St. John the Baptist-Holy Angels Parish History
The history of St. John the Baptist–Holy Angels Parish dates back to pre-Revolutionary times when—in 1758—inns, taverns, and other accommodations for colonial travelers were built at the village crossroads, a juncture for several important roads.
When George Washington and forces of the Continental Army marched through on their way to Yorktown, they found respite at St. Patrick’s Inn, a log structure that stood on a site that is now the Deer Park Tavern. One of the first Masses in the Newark area may have been offered there by the Marquis de Lafayette’s chaplain, who travelled with the French soldier.
The first Catholics to settle in the area were Irish immigrants who were ministered to by the priests from Old Bohemia Mission (Maryland) until Delaware was made part of the Philadelphia Diocese. Priests from New Castle then took on the responsibility of visiting Catholic laborers in the Iron Hill mines and those involved later in railroad construction.
In 1866, Father William Blake, Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish (Elkton, Maryland), began celebrating monthly Mass in various homes. On the other Sundays of the month, many people traveled the six miles to Elkton by horse or on foot. However, when the railroad was completed, worshipers made the journey by railroad handcar.
In 1868, a local Catholic, Charles A. Murphy, approached the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church about their property at the corner of Main and Chapel Streets. On July 31, Murphy purchased the wood frame structure and offered it to the Elkton parish as a mission church. The church was named “St. Patrick’s” and Murphy transferred the title to the church for the sum of one dollar.
At that time, St. Patrick’s was only one of 15 churches in the young Diocese of Wilmington. Bishop Becker, the first Bishop of the Diocese, described his churches, the Newark St. Patrick’s among them, in the following manner: “They were all small buildings, old and poverty-stricken.”
In 1876, a modest frame house was erected just behind the church to provide overnight quarters for the clergy coming to Newark.
In 1880, during the pastorate of Father John A. Lyons, the floor of St. Patrick’s mission church collapsed during the Christmas Midnight Mass. Father Lyons decided to build a new church, which was constructed on the same site. While the church was being built, Sunday Mass was held in the upstairs meeting room of the Newark Grange Hall which is currently Klondike Kate’s Restaurant. Upon completion, the church was renamed St. John the Baptist, in honor of the patron saint of the pastor, Father John Lyons. The new church was consecrated on June 24, 1883, by Bishop Thomas A. Becker in honor of St. John the Baptist.
A one-ton bell, then one of the largest in the state, was placed in the cupola bearing the inscription: “I am a voice crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord!” (Mark 1:3)
This bell continues to toll every day of the year, over 125 years later.
In 1885, Justin J. Pié, a parishioner and owner of the Deer Park Estate, donated land for a parish cemetery at the corner of Elkton Road and West Park Place, which still buries deceased today.
Finally, in 1891, the mission of St. John the Baptist was elevated to the status of a parish. Father Frederick Campbell was named its first resident pastor.
It was not until the 1940s that large numbers of people moved into the Newark area. Father Eugene J. Kraemer became pastor and undertook a major renovation of the church from 1946-1947.
The expansion was continued by Father Leo J. O’Neil, assisted by Father Francis P. Cornely, who was named the parish’s first associate pastor in 1950.
In the early 1950s, there was need for another church. The vision also included a grade school and a convent. The land on Possum Park Road was purchased and construction began. The Sisters of St. Francis of Glen Riddle (Pennsylvania) agreed to staff the new school until it opened. It only had a roof, walls, and cement flooring. There were no lights, chalkboards, or heat.
The church, originally designed as a gymnasium/auditorium, was equipped with pews and an altar to serve as a temporary worship space. Due to money and population constraints, it served as a permanent worship space for many years. The first Mass celebrated at Holy Angels Church took place on December 25, 1956 at midnight. The parish was now named St. John the Baptist–Holy Angels!
The parish continued to grow, especially in the Ogletown-Brookside area, where in 1971, Father William R. Couming, then Pastor, initiated plans for another church. Father John J. Masterson, who succeeded Father Couming, renovated Holy Angels Church and built Holy Family Church at the corner of East Chestnut Hill and Gender Roads. In 1979, Holy Family was made a parish and Father Clement P. Lemon was installed as pastor.
On May 7, 1982, St. John the Baptist Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The centennial of the church was celebrated by the parish on November 20, 1983.
In 1984, a library and multipurpose room were added to Holy Angels School. Sadly, in 1985, the Sisters of St. Francis withdrew from the school, but their spirit and energy continue to be present today. With their withdrawal, the convent was remodeled as a rectory with several offices.
In the Fall of 1990, a major asbestos problem surfaced at Holy Angels School. Fortunately, the entire school was able to relocate to Linden Hill Elementary School on Skyline Drive, which was unoccupied. Nearly a million dollars was spent to eliminate the problem and upgrade the school. The children returned in May of 1991 to our present facilities.
Only two months later, St. John’s Church was unintentionally set on fire by an intruder. The restoration of the church came to $600,000 and was completed in the Fall of 1992.
During the 1990s, the dream of building a new Holy Angels Church once again surfaced. That dream, along with a gymnasium for our school, was realized in 2004. If the past is any indication of God’s providence, we can be confident in the years ahead!