Development of the Catholic Faith in Berks County
St. John Baptist de la Salle, Shillington, PA
The parish of St. John Baptist de la Salle began in 1948 with 180 families. The creation of the parish was announced in early October 1948 by the late Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, then archbishop of Philadelphia. The boundaries for the new church included the Shillington, Mohnton, Lincoln Park, Oakbrook and Millmont areas. The areas were formerly served by St. Peter’s, Reading, and Sacred Heart, West Reading.
Agitation for a church in Shillington had been carried on for many years by residents of the Shillington area who had been attending services in Sacred Heart Church, West Reading, and St. Peter’s, Reading. One of the instigators of the movement for a new parish was Joseph M. Shverha, of 330 East Walnut St., Shillington, owner-manager of the former Shillington Theatre, who was a member of Sacred Heart Church.
The Rev. John J. Hasson, a native of Reading and an assistant rector for ten years at St. Clement’s Church, Philadelphia, was chosen to found the new parish. Father Hasson arrived in Reading on October 11th, 1948. One of Father Hasson’s first duties was to find a site for a new church. A son of the late Mr. and Mrs. John P. Hasson, of 144 Buttonwood St., Father Hasson, observed the 25th or silver jubilee of his ordination in 1947.
Father Hasson was ordained by Cardinal Dougherty on June 10, 1922, after completing his theological studies at St. Charles Seminary, Overbrook. He entered the seminary after graduating from the high school in St. Peter’s parish in Reading, PA. Among the parishes in which he had been stationed were: St. Ambrose’s, Schuylkill Haven; St. Francis, Norristown; Most Precious Blood, Philadelphia; St. Laurence, Highland Park, and St. Charles, Oakview. Father Hasson served as pastor until 1950 when he was forced to relinquish the post because of ill health.
The Rev. Henry D. McPeak succeeded Father Hasson as pastor in October 1950. Father McPeak attended Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, St. Charles Seminary and studied for two years at Catholic University, Washington, D.C. He served parishes in Pottsville, Linwood Heights, Norristown, Tamaqua, and Philadelphia.
The first parish Masses were held at the old Shillington Theater on Lancaster Avenue, and later at a community center. A house at 322 E. Walnut St was purchased in 1949 and served as a combination chapel and rectory. By 1952, the congregation had grown to more than 300 families. In February 1952, the parish bought a hosiery factory from Fedden Brothers Co. A large lot was included in the transaction. The entire plot was 300 by 250 feet and was bordered by Wyomissing Avenue, Walnut Street, Elm Street and 20-foot alley. The building was converted into a church and school. It served as a church until 1971 and as a school until 1989.
Saint John Baptist de La Salle School was opened on September 11, 1952 in the former hosiery factory, by three Sisters of Mercy from Merion, Pennsylvania. The first principal of the school was Sister Mary Roberta, R.S.M. There were 105 children in attendance.
The parish launched a building campaign in late 1959, but it was cut short when the new Diocese of Allentown was formed in February 1961 out of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The new diocese conducted a drive to raise $10 million to build high schools and a new college. Holy Name High School resulted from that campaign. However, the three-year plan for the new diocese delayed any major fund-raising for the parish itself.
On September 4, 1962, the Rev. Henry D. McPeak was succeeded by the Rev. John A. Lyons, S.T.L. Father Lyons had served as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, Pottsville since October of 1956 and, like Father McPeak, was a native of Philadelphia. He attended St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook.
Father Lyons attended the North American College in Rome for seven years and was ordained to the priesthood in Rome on Dec. 8, 1935 by Francesco Cardinal Marchett-Selvagianni. He served as an assistant at several Philadelphia parishes before being assigned to his first pastorate in Pottsville.
In 1966, parishioners started a new building fund drive. The current seven-acre site in the West Hills section of Shillington was purchased in 1966 for $57,000, plus a substantial share of the costs of new roads, sewers and curbs in the area. Membership was up to 900 families.
On May 4, 1969 a groundbreaking ceremony marking the beginning of construction of a church and convent was held at 3 p.m. by the religious and lay officers of the church.
The convent, located in the wooded area behind the church, was completed in May of 1970.
The church, contemporary in design, was finished in July of 1970. It is built in the form of a Greek cross. The altar is in the center of the building, which has seating for 780 persons in three arms of the cross. A sacristy is located behind the altar in the fourth arm of the cross. The interior has wood arches and an exposed wood plank ceiling. The interior walls and partitions are of concrete blocks. The exterior walls are of buff brick with limestone trim. There is stained glass above the entrances and in the windows of the nave and choir area. A 30-foot-high steeple is placed at the intersection of the roof line.
Construction of a new rectory was started in July of 1970, and completed in January of 1971.
George E. Yundt Architects of Allentown designed all the buildings. Dominic Maurer, Inc., of Reading was the general contractor.
On Sunday afternoon, March 21, 1971, Bishop Joseph McShea, then head of the Allentown diocese, officiated at a cornerstone laying ceremonies marking completion of the new building program. Several hundred persons attended. The program started at 4 p.m. Bishop McShea, accompanied by his aides, started by blessing the new rectory at 400 Holland St., and then proceeded in procession to the new convent at 420 Holland St., which was also blessed.
From there, the bishop blessed the exterior and interior of the new church at Kerrick road and Mitti Streets. Bishop Joseph McShea was the main celebrant at a concelebrated Mass in the church. He was joined by the Rev. John A. Lyons, and three former assistant rectors; The Rev. Joseph P. Dooley, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, McAdoo; the Rev. William S. Bigos, administrator of St. Mary’s Church, Beaver Meadows; and the Rev. Thomas L. Edwards, rector of Mary Queen of Peace Church, Pottsville. The sermon was preached by the Rev. Patrick J. Foley, pastor of St. Ursula’s Church, Fountain Hill.
In December of 1985, the Rev. John A. Lyons observed the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest with a special Mass and a dinner at Stokesay Castle.
In June of 1987, the Rev. John A. Lyons, was named pastor emeritus of St. John Baptist de La Salle, Church, Shillington, by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh of the Diocese of Allentown. Bishop Thomas J. Welsh appointed the Rev. Thomas J. Birch, pastor of St. Elizabeth Church, Whitehall, to replace Lyons.
The Rev. Robert V. Dougherty, an administrator for St. John Baptist, was assigned as pastor of St. Peter and Paul Church, Tower City.
The Rev. Thomas J. Birch, a Philadelphia native, was ordained a priest in May 1959 by Cardinal John O'Hara in the Philadelphia Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul. Pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Whitehall since September 1976, Father Birch served in parishes in Allentown, Bethlehem, Catasaqua, Frackville, Girardville, and St. Clair.
Father Birch earned his master’s degree in education, at Lehigh University in 1972. Birch also taught at Central Catholic High School, Allentown, and was a vice principal, and later, principal there. He also served as a principal at Cardinal Brennan High School, Fountain Springs.
On April 29, 1988, Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, then head of the Allentown diocese, approved plans for constructing a new building for a school on the same grounds as the church.
On Sunday, October 30, 1988, groundbreaking ceremonies the new school was held at 12:30 p.m. It came at the time when the parish celebrated its 40th anniversary. Bishop Thomas J. Welsh officiated at the anniversary Mass on Sunday at 11:30, and then at the ground-breaking.
Dedication services for the new $2.3 million regional La Salle Academy were held on November 4, 1989. LaSalle Academy, a 30,000-square-foot regional Catholic elementary school, is located behind the church at Holland Street and Mitti Road in the West Hills section of Shillington. It is located on the same seven-acre tract that now encompasses St. John Baptist de la Salle church, convent, rectory, and reception hall.
In December, 1993, the Rev. Thomas J. Birch was elevated to monsignor.
In June of 1996, Monsignor Thomas J. Birch, was named pastor emeritus of St. John Baptist de La Salle, Church, Shillington, by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh of the Diocese of Allentown. Bishop Thomas J. Welsh appointed the Rev. David C. Gillis, pastor of St. Joseph, 1022 N. Eighth St., for 17 months, to replace Birch.
Rev. David C. Gillis, a native of Girardville and a Cardinal Brennan graduate, studied for the priesthood at Pius X and Mary Immaculate seminaries. He was principal at Cardinal Brennan from 1986-90 and pastor of two Ashland churches before coming to Reading.
On October 4, 1998 the parish celebrated its 50th anniversary. Retired Bishop Thomas J. Welsh of the Diocese of Allentown was the principal celebrant at the 3 p.m. anniversary Mass. The Rev. Christopher Wakefield, a son of the parish and former assistant, and three daughters of the parish - Sisters Patricia Ann Megle and Kathleen Marie Brown, IHM, and Christine Seghetti, RSM, were guests. Also participating were nearly 20 former pastors and priests. An anniversary dinner and dance followed the Mass at the Inn at Reading.
Since then, the church has added the Father Lyons meeting room, stained-glass windows and extensive landscaping. On June 14, 2005, the Rev. Richard Clement, former pastor of St. Joseph Church, Reading, was appointed pastor of St. John Baptist de La Salle.
On June 14, 2005, the Rev. Richard Clement, former pastor of St. Joseph Church, Reading, was appointed pastor of St. John Baptist de La Salle.