A Bush Grows in Philadelphia
When I grew up in Philly during the 1940s and 1950s, my family was not particularly religious. My dad was a nonpracticing Catholic, and my mom was a nonpracticing Protestant. My grandfather was essentially an atheist.
Although my mom did not attend church, she ensured her children did. My brother and I spent many Sundays at Sunday school, where I got pretty good at listening to and understanding various Bible stories. I still have a small Bible my Sunday school teacher gave me in 1953.
My dad, despite not attending church at that time, abided by the Catholic edict of not eating meat on Fridays. Our Friday meals were mainly macaroni and cheese with canned tuna. So, Dad still believed in Catholicism; he just did not partake of the in-person part.
Thus, I was unsurprised when he suggested that he take my brother and me to see a shrine—actually, a bush—in Fairmount Park. In 1953, several schoolgirls from St. Gregory’s Roman Catholic parochial school, located near 52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue, claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary in this bush. Tens of thousands of enthusiastic Catholics flooded the park in hopes of seeing the mother of Jesus.
My dad took us there at least three times. I never saw the Virgin Mary, but I did see hundreds of items affixed to the bush where she is said to have appeared. There were crutches from people allegedly cured by visiting the sacred bush, money, prayer cards, and all sorts of other religious symbols. At the time, I wondered why people didn’t just take the money. I suppose that they did at some point.
It was rumored that on October 25, 1953, the Virgin Mary would reappear at the bush. Over 50,000 people showed up to witness the reappearance, despite the fact that the Catholic Church had dismissed the apparition as a mass hallucination. I’m not sure whether they’re still there, but decades after the first vision, a large wooden cross and a statue of Mary remained at the site.
It’s easy for us modern people, so used to social media’s falsehoods, to scoff at how people reacted back in 1953, but remember this: Those adults had just experienced 18 of the worst years in American history. The Great Depression, followed by World War 2, and then the Cold War—when we thought the Russians would send atomic bombs to annihilate us—took their toll. Those Americans also lived through the Spanish flu pandemic when they were kids or young adults. People back then were seeking something positive in their lives. The Virgin Mary’s appearance gave them hope.
I was only nine years old at that time, and I believed every word about the visitation of Mary, Mother of God. I didn’t turn Catholic like my dad and instead continued to win candy for remembering passages from the Bible at my little church at B Street and Allegheny Avenue. That said, the Catholic Church was not done with me.
By 1956, my best friends were all Catholics. They often took me to St. Hugh of Cluny Church, located at Howard Street and Tioga Street. It was always a cathartic moment listening to the priest speak in a language I didn’t understand and seeing the pomp and glory of the statues and proceedings. It was exciting to me. So, one day, I told my mom I wanted to convert to Catholicism. She was okay with that, and I started catechism classes at St. Hugh. I would come home and tell her about what I had learned, and one day, she said she wanted to convert as well. Then, my mom and I took classes together, and we even were confirmed together. Once, my mom asked the priest why the Old Testament was full of things the New Testament said not to do. He replied that Catholics didn’t pay much attention to the Old Testament. I thought that was funny, and I still do.
My effect on the Catholic Church didn’t stop with my mom. My dad also decided he would return to the church, and until he passed away in 1986, he never missed Mass. Both my mom and my dad were buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Ben Salem, PA.
As for me, like all good Catholic boys from Kensington, by the time I was in my mid-teens, I went to confession and was absolved from all my impure thoughts, and I played hooky from Sunday Mass. Instead, I ate French fries at the Olympia restaurant at Howard Street and Allegheny Avenue. I was proud to have my dog tags say my religion was Catholic when I joined the Air Force in 1962 at the age of 18.
I cannot say that I have kept up with my Catholic religion, but I can say that much of what I learned from the priest who taught me catechism has hopefully made me a better person. So while although today I do not believe in heavenly visitations, I do think people need hope, structure, and tradition. If that comes from a bush growing in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park, so be it.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.