Faith in the City: St. Peter's in Wilmington Celebrates 200 Years

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter—mother church of the Wilmington Diocese—has kept faith and hope alive through the ups and downs of an aging neighborhood.

Trees shade the narrow streets near Sixth and West in West Center City Wilmington. Across from a grand church, giant flower pots dot the sidewalk. A few blocks away, some long-neglected buildings are undergoing renovation as part of the city’s new Creative District. Elsewhere, empty lots and a makeshift memorial to a victim of street violence hint at a different side of life here.

As late as the 1960s, this was a neighborhood of families, many of which attended the Cathedral of St. Peter. Today, at 200 years old, the church boasts a membership of about 150 households. Most are older suburbanites who have ties to this historic area known as Quaker Hill. They attend out of “deep loyalty,” according to the church administrator, Father Leonard Klein, who alternates celebrating Mass at St. Peter’s and St. Patrick’s, another city church, near Rodney Square.

“Demographics are tough for old downtown churches,” Klein says. “Since World War II, ethnic Catholics have been moving to the suburbs.” Families with children are not drawn to city living, where parking is difficult and yards are tiny cement slabs. And it’s hard to ignore prostitution and drugs that, along with poverty, seem to be pervasive facts of urban life. 

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Even the church is affected. On occasion, the custodian, preparing for early morning services, has had to call police in the aftermath of overnight drug deals in front of the church. No one attending services has been a victim of crime, and though St. Peter’s can’t prevent such activities, it tries to alleviate some of poverty’s ill effects.

In the first eight months of last year, St. Peter’s Seton Outreach Center met over a thousand requests for aid, ranging from help with rent and utilities to emergency medical needs and food pantry referrals. And volunteers from the church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society offered additional assistance to homebound individuals and others in need.

St. Peter’s also helps neighborhood morale by stewardship of its properties, which include the church, rectory, convent and school. “Maintaining the block is a critical service,” Klein says. It’s “a sign of stability in a depressed area. Abandoned buildings don’t do much for a community.” 

Speaking of his parishioners, Klein has nothing but praise. “There is a tight bond among the people. They know each other, they know when someone is sick, and they keep an eye out for each other.” On a typical Sunday, there are men in suits and ties and ladies with hats, but also a number of attendees in jeans and flip flops—even a sari. Some come with youngsters in tow, though there are no children’s programs. “You always see an interesting variety of folks on a Sunday morning,” Klein says. He’s convinced most would be there, “come hell or high water.”

Sean Reilly has lived across the street from the church for 33 years. He attends the weekday noontime service when his dual career as a personnel recruiter and singer permits. He owns one of the church’s old pews.

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“When I moved here, I was the youngest, and I still am,” he jokes. Reilly’s connection with St. Peter’s goes back several generations. His great-grandparents were married in the church on Valentine’s Day 1884.  “Every time I receive communion at St. Peter’s,” he says, “I think to myself, ‘I couldn’t if they hadn’t.’”

But he’s quick to acknowledge the significance of the cathedral. “Every priest ordained in the diocese is ordained here,” he says. “It was the first Catholic church in the city. It’s the mother church and the seat of the bishop. And think of the thousands of people that have been educated through the church school.”   

Located in what was a well-established neighborhood of prosperous Quakers, St. Peter’s initially served a dramatically different demographic. Refugees fleeing the French colony that became Haiti and Irish workers from the DuPont powder mills were its first congregants. They worshipped in a 30-by-40-foot brick, tin-roofed structure begun in 1816 under Father Patrick Kenney, an itinerant priest who traveled from his Coffee Run chapel near Hockessin to Wilmington for twice-monthly services.

In 1829, the growing congregation welcomed its first resident pastor. An orphanage was added to care for children whose parents had been killed in explosions at the powder mills. A school was added later. Both were staffed by the Daughters of Charity, who came from Emmitsburg, Md. In 1868, with the creation of the Diocese of Wilmington, St. Peter’s was elevated to mother church for the Delmarva Peninsula. Today the diocese encompasses Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an area of more than 5,000 square miles, 57 parishes and nearly 250,000 Roman Catholic faithful.

Every priest in the Wilmington Diocese is ordained at the Cathedral of St. Peter. The cathedral also serves as
the seat of the bishop.

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Many alterations to the church have enlarged the building and added elaborate features such as a dome, vaulted ceilings, frescos, stained-glass windows, and a marble altar and fonts. In 1991, the 20-ton building was raised to insert a steel beam, and buttresses were added to support the walls. Yet the exterior has remained simple, a boxy red brick building without ornamentation. Rising a few steps above the sidewalk, it could be mistaken for a small village church. And like a village church, it calls the faithful to Sunday Mass the old-fashioned way: a bell rung by hand.

“One thing that surprises people is that it is a rather unprepossessing building from the outside,” Klein says. “But then you walk in and see these marvelous vaults. And the acoustics are superb.” Masses are simple, but mostly sung. “The solemnity and appropriateness to the space is enhanced that way,” he says.

Bayard Marin keeps an office across the street. It faces the original 1816 section of the church. “It’s a magnificent piece of architecture,” he says.

Marin is founder of the Quaker Hill Historic Preservation Foundation, which has been promoting the area’s historic roots since 1992. “Inside is a sanctuary that is absolutely gorgeous. Religious or not, everyone should see it. It lifts your spirits.”

Given the awe-inspiring setting, St. Peter’s music director Michael Davidson says he tries to make the music match.

“I want to make it sound cathedralesque,” he says. He recalls the challenge he faced when he took the job more than three decades ago. He had to stuff the leaking bellows with a discarded curtain from a confessional to get the organ working. Since then, he has almost singlehandedly rebuilt the instrument, repairing, repositioning and replacing pipes and adding a few more sections. It’s now an 1,800-pipe concert organ with a “brighter sound” that fills the sanctuary and accompanies the 16-member choir, some of whom have been singing at St. Peter’s for 50 years. And when the service is over, Davidson says, “I like to give a joyous postlude, even if it’s just people getting into their cars that can hear it through an open window.”

On weekdays, the church is much quieter, but activity picks up next door at the school. The Cathedral of St. Peter Catholic School is the oldest continuously operating elementary Catholic school in Wilmington. Since its beginning under the auspices of the church in 1830, it has been staffed by the Daughters of Charity. Its best advertisement is the recommendations of parents, says Sister Donna Smith, one of three nuns in the school and its principal.

Students come from the immediate neighborhood and from as far as New Jersey and Maryland. The school serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and with only 155 children, classes are small. Eighty percent of the students live below the poverty level. Ninety-five percent are African-American, and an equal percentage are non-Catholic. St. Peter’s students consistently test above average on state exams, Sister Donna says proudly. And the students love the school. “They’re crying at the end of the school year. They don’t want to leave,” she says. 

In the wake of the diocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, Catholic schools like St. Peter’s, without a robust congregation, have struggled. Many have been closed. Grants and foundation support, along with fundraisers, make up the difference between tuition and expenses. And a few organizations offer enrichment programs, like live theater or ballroom dance classes, for free or reduced cost. This year the school’s first 5K walk/run earned $14,000, an event that will be repeated next year, says Sister Donna. 

Diocesan support for the cathedral comes from a special annual appeal. “It would be very hard to make ends meet otherwise,” Klein says. “But people are generous—and generous with their time.”

“We’re still in business,” Reilly points out, “as opposed to other churches.” In April, when the cathedral launched its 200th anniversary with a reunion Mass celebrated by Bishop Francis Malooly, “the church was filled,” Reilly says, an indication of the importance of St. Peter’s to so many. “The last time (it was filled) was the Sunday after 9-11.” In October, a celebratory dinner is planned in the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel du Pont. “It’s a big deal,” he says. “The cathedral deserves it.”   

Another Big Anniversary: First Unitarian Church of Wilmington celebrates 150 years. 

by Margaret McNamara 

From traditional Christians to atheists, members of the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington come from a wide spread of backgrounds and beliefs, as they have for a very long time. This year the congregation celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Founded in 1866, social concerns are deeply embedded in the church’s history. One of Wilmington’s first interracial Memorial Day celebrations was led by the church’s pastor. 

Members don’t hew to any one belief or doctrine. The church operates on the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism that promote acceptance, spiritual growth, social justice and peace, says J. Harry Feldman, communications director for the congregation.

Says First Unitarian member Jeff Lott, “What attracted me and keeps me here was the opportunity to be part of a community of people who had the same social concerns that I do—and they actually want to get out there and do something.” 

Current projects include serving at the Emmanuel Dining Room in Wilmington, providing aid to foster children and participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. The group has also been working with Standing Up for Racial Justice. 

In all its activities, there’s a sense of pride, ownership and belonging that keeps the church looking outward to the community and toward the future, says developmental minister Roberta Finkelstein. “That’s what keeps us relevant.” 

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