We all know that our history shapes our present and our future and the history of St. Helena Parish has been a rich foundation indeed. We take great pride in looking back, sharing and savoring our unfolding story, a tribute to the faith, trust, love and sacrifice of those who have gone before us.
Our story began with the vision of Dennis Cardinal Dougherty who on October 3, 1919, informed a young priest, Father Francis Higgins, that he was to become the pastor and founding father of a new parish in Montgomery County, the first parish formed east of Norristown, west of Ambler and north of Chestnut Hill. The parish would be known as St. Helena, Centre Square. Father Higgins was fascinated with the rich history of the area and learned of a farmhouse where Washington’s Continental forces sought respite from the British. This farmhouse was owned by Mrs. James McClosky, the mother of a friend of his, who offered it to him as a temporary residence. Father celebrated his first parish Mass there, and many subsequent Masses as well, for some twenty-five to thirty Catholic families over a fifty square mile area. While Father was searching for a place to set up a temporary Church and a more suitable residence, he met up with one of his parishioners, Ellen Duddy, who owned a very large farmhouse nearby.
Father Higgins asked Miss Duddy for permission to say Mass there and she was so delighted she not only said yes, but also gave Father two acres of her land for the building of his Church. In 1922, Ellen Duddy died, leaving the remaining acreage, farmhouse and livestock to Father Higgins, who had captured the imagination of his parishioners with his deep devotion, hard work and dedication to his mission.
Using the Duddy farmhouse as the rectory, Father Higgins built our first Church – a small rustic chapel with leaded glass windows and a marble altar. Father had such a deep devotion to St. Theresa, the Little Flower, that he planted roses on the sprawling grounds in her memory and initiated Sunday afternoon novena devotions in her honor. Word spread throughout the area about Father Higgins, the eloquent pastor with the down-to-earth sermons, the weekly novena devotions and the beautiful rural setting at St. Helena in Centre Square. Pilgrims came by the hundreds in car, train and trolley to that first little Church which became known as the Shrine of the Little Flower. It is in keeping with this lovely tradition that Father Nicolo decided to name the new chapel the St. Theresa Chapel and to re-instate weekly novena devotions in her honor. The new St. Theresa Chapel displays proudly the original statue from the earlier Shrine and is adorned with a magnificent ceiling mural of Jesus, Mary and our beloved Theresa. What a lovely continuation of our long and very devout history with the Little Flower!
In 1946, Father Higgins became very ill and needed help taking care of his parish. Father Thomas P. Kelly was sent as Administrator to serve the needs of the two hundred and seventeen parish families. In April 1948, Father Higgins died after twenty-nine years of service to God and the people of St. Helena and Father Thomas P. Kelly was named Pastor. In this new role, he recognized and moved forward with his mission of providing a Catholic education for the children entrusted to his care. He set out to accomplish this goal by selling some of the parish land to fund the building of a new school and he elicited the help of the Sisters of Mercy to teach and catechize our young. St. Helena School opened in the convent, a farmhouse, in 1949. A beautiful new school was completed in 1950, followed by our second Church in 1952. Even in 1952, as this new structure was being built, the parishioners realized that what was designed to be used as their Church was in fact only temporary. Eventually, the space would be integrated into the floor plan of the school itself as is evidenced by the strategic centralized location.
This was a time of tremendous growth both in the parish and in the area and eventually St. Helena became the seed from which five new parishes were germinated. What a long way we have come from the dreams of Father Higgins and his beloved shrine on our rural rolling farmland! Through the years our vision continued to grow and take shape under the dedicated leadership and pastoral care of Fathers James J. Kearney, John T. Coates and Joseph A. Vadino. Father Coates, our beloved Pastor Emeritus, led our parish with his own unique style of warmth and grace for more than twenty years as we grew and transitioned from a small rural parish to the burgeoning suburban parish we see today. We are still blessed with his presence at important parish celebrations!
In January 2002, our present Pastor, Father Joseph J. Nicolo, shared with us his vision for our emerging needs – to build a beautiful Church and to expand our parish facilities in two phases. The first of three buildings in Phase I, the Social and Recreation Center, was dedicated in February of 2004. Our magnificent new Church was dedicated by Justin Cardinal Rigali on October 31, 2004. The Daily Mass Chapel, which has been dedicated to St. Theresa of the Little Flower, was blessed by Father Nicolo on November 22, 2004. Even after the dedication of the Church and the blessing of the St. Theresa Chapel, work continued with the addition of the stained glass windows, frescos and other beautiful enhancements. A new parking lot adjacent to the Church was completed in the Fall of 2005 and our beloved statues of St. Theresa and St. Joseph found a wonderful new home outdoors adding a welcoming and inspirational touch to our overall look.
By the grace of God and the generosity of our people, we were able to move forward into Phase II of the Building Campaign with the integration of our old Church into the Education Center in January, 2006. By August, 2006, the vision became a reality and the old Church was converted into two fifth grade classrooms and for interim use a PREP office, parish room for Adult Religious Education, Library, and Science/Art Lab were constructed. An elevator was installed in the connection between the former Church, now known as the “new wing of the school” and the Social and Recreation Center, making the entire campus handicap accessible. This conversion brought to fruition the plans for our “temporary” Church envisioned back in 1952 and will certainly enhance our vision and our purpose not only for today, but for our many tomorrows.
In September of 2006, another dream was realized when we extended our educational mission to include a Pre-K Program for three and four year olds. The two fifth grade classrooms in the convent were converted into beautiful pre-school classrooms complete with two new mini-sized bathrooms, faculty room and adult bathroom. The preparations included the creation of a wonderful outdoor space complete with a state-of-the-art playground and new driveway. Further school improvements included painting, carpeting, installing new windows in the modular classrooms and renovating the computer room. A beautiful new rectory roof designed to match the Church and Chapel added a wonderfully coordinated dimension to the magnificent campus look. The Stations of the Cross and the Bavarian Wayside Shrine were added along the internal roadways of the parish grounds. In 2007 the Empress Room in the Parish Hall was built in the church basement, the Sacred Heart and Blessed Mother Statues were added on the parish grounds and lovely improvements were made to the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto.
In 2008, the long awaited vision became a wonderful reality with the completion of Phase II of our Capital Building Campaign. The old Church entrance was expanded into a beautiful and functional space complete with a Reception Area, Library, Technology Center, Art Room, Principal’s Office, PREP Office, Faculty Room, Parish Room and Secretary’s Office, nested under a majestic new roofline which continues our beautiful campus silhouette.
The completion of Phase II includes the expansion of the old Church entrance into functional space and offices with a new roof to match the Church, creating an incredible place to further God’s Kingdom right here at St. Helena and to continue the wonderful legacy of those who have gone before us. How blessed we are to have journeyed here at St. Helena, Centre Square, and to have had this rich mantle handed down to us! It is with a deep sense of awe that each of us will imprint it with our own story and unfurl it proudly for all those generations yet to come.