The Roman Catholic Church in Our Area
In 1840 Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia established St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in the village of Phoenixville as the third parish in this area. The oldest parish, St. Agnes Church in West Chester had been founded in 1793, and the second parish, St. Patrick's Church in Norristown was established in 1835.
Around the turn of the century, heavy immigration from central Europe combined with the availability of work, led many migrant people to the industries in Phoenixville. Five additional Roman Catholic Churches would be established to meet the spiritual needs of these newly arrived people. Two of these Catholic Churches would be of the Eastern Rite: St. Michael's Ruthenian Catholic Church established in 1897 in neighboring Mont Clare, and Ss. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church established in 1929 in Phoenixville. Three would be of the Western Rite: Holy Trinity Church for people of Polish descent in 1900, and Sacred Heart Church in 1903 to meet the needs of people from Slovakia and St. Ann Church in 1905.
Saint Ann Parish
In 1905 Archbishop Patrick Ryan established the fourth Western Rite Roman Catholic Parish in Phoenixville. This new parish was named in honor of St. Ann, the grandmother of our Savior Jesus Christ, the mother of the Mother of God, and the spouse of St. Joachim. But why St. Ann? And why Phoenixville? Why 1905?
Thomas F. Byrne
Thomas F. Byrne was born on October 21, 1853 in the village of Carrigans in County Tyrone, Ireland. Nine days later his mother, Ann Lynch Bryne, died. Having migrated from Ireland to the United States, and with the consent of his father, the eighteen year old Thomas F. Bryne entered into a three year indenture as an apprentice with the Phoenix Iron Company in order to be instructed "in the art, trade or mystery of a machinist." On March 1, 1875, the twenty-one year old Thomas F. Byrne became a licensed machinist.
Thomas F. Byrne combined his skills as a machinist with his creativity to develop and patent a number of inventions, and he made a fortune in the manufacture of seamless underwear. The Byrne Knitting Mill, once one of the largest such mills in the country, still stands at the intersection of Lincoln and Morgan Streets.
A Mother's Love Returned to God
Thomas had visited his mother's grave and replaced the modest tombstone with a more handsome memorial, but while he was in Ireland his heart was moved to erect an even more fitting memorial to the woman who had given her life so that he might have life. The thought came to him to build a Church which would both honor her memory and provide the Catholics in his own town with a needed additional parish.
Through Father John Wagner, the pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Phoenixville, Mr. Byrne requested permission from the Archbishop of Philadelphia to fulfill his desire. In 1905 Archbishop Patrick John Ryan announced the establishment of St. Ann Parish in Phoenixville and he appointed Father John Wagner as the founding pastor of the new parish. Archbishop Ryan also approved two rather unusual features for the new parish: (1) the new church would be a Memorial Church erected in memory of Ann Byrne, and (2) the new church would have a vault in which the donor and his family would have "the privilege of sepulchre."
Father Wagner personally paid $6,500 for the lot at the corner of Third and Main Streets and donated the property to the parish. Work on the new church began in March 1905, and auxiliary Bishop Edmund F. Prendergast blessed the cornerstone of the building on July 2 of that same year. Thomas F. Byrne provided the $60,000 needed to construct and furnish the new church. The rectory was built on the portion of the lot south of the Church at a cost of about $12,000, paid for by the congregation to supplement the donation of the property by Father Wagner.
On Sunday, September 15, 1907, Archbishop Ryan dedicated the new Church, and following ceremony of consecration, the first Mass was celebrated in St. Ann Church. The words "St. Ann's Memorial" are carved in the stone archway over the main entrance to our church, and the words on the plaque in the vestibule of church read: "This Church erected in Memory of my Mother Ann Byrne. Th. F. Byrne. 1907."
After being called home to God on July 4, 1929, the earthly remains of Thomas F. Bryne were laid to rest in the crypt of St. Ann Memorial Church. Mary E. Bryne, the wife of Thomas F. Byrne, and six other members of the Bryne family were later interred in St. Ann Church. The only non-family member who rests in the vault is Father John Wagner.
Sermons in Stone
The Stewardship Way of Life calls each of us to become aware of what God has done and is doing for us, particularly through the people he places in our life. Flowing out of this awareness is the natural question: "How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good He has done for me?" (Psalm 116: 12). The story of St. Ann's Parish is a story of people making a return to the Lord for nearly 100 years. The story is a good one. The story involves tens of thousands of people, living and deceased. The story began with a movement in the heart of Thomas Byrne and became incarnate in stone. The story continues to move in the hearts of the people of St. Ann Parish, and becomes incarnate in our lives, for we are, indeed, "living stones (letting ourselves be) built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5).