Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Father Patrick Kenny and the Coffee Run Church

I recently had the honor of visiting the Coffee Run site on Lancaster Pike, where the first Catholic Church in Delaware was built. Even though the clouds opened up as my family and I were exiting the car, and we were drenched by the rain as we ran across the field to catch a glimpse of the burned-out remains of the Patrick Kenny house, it did not take away from the inspiring reality that we were standing on a historically rich piece of land in Mill Creek Hundred.

The early 1800’s brought many immigrants to America from Europe; one such immigrant was Reverend Patrick Kenny. Father Kenny emigrated to Wilmington, Delaware from Ireland in the summer of 1804. He was born June 6, 1763 in Dublin, Ireland and educated in Paris (a fact that would become quite helpful to him later). Upon his arrival in America he lived with the Hearn family in West Chester until September 11, 1808. During this time, Father Kenny traveled and conducted Catholic Masses at five stations and one church, which included two different states -- Delaware and Pennsylvania.
 
 
Throughout most of the 18th Century and early 19th Century, the increasing number of Delaware Catholics were served by Jesuits from Bohemia Manor, Maryland. One of these sites of worship was in our own Mill Creek Hundred – Cuba Rock. In 1730, Cornelius Hollahan, an Irish Catholic, settled in Mill Creek Hundred. He named his estate, Cuba Rock, in the area now known as Mount Cuba. Hollahan’s house served as a resting place for travelling priests and they often conducted services there. In 1772, Reverend Matthias Manners, a Jesuit from the Bohemian Mission, purchased a farm known as Coffee Run and in 1790 a log chapel was built and called St. Mary of the Assumption. The adjoining cemetery dates back to about 1780 (or earlier). Father Whalen was one of the first priests who lived at Coffee Run, and was succeeded in 1805 by Father Patrick Kenny. Father Kenny took possession of the farm on March 25th, 1805, but did not move in until 1808.

Through hard work and dedication, Father Kenny had a stone house built close to the church. In 1812, Father Kenny moved into the stone house and lived there until his death in March of 1840. A two-and-one half story dwelling of stone and frame bears a marble marker in the east wing inscribed “P K 1812”. The Father Kenny house stood until a tragic fire destroyed it in February 2010.

Father Kenny was an integral member of  Mill Creek Hundred society, as well as the surrounding areas. From reading the excerpts from his diary, I learned that Father Kenny would spend time in the community, teaching the children catechism, visiting the sick and wounded. “Kenny served the Irish families at Hagley and gave immediate personal attention to victims of powder explosions.” Among his congregation at St. Mary’s was Mrs. Victor DuPont (Gabrielle Josephine de Pelleport) and her children. Father Kenny had developed a friendship with the DuPonts, through his ties with the workers at the Dupont Powder Mill.

And while the DuPont workers were primarily Irish (like Kenny himself), Wilmington was seeing an influx of another group of Catholics -- French refugees from the uprising in Santo Domingo (Haiti). It's quite likely that Father Kenny's Paris education came in very handy in ministering to this new population of Delaware Catholics. Among the many contributions Father Kenny made to his immediate church community, he seemed to want to expand the church in the area and provide places of worship for Catholics in Wilmington as well. This desire was realized when Father Kenny founded St. Peter's Church in 1818:
On his way, as an itinerant priest, to Philadelphia, October 7, 1816, Father Kenny stopped in Wilmington for a meeting at the home of Paul McGinnis to discuss plans for a church in the city. Land for the church, at the corner of Hanover (Sixth) and West streets, was leased from the estate of Martha Whitelock in 1816 to Tom Larkin, Patrick Higgins and Arthur Murray for 100 years at $30 per annum. There the Cathedral of St. Peter was built. Father Kenny dedicated the church on September 12, 1818 and celebrated the "first congregational Mass in Wilmington for a vast concourse" the following day.
In 1868, St. Peter’s became The Cathedral of St. Peter when it was chosen as the seat for the bishop of the newly-formed Diocese of Wilmington.

I could go on and on for pages and pages about the life of Father Kenny. The truth is, as I was researching, I came across a link that had a first hand biography of Father Kenny and excerpts from his diary. I was hooked. If you are interested in the day to day life and activities of Father Kenny, I highly recommend that you check it out.

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