Before the re-blessing of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church’s cornerstone, before the prayers for the parish’s ill and dearly departed, even before the recitation of the church’s remarkable history, the Rev. Thomas Heron paused the celebration of the Conshohocken landmark’s 100th anniversary Mass on Sunday to note an honored presence:
None other than lifelong parishioner William Reilly Jr. — everyone calls him Bud — who celebrated his 102nd birthday Sept. 13.
“I think we ought to give him a rousing round of applause!” said Heron, church pastor, as the people in the pews enthusiastically took up the suggestion.
But in honoring Reilly, the parishioners were also honoring their church family’s own legacy.
Sitting with Reilly during the morning service were his nieces and nephew, among the family’s five generations in the parish. One of the altar servers at the Mass was Grace Colucci, Reilly’s great-niece. A high school freshman, she’s about the same age that Reilly’s maternal grandfather, Simon Gaul, was when he came from Ireland’s County Wexford to settle in the Montgomery County borough in 1853.
Just as the town has weathered many changes over those years, so has St. Matthew, a parish since 1851 whose cathedral marked a century on Sunday.
In the last several years, St. Matthew, which early on was a parish of mostly Irish immigrants, has been the focal point of a merger with three other longtime parishes that had their roots in immigration from other European countries — St. Mary (Polish), St. Gertrude (German), and SS. Cosmas and Damian (Italian). Like many parish mergers, it has had its high points and its pains.
At the same time, new immigrants — mostly Latino — have joined the community and the parish. There are other longtime families who can trace generations in the church. But St. Matthew, like Conshohocken, has also seen an influx of young families attracted by a community with a walkable downtown and a vibrant mix of old and new.
“The parish has a welcoming spirit,” said Heron, who came to St. Matthew in 2011.
Over the years, the parish has shown an ability to weather and even embrace change.
In decades past, St. Matthew had a parish elementary school and high school. Now, instead, it has a popular preschool and a growing Catholic education program. At Thanksgiving, the children learn to say the mealtime blessing in the languages of the parish’s combined roots, as well as its newest members.
One recent year, that included Swahili, said Mary Kay McKenna, St. Matthew’s coordinator of parish life.
Meanwhile, Heron said, he began a Spiritual Year program, a year of faith exploration for seminarians studying at St. Charles Borromeo in Wynnewood. It’s housed in what had become the parish’s vacant convent. And to embrace the evangelical spirit that for some has become part of their expression of faith, Heron said, the parish celebrates the Feast of the Pentecost with the release of doves, a symbol of the Holy Spirit of God.
“It’s a people’s church, and it’s our church,” said Ed Garbacz, 73, a retired teacher whose family had been part of St. Mary’s parish before the merger. The descendant of Polish immigrants, Garbacz said he is part of an effort to get more people active in the church.
Gwen Dean, 39, and Kelly Walls, 40, newer community members, both had praise for St. Matthew’s preschool and for Conshohocken, or, as locals call it, Conshy.
“It’s a great little community,” said Walls. “There are a lot of young families.”
Bud Reilly, meanwhile, had settled in a seat near the front of the church, waiting for the anniversary Mass to begin. Born in 1917, Reilly said his parents “wanted to be married in this church,” but it wasn’t ready. They got married in the original building a few blocks away. They stayed and put down roots.
Reilly served in World War II stateside. While in the Army, he played baseball with Carl Scheib who went on to the Philadelphia Athletics, and Elmer Valo, also an Athletics alumnus, who later joined the Phillies. Reilly went on to work for Conshy’s Alan Wood Steel Co. and remained an active lifelong parishioner at St. Matthew.
Just as his fellow parishioners applauded him with gusto, as led by their pastor, so did they join in prayer for the next 100 years.