Oct. 10, 1984 had been pastor at Our Lady of Angels immediately before assuming that position at St. Donato.

Just before that, because of declining enrollment at Our Lady of Angels, Fr. Ettorre was directed by the Archdiocese to close the rectory at O.L.A., and to transfer all of that parish’s records to St. Donato.  As St. Donato’s pastor, Fr. Ettorre was charged with administering O.L.A. also.

On Oct. 10, 1984, Fr. Ettorre went on sick leave and the parish remained without a resident pastor for the next seven months until Fr. Buccafurni was named to succeed Fr. Ettore.            

Among the first steps taken by Fr. Buccafurni, who was concerned with the parish’s financial future, were the revision of the school tuition schedule and an increase in the offertory program.

The two-year Jubilee celebration opened on Oct. 13, 1984 and ended on Oct. 5, 1986 with a Mass of Thanksgiving and Renewal, followed by the Jubilee Banquet at the Brandywine Club in Chadds Ford.

Since the parish’s inception, St. Donato Church could exult that approximately 13,886 people became followers of Jesus Christ through the Sacrament of Baptism, since the baptism of Charles John Augustine, the first baby baptized at the parish, on July 17, 1910.

Also, over the last 100 years, approximately 5,077 couples have exchanged wedding vows since Angelo Pucino and Lucia Rufo became the first couple to marry in the church on Aug. 25, 1910.

Over the next 25, 50, 75 and 100 years many more babies will be baptized and many more couples will be married at St. Donato.  And since the 75th anniversary, while the number of parishioners has dwindled, as attrition, in the forms of old age, and the general, myriad and ever-changing circumstances of life have meant that people have retired, died and moved out of the neighborhood, remaining parishioners have continued steadfast in their commitment to St. Donato.  Some of those who’ve moved away have decided to remain on the roles at St. Donato, not as a matter of convenience, since distance can be an understandable inconvenience, but out of loyalty and love.       

Over the last 25 years, the parish community has enjoyed numerous sacred events and secular activities, that include First Communions, Confirmations, and visits by bishops and Cardinals Bevilaqua and Rigali.

Among the most memorable events of the last 25 years was a dinner at the Springfield Country Club in May 2005 to honor Fr. Buccafurni’s 75th birthday and Sister Christine Marie’s retirement as principal of St. Donato School after 18 years in that position.

On the occasion of Fr. Buccafurni’s 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood there was a Mass of Thanksgiving on May 15, 2008, followed by a reception in the school hall.  

On the ongoing social side, the parish’s Italian Festival has always been a major celebration, and there have been long-standing annual dinners and events, such as the Spaghetti Dinner and fun-filled Night at the Races.        

The spirit of the parish remains strong, guided by God the Father’s mighty hand, Jesus’ undying love for His Church on earth, and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.  Our parish societies and organizations continue their particular work, reaping its social and spiritual benefits while strengthening the parish in any way they can.  And St. Donato School remains open and active, and as committed as ever to the idea and ideals of Catholic education.

In preparation for St. Donato’s 100th anniversary, the St. Donato Centennial Jubilee Committee was formed to plan and proceed with putting together the celebration.  The committee met for the first time in October 2009, meeting after that at least once a month, sometimes more, to prepare for the September 12 celebration.

While none of us knows, of course, either what the next 100 years may hold for our parish, or the next year, for that matter, we rely completely on God and trust absolutely in His divine plan to provide for us and the needs of the parish--as He always has and always will.

Click here for a history of St. Donato's Parish Priests

Click here for a history of St. Donato's School

Click here for a history of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini