The 200th anniversary celebration of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington started last April with a “Come Home to the Cathedral” Mass celebrated by Bishop Malooly, the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington, who has led the diocese from its historic mother church at 6th and West streets.
On Oct. 6 the cathedral’s bicentennial had its “come to dinner” event, a gala reception and meal for parishioners and friends hosted by Father Leonard Klein, the Cathedral’s administrator, at the Hotel Du Pont.
Guest speaker Geoff Gamble, a member of the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta in Rome and a parishioner of St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Hockessin, talked about the history of St. Peter’s through a group of people who, among thousands of its parishioners and leaders, personify the cathedral’s distinguished and surprising history.
One surprise is the fact that a black family from Haiti, the Noels, played a large role in St. Peter’s founding.
Gamble said Andrew Noel was a Catholic who was born a slave in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1774. After arriving in Wilmington in the 1790s with other Haitians who fled the Haitian Revolution, Noel married Laurette, a slave who had been freed in Wilmington by a Haitian family that was inspired by the Quaker abolitionist movement here.
The Noel’s home at 190 Market Street, Gamble said, became a stopping place for itinerant Catholic priests, including Father Patrick Kenny and Father George Carrell. The Noels led an effort to establish St. Peter’s in 1816, Gamble said.
When Andrew Noel died in 1822, Gamble noted, The Delaware Gazette wrote that his “obliging disposition and suavity of manners during a long residence in this town secured him the respect and esteem of all his acquaintances.”
Gamble also said that Andrew’s widow, Laurette, became an Oblate Sister of Providence in Baltimore. Her four daughters also entered the order.
Gamble called Father Kenny the “first true pastor of St. Peter’s.”
While there had been titular pastors in Wilmington before him, Gamble said, Father Kenny was the first on a permanent basis. The native of Ireland had been educated at a seminary in France and could minister to the Haitians here in their language.
Father Kenny’s parish covered three counties. After land at Hanover (6th Street) and West was purchased for a church in 1816, he celebrated the first Mass in the new building in 1818. The cathedral started as a 30×40-foot brick, tin-roofed church facing West Street, Gamble noted.
Father Kenny died in 1840.
Gamble also discussed Wilmington’s second bishop, Bishop Alfred Curtis, who was born a Methodist in Somerset County, Md., and became an Episcopal priest in Baltimore.
But like Bishop Thomas Becker, Wilmington’s first bishop, Gamble said Curtis became a convert to Catholicism in 1872, and became a 41-year-old seminarian at St. Mary’s in Baltimore.
Gamble said Wilmington’s Irish Catholics weren’t too happy when Curtis was named to lead Wilmington in 1886 because “yet another Protestant convert was being sent as their shepherd.”
Soon after Bishop Curtis’s arrival here, he announced a lecture at St. Peter’s called “Something the Irish Don’t Know.”
When hundreds of curious Irish filled the cathedral for the talk, Gamble said, the bishop mounted the pulpit and said, “This evening, I am going to share with you something the Irish don’t know, something of which they are completely unaware — snakes!”
The new bishop’s dubious audience was delighted with the detailed 90-minute talk and Bishop Curtis had raised $300 from tickets to refurbish the Cathedral.
Gamble called Bishop Curtis “one of the saintliest prelates who ever lived at St. Peter’s.”
Unassuming and humble, the bishop would “fill his pockets with apples, crackers and cheese” then hop a train with his bicycle to travel down the Delmarva Peninsula to a station, where he would leave the train and “peddle off to his missions.”
Pastor for 32 years
Msgr. John Dougherty, pastor of St. Peter’s from 1916 to 1948, was mentioned in Gamble’s talk as having the Cathedral’s Austin Organ installed for $80,000 in 1919. He also hired Will M.S. Brown, the organist at Westminster Presbyterian Church to play it. Brown became a Catholic in 1925 under the guidance of Msgr. Dougherty, Gamble said.
Msgr. Dougherty’s years saw a new school building in 1925, detached rectory opened in 1927, and the Daughters of Charity orphanage on the grounds was replaced by a convent for the sisters.
In addition to other St. Peter Cathedral stalwarts such as Bishop Edmond Fitzmaurice and Msgr. Paul J. Taggart, pastor from 1982 to 1994, Gamble mentioned the priestly and religious vocations that were formed in the Cathedral parish. During the 1940s and ’50s, he said, the two square blocks around St. Peter’s produced eight priestly vocations.
Priest-alumni of St. Peter’s include: Oblate Father William Keech, who is in his 90s now; Msgr. Joseph F. Rebman, pastor of St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville; and the late Fathers Henry A. Miller; Rudolph C. Miller; John J. Fugue, OSFS; Joseph J. McGoldrick, OSFS; Joseph P. Rago, OSFS; and Canon J. Francis Tucker, OSFS.
Religious sisters from the Cathedral include: Benedictine Sister Agnes Schroeder; Daughter of Charity Sister Mary Patricia; and the late Dominican Sister Marie Jane McGoldrick.