(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Winter 2013 edition.)
By John Chambless
In the summer of 1804, a priest named Patrick Kenny was aboard a ship from Dublin, Ireland arriving in Philadelphia. As the temperature rose aboard the boat, Kenny immediately regretted his decision to come to America and, if there had been room on the manifest, he would have sailed back to Ireland the next day.
But the ship was full, and he stayed.
Rev. Kenny would eventually make his mark in history as the pastor of the St. Mary of the Assumption Church, the first Catholic church in Delaware. Today, the site of the church is seen by thousands of drivers each day who pass the spectacular iron gate on Route 48 that's marked “Coffee Run Cemetery.” Only that gate, a cemetery and a spectacular barn, now vandalized and falling into ruin, remain at the site. A 1933 state historical marker on the shoulder of the roadway reads: “St. Mary's Church, site of the first Catholic Church in Delaware, usually called 'Coffee Run Church.' Land purchased 1772 by Rev. Matthias Manners. First church erected shortly thereafter. Last church erected by Rev. Patrick Kenny. Remained standing until 1908. Services discontinued in 1884 upon erection of churches at Hockessin and Ashland.”
On a crisp November afternoon, the weed-covered hillside was eerie in the slanting light. A flock of buzzards, startled by a visitor, flew from the open field to the top of the barn's silo near the graveyard. Red graffiti scars the bottom of the silo, and the barn's roof beams are open to the sky. The iron gate on the fence around the graveyard is loosely chained, and the stones inside are either scoured smooth by the centuries, cracked and leaning, or missing altogether.
But the site's sad condition today is in stark contrast to its rich history, much of which is captured in Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1896. The volume has two chapters devoted to Rev. Kenny and his pioneering work in northern Delaware. He's revealed through his diary entries as a devoted priest who endured low pay, long days of traveling on primitive roads, and persistent ill health, but faced it all with both humor and deep devotion.
In the 1700s, the increasing number of Catholic families who came to work in the Hagley powder yards and surrounding industries were ministered to by Jesuit priests who had to travel from Bohemia Manor in Maryland. In 1772, Rev. Matthias Manners, from the Bohemia Mission, bought a farm property known as Coffee Run, named for a nearby stream that was so full of sediment that it looked like coffee. In 1790, a log church was built on the site, and named St. Mary of the Assumption. The property was being used as a cemetery for at least a decade before the first chapel was built. The open land inside the iron gate undoubtedly holds graves from this era that have long ago lost their markers.
When Patrick Kenny first arrived in the area, he stayed with local families and preached at five locations that were spread across three counties and two states. His diary is full of the details of trying to survive on a paltry salary and endure all the traveling required by his assignments.
In 1805, he took possession of the Coffee Run chapel and rented the adjoining land to a farmer. In 1807, he built a barn which forms the core of the abandoned structure today. Kenny moved to the property on Sept. 11, 1808 and built a modest stone home a few years later. A photo taken after 1850 shows a church standing behind the cemetery in a view taken from the nearby road.
Kenny traveled on horseback to his various assignments, winter and summer, despite a leg which remained ulcerated and painful for most of his life. He reportedly preached while sitting down because of the pain. Being out in the elements only made his discomfort worse, and his diary is peppered with his colorful complaints about the extreme heat and cold, both of which affected him.
One passage in his diary from 1821 notes ruefully that took out the church stove and put it in “old Granny Donlevy's cabin, now in her 108th year. This I did because the Catholics resorting to this church would not procure wood for their winter church Sundays, would not reimburse me 5 or 6 dollars of its first cost, would not subscribe, nor those who subscribed for the monthly subsistance of a Priest, have not paid a cent these ten years past, three or four excepted, 25 cents per month.”
In 1824, Kenny wrote happily that he had sold part of the land and paid off his loan. “My soul feels lost in gratitude to my God for having preserved a refuge for me in my helpless old age, in my valuable new home and large garden with 47.5 acres,” he wrote.
Kenny's notations of his daily expenses reveal that he had a weakness for cigars and gingerbread, but apparently no other vices.
In 1827, with a little more money coming in, Kenny was able to add 14 pews to his church at Coffee Run, 12 of which were sold to patrons immediately for $6 per year. In the first pew was “Madam Victor Du Pont and family,” he noted. Kenny had been schooled in Paris for a time and could speak French, so he was a favorite of Gabrielle Josephine de Pelleport, who had married Victor du Pont and lived at Hagley on the Brandywine. He could also minister to French Catholics who had fled from Haiti in later years.
The du Pont family supported Kenny financially, and he gratefully acknowledged gifts of writing paper that were made to him. While he knew some wealthy families, Kenny mostly ministered to the poor Catholic immigrant workers at Hagley, and visited them when they were injured in explosions or other accidents at the plant. He was also a frequent visitor in the city of Wilmington, offering Mass at private homes and in small city churches.
Kenny was burdened by his workload as a priest and as a property owner, noting in 1830 that he had fired a worker named Patrick Haw (“the incorrigible drunkard,” he angrily noted) and often performed the farm chores himself, despite the constant pain in his leg.
Faithful to his last days, Kenny suffered a stroke that made him unable to write, so his later diary entries are written for him in another hand. He died in 1840, at the age of 79.
The Coffee Run site was used by a succession of traveling priests until about 1887, when a new Saint Mary of the Assumption was built in Ashland. After several moves, St. Mary of the Assumption now stands on Lancaster Pike, in a building built in 1964.
The old church, which was used for services only about once a month after Kenny's death, was demolished in 1908. Kenny's home stood on the site until a fire, likely sparked by vandals, burned it to the ground in 2010. The Coffee Run Cemetery is now owned by the area diocese. Pastor Charles Dillingham, of the current Saint Mary of the Assumption, said his church has no role in its upkeep.
Rev. Kenny's legacy lives on in his efforts to start what would eventually become St. Joseph's on the Brandywine, as well as St. Peter's Church in Wilmington, and St. Peter's Church in New Castle. But it was his early determination to minister to humble people in a primitive log church in Hockessin that makes him a pioneer of the Catholic faith in Delaware.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.