St. Francis of Assisi Parish St. Francis of Assisi Parish

History of St. Francis of Assisi Parish

Part 4: Parish Growth and Priestly Vocations (1900-1930s)*

Years of Growth and Vocations

Father Joseph Frioli and his all-male choir

Father Frioli and his all-male choir

The pastor after Father McVerry was the Reverend Joseph Frioli. He had been Vicar General of the Richmond Diocese, and on May 29, 1892, had dedicated Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Buena Vista. When he became pastor in Staunton he had Lexington and Buena Vista reassigned as Staunton missions. Also, while he was pastor, Pius X issued a papal encyclical on the importance of sacred music in the Catholic Church. Extremely enthusiastic, Father Frioli asked the ladies of the choir to step down and let the men take over. For a period of years, the St. Francis choir consisted solely of male voices, much to the irritation of the women of the parish.

Father Frioli was assisted by the Reverend A. J. Van Ingelgem, whose idea was to engage in missionary work among the Negroes and who had been first assigned to aid in the formation of a colored parish in Lynchburg. But, due to the scarcity of priests, after a few weeks he was appointed to Staunton, where he remained for six years. He went into the mountains of Virginia and did missionary work among the inhabitants. Traveling by horse and buggy, Father “Van” would take several local boys to serve on the improvised altars through the mountains. Of note is the congregation that met in the Old John Cobb place on Crab Run until a wooden church was built near the Pine Grove school at Mustoe. Many of these Catholic families would also come to Staunton every year to make their Easter Duty, staying with the local families for a week or so while they combined their religious duties and social affairs. The congregation was never very large. However, services continued to be held until the 1950s. Margaret Hamilton, postmistress at Mustoe, and Mrs. Otis Chestnut, a Mustoe resident, remember attending services at the church when they were young. Mrs. A. R. Hull, of Staunton, recalls the reverence that she and others felt when near this church.

Father Van Ingelgem was endeared to the St. Francis parishioners by his many amusing stories of this mission work in the mountains. On one occasion, the people insisted that they take up a collection to show their appreciation to Father “Van,” and he had a good laugh when they presented him with the total collection of one dollar and fifty cents.

In 1906, Father Frioli was succeeded by the Reverend William A. McKeefry with the Reverend John A. Curran as assistant. That year the church at Harrisonburg, which had been dedicated by Bishop Gibbons, was destroyed by fire. The next year Father McKeefry directed the construction of a new church, the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, designed by the architectural firm of T. J. Collins and Son. Father McKeefry served the Harrisonburg church, Our Lady of Lourdes at Buena Vista, St. Patrick’s at Lexington, and Sacred Heart at Mustoe. He also built the St. Francis school building which is now the parish hall. This building is modern Gothic in style. When Father McKeefry left several years later, Father Curran remained as administrator of St. Francis parish.

The Reverend Timothy Crowe came to St. Francis in 1913 as pastor, but poor health soon forced him to return to his native Ireland for recuperation. During the years of World War I, the Reverend John J. DeGryse was in Staunton as administrator of the parish.

From the early 1900s into the 1920s there is a record of many social functions for the parish sponsored by not only the Hibernian Society, but also the Knights of Columbus, the St. Francis Ladies’ Guild, and the Sanctuary Society. Lawn fetes, receptions, and picnics were money-raising parties.

One of the highlights for St. Francis was the ordination in the Church of native son Father William Meredith on December 22, 1917. Bishop Dennis J. O’Connell came from Richmond for the ordination, which was attended by many local people. This occasion was doubly a celebration since Father Meredith had been away from Staunton since 1900. He said his first Mass on December 23, 1917, in St. Francis Church. After a few years as assistant pastor in Winchester, where he served under Father McVerry, he became pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Harrisonburg and served for fifteen years. In one of Father Meredith’s travels to Italy he saw a crucifix which he greatly admired. He met the artist and ordered two, a large one for St. Francis and a smaller one for Blessed Sacrament.

The members of the parish were equally proud of another local son when the Reverend Edward Payne Kilgalen was ordained on May 16, 1918, in Baltimore by Archbishop James Gibbons. Father Kilgalen was the son of John J. and Mary C. Kilgalen. John Kilgalen was a very prominent businessman in Staunton; he was President of the Hibernian Society and later became treasurer. Father Kilgalen returned to Staunton to celebrate his first Mass in St. Francis on May 19, 1918. He was greatly respected as can be seen in the fact that when his mother died on November 10, 1928, fifteen priests came from all over the state for her funeral.

The Busy 20s and the Depression

In 1920, Father Crowe returned to St. Francis. The Harrisonburg Mission was established as a separate parish, relieving the St. Francis pastor of some traveling, although Buena Vista, Waynesboro, Mustoe, and Lexington were still included in his parish. With Sam Collins as advisor Victor Rambush of New York was obtained to redecorate and paint the interior of the church for its 25th anniversary. The use of gold leaf added to the church’s beauty. At this time the church was wired for electricity. However, the gas was retained for fear that the electricity might fail.

Conscientious and sincere, Father Crowe was very well liked. He had an occasional halt or stutter that was especially evident when he said the words of Consecration at the Mass. He had a special concern that young penitents not become too scrupulous in the examination of their consciences. After they had enumerated their sins, he would ask them if they had known that they were sinning while committing the acts. If they said “No,” he explained to them they had not sinned. At school recess he enjoyed watching the marble shooters. They remembered his laugh when they missed their favorite target, the downspout on the school.

John Dundas, a former parishioner now living in California, recalls another amusing incident at that time. Part of the training for First Communion was a day of silent retreat for reviewing the principles of Confession and the meaning and proper reception of Holy Communion. For their break the children were dismissed to go outside for a short time. Father Crowe went over to greet one of the Communicants, Virginia Marino. She courteously replied, “I am sorry, Father, we are on retreat and cannot talk.” This amusing incident further shows the effect of the emphasis the nuns placed on discipline at an early age.

One of Father Crowe’s mottoes was “Make yourself useful.” With a desire to do so, one former altar server humorously recalls his early attempts to serve Mass competently for Father Crowe. In his excitement he brought the wine and water to the priest several times at the wrong time. Finally Father Crowe, in a somewhat irritated manner, instructed the lad to wait for a signal before making another trip.

On March 12, 1927, Thomas Edward Mitchell, another St. Francis young man, was ordained to the priesthood in Rome, Italy. A native of Staunton, he received his early education at St. Francis School. He returned to his home parish to celebrate Mass in the summer of 1927, an occasion celebrated by his family and the entire parish. Later he received a doctorate in theology at the North American College in Rome after completing an oral examination conducted entirely in Latin. The Reverend Thomas Mitchell was Director of Catholic Charities for eight years and Dean of Social Service at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for nine years. He died when he was only forty-eight years of age and was buried in Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton.

In 1927 the Reverend Emmett P. Gallagher became the assistant to Father Crowe. Later that year Father Crowe returned again to Ireland but remained the rector, while Father Gallagher became the administrator. An amusing parish story relates that, when he left for Ireland, Father Crowe took with him the key to the money box and the safe deposit vault for St. Francis Parish. Every time either of these had to be opened, Father Gallagher would write to Father Crowe for the key; it would be sent and then returned. Parishioners often speculated on the number of times the key crossed the Atlantic.

Father Gallagher’s long tenure was a happy and successful one. He was born May 24, 1896, in Lansford, Pennsylvania. He attended Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was ordained June 12, 1921. He had served as assistant pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Parish in Colonial Beach, St. Mary’s in Fredericksburg, Sacred Heart in Winchester, and St. Mary’s in Norfolk prior to coming to Staunton.

A highlight in 1929 was the celebration by the Reverend Robert O. Hickman, of St. Francis Parish, of his first local Mass on Sunday, June 4. Ordained in Rome on May 30, 1929, Father Hickman returned to St. Francis to celebrate Mass and bless his family and friends. Father Hickman went on to be the pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Harrisonburg and later to become Chancellor of the Diocese in Richmond. He was also a synodal judge of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal and a member of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenical Affairs. He died on September 26, 1971, at the age of fifty-seven.

In his early years as administrator Father Gallagher had as his associates the Reverend Julian F. Bullock and the Reverend Bernard J. McKenna. Automobiles were beginning to facilitate travel. The Staunton parish continued to serve Lexington, Waynesboro, and occasionally Mustoe; the few Catholics at Buena Vista traveled to Lexington for services. The priest who would have the 8:00 AM service at St. Francis would travel to St. Patrick’s in Lexington for services there at 10:30 AM. The priest who would travel to Waynesboro for the 9:00 AM service would return to Staunton for the 11:00 AM service at St. Francis. Services were held in a large room at a lodge in Waynesboro until a church was built in 1931. Two members of the St. Francis congregation, Nathan Chiodi and Tony Peduto, took turns driving Father Gallagher and Father McKenna to Lexington and Waynesboro.

Every Saturday afternoon two Sisters of Charity would travel to Harrisonburg for religious instruction at Blessed Sacrament. Sunday mornings, two sisters went to Waynesboro to teach Sunday School after Mass. Right after dinner two sisters went to Lexington to teach Sunday School for an hour. The Sisters also visited Western State Hospital regularly and saw many patients once every week. They also made visits to homes in Staunton. These visitations were all conducted on foot, since no bus service was available.

Using parish funds, Father Gallagher in 1931 bought a bus for the school children of Waynesboro. The bus travelled sixty miles daily carrying thirty-five children. While Teddy, the janitor, drove the bus, Father Gallagher took the parish car in the opposite direction to collect ten children. The fine work of Father Gallagher helped to establish a church in Waynesboro.

In March of 1925 Miss Margaret Burns, who resided in Staunton, had died. In her will she left five hundred dollars each to Father Crowe, the Reverend T. Healy, the Reverend J. A. Kern of Harper’s Ferry, the Reverend T. B. Martin of Colonial Beach, the Sisters of St. Francis Catholic School, the Glasgow Mission, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception of Washington, D.C., and Providence Hospital of Washington, D.C. She also left two thousand dollars each to St. Sophia’s Home and to St. Joseph’s Academy and Orphan Asylum, both of Richmond, and five thousand dollars to the Right Reverend D. C. O’Connell and his successors to be used for the education of young men for the priesthood. The rest of her estate was bequeathed to Bishop O’Connell and his successors for the erection of a chapel within the diocese of Virginia, to be known as the Burns Memorial Chapel of St. John the Evangelist. In 1933 the Bishop permitted the congregation in Waynesboro to build St. John’s Church with this money left by Miss Margaret Burns; however, Waynesboro, like St. Patrick’s Church in Lexington, continued to be served by the priests in Staunton.

In the early 1930s the Catholic Daughters was instituted in the parish with forty-two charter members. Then during the late 1930s the missionary work of St. Francis parish was increased with the establishment of many CCC Camps in this area. While some of the boys came into St. Francis Church, it was the usual order on Sunday for Father Gallagher or his assistant to travel many miles to celebrate Mass at the camps, while maintaining the regular schedule of services at Lexington and Waynesboro.

During the “depression” years, parish finances were often uncertain. In one of the pleas for a bountiful collection, Father Gallagher revealed that only two dollars and sixty-five cents remained in the treasury. The response was generous according to the grateful thanks in the announcements the following Sunday.


*This history of Staunton’s Catholic parish is taken from A History of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Staunton, Virginia: Celebrating 150 Years, 1845-1995 by Hampton H. Hairfield, Jr., Elizabeth M. Hairfield, and Jane E. Smith (published in 1995) and used with permission.

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