A History of St. Mary's
Throughout most of the Eighteenth century the Jesuits from “Bohemia”, the mission in Warwick, Maryland, visited northern Delaware, serving the growing Catholic population in this area. Among the ten priests tending the White Clay Creek area during the years 1730 to 1790, Father John Lewis, S.J., knew it best and served it for longer periods of time than the others. While tending the mission, he was also the incumbent at Bohemia. In 1772 while he was the superior of the Maryland Province, Father Lewis directed Father Matthias Manners, S.J., to purchase 207 acres of land from Samuel Lyle, seven miles west of Wilmington, in Mill Creek Hundred. Probably Cornelius Hollohan influenced the decision to select this site.
A well-to-do Irish immigrant, “Con” Hollohan had lived in the neighborhood for some decades and his home had been for many years a resting place for Jesuit Missionaries in their journeys to and from Bohemia and St. Mary’s County, and Philadelphia. When, in 1775, Father Lewis built a residence on “Laetitia Manor”, the plantation named in honor of its first owner, Laetitia Penn, Con Hollohan sold his own land holdings and became tenant of the Jesuit Mission. This house doubled as a church for at least fifteen years until 1790, and probably longer.
Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore and first Bishop of the U.S. who had served the White Clay Creek plantation as priest, entrusted its care to Father John Rosseter, a Dublin Augustinian. Father Rosseter erected the first church, a log chapel, at the site of a cemetery that had existed for several years.
Father Rosseter had joined the priesthood after serving in the French Navy, and he came to the U.S. with others of his order to found a religious house. During his pastorate at White Clay Creek, Father Rosseter had the assistance of Father Stanton, Father Ennis, and Father Matthew Carr, vicar general of the Delaware area for Bishop Carroll.
Succeeding Father Rosseter was Father Charles Whalen, O.F.M. Cap., an Irish Capuchin. By 1799 when Bishop Carroll assigned him to Mill Creek Hundred, Father Whalen’s priesthood had included a lengthy stay in France, followed by service as a chaplain in the French Navy. After his service, he petitioned Rome to permit him to remain in America. His petition was granted and he served New York. He laid the cornerstone of New York’s first church, St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, in 1785. Then he served in Kentucky before his assignment in Delaware. After four years, he retired to Old Bohemia, leaving his pastorate to a younger man, Father Kenny.
An artist's sketch of St. Mary of the Assumption Church, Coffee Run, Delaware, 1790
Father Patrick Kenny, intending to go on to Charleston, S.C., had arrived in Philadelphia in 1804. The discovery of trustee troubles and the intense heat in Charleston persuaded him to remain in the vicinity of Philadelphia. He was immediately assigned to the several outlying missions of the White Clay Creek plantation, West Chester, Doe Run, Concord. In January 1805, he was assigned to the White Clay Creek plantation mission itself, which he called “Coffee Run”. For three years, 1805 to 1808, Father Kenny lived near West Chester at Goshen with his old friend Anthony Hearne. He began at once to negotiate purchase of the plantation from the Jesuits of Old Bohemia, and his friend Anthony Hearne financed the purchase of Coffee Run Plantation, as well as endowing the church in West Chester.
Father Kenny initiated a building program in his widespread parish, which included all of New Castle County north of the present canal, West Chester, Ivy Mills and Doe Run. He constructed a large barn on his newly purchased plantation in 1807. Also in that year he began the church in New Castle. In 1812 he moved from the original Jesuit residence into a newly completed stone house, the Mundy house, located nearby. With money from the estate of Father Charles Whalen, he built the first church in Wilmington. Begun in 1816, this is the present St. Peter’s Cathedral.
By 1823 he had sold a large piece of property south of Lancaster Turnpike and erected a new home; the Clark House, just across the road from the old one. In that year he also completely renovated St. Mary of the Assumption, the Coffee Run church, built by Father Rosseter.
After Father Kenny’s death on March 21, 1840, at the age of eighty, this church was used only intermittently because a new church, St. Joseph on the Brandywine, was build in 1841 to serve the Irish immigrants employed in the powder yards. After ten years the Catholic population center returned to the Coffee Run area to work in the quarries and Father Kenny’s church reopened. In November 1851, a new and larger church replaced the original one on the same site.
Another population shift in 1880 necessitated another move. The cornerstone of the new parish center, St. Patrick’s church in Ashland, was laid on September 24. Two years later the parish built an additional, dependent church, St. John the Evangelist, in Hockessin. Thus the third and the fourth successors of the original log chapel were built in the same locality. When St. John the Evangelist was built, Western Mill Creek Hundred had been an Irish settlement from the days of colonization. More than two-thirds of the population for ten miles around were of Irish descent. They farmed, worked in clay pits and lime kilns, quarried and built the Delaware and Western Railroad. Then at the turn of the century, Polish immigrants moved to the area to work at the snuff mill in Yorklyn, where “Polish Row” still exists. At the same time, Italian workmen came to work in the quarry at Wooddale.
In the twentieth century new industries brought new immigration to the Hockessin-Yorklyn neighborhood. In 1927, a group of Italians built a settlement on Valley Road to grow mushrooms. Today 83 percent of the world’s supply of mushrooms are grown in the area between Hockessin and Kennett Square. Hockessin now feels the impact of the chemical industries’ post-war expansion in Delaware.
For decades the hamlets of Hockessin, Yorklyn and Ashland lay nestled in the wooded hills, but by the late 1950’s the growth of Wilmington suburbia encroached on these small old towns. A decade ago the parish numbered approximately one hundred families; by 1960 it had grown to nearly four hundred, and by 1998 there were 2,820 registered families.
The facilities of St. Patrick’s and St. John’s churches were becoming too small in spite of a Sunday schedule of five Masses. The late Bishop Fitz Maurice, together with his coadjutor bishop, the Most Reverend Michael W. Hyle, decided that a tract of land should be purchased for the future building and expansion of parish facilities. On August 10, 1960, the Catholic Foundation purchased from Robert B. and Mary E. Walker a tract of 14,371 acres between the old and new Lancaster Pikes and contiguous to the Hockessin Elementary School. The tract’s altitude of 405 feet afforded a magnificent view of the spreading, home-dotted hills. On July 21, 1963, Bishop Hyle gave permission for the construction of a new church and rectory to be named St. Mary of the Assumption, thus reviving the name and continuing the history of the original mother church constructed at Coffee Run. The new edifice would be the fifth church in a line of succession stemming from the original log chapel.
The ceremonies of the blessing of the site and the ground breaking took place on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, September 29, 1964, and Bishop Hyle, who at the time was in Rome for the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, was represented by his vicar general, the Right Reverend Monsignor Roderick B. Dwyer, P.A. Construction began on October 10, 1964. The year of Our Lord, 1965, marked the 193rd Anniversary of the founding of the parish and the 175th Anniversary of the building of the first St. Mary of the Assumption Church at Coffee Run.
On Sunday, August 15, the patronal feast of the parish, the Most Reverend Bishop laid the cornerstone and blessed the buildings, and Father Anthony DiMichele celebrated the first Mass in the new church.
Since the dedication and blessing of the church, the parish continued to grow. Father McDonough, concerned for the education of the children at St. Mary’s, arranged with Corpus Christi in Elsmere to accept the children of this parish. Eventually, this agreement led to the only co-school in the Diocese of Wilmington. Prior to this agreement, the children from St. Patrick’s, St. John’s, then St. Mary’s went to school at St. Joseph on the Brandywine until that school closed in 1971.
The small community of Hockessin blossomed. During Father Leonard Kempski’s tenure, the parish center was added. This facility, which connected the church and the rectory at two levels, addressed the need for adequate space for religious education, a day chapel which opens to the main church for Sunday Mass, office space, storage space and conference rooms. In addition, the hall and kitchen were remodeled and a bell tower was constructed.
The bell tower was placed on the new facility using the bell that originally belonged to the Catholic Church in Hockessin, St. John the Evangelist. At the blessing, Father Roy Pollard dedicated the bell to St. Mary and to St. John, her protector, thus meshing the past and present parish churches. In 1998, well-known artist Carolyn Blish, donated the corpus that is on the cross at the end of the parking lot.
Through the generosity of our parishioners in the “Bringing the Vision to Life” campaign, contracts were signed and construction began on August 12, 2008. Plans included new lighting in the church, life-safety upgrades, Sanctuary renovations and the expansion of our gathering area. On November 1, 2009, Bishop W. Francis Malooly celebrated the 12pm Mass at St. Mary’s, at which time he blessed our newly renovated facility. He also blessed a recently repaired statue of “Mary, Queen of Heaven”, which dates back to the early history of our church.
The cemetery of St. Patrick’s is still in use. In addition, a number of artifacts from the former parishes are in use at the present St. Mary’s facility. From St. John’s we have a ciborium, Stations of the Cross, candelabra, and the church bell. The cruciform in the St. John Conference Room is from the second St. Mary’s at Coffee Run.