SS Cosmas & Damian Feast
A Century Of Love
By Jack Coll
October 1, 2019
As the fall weather settles in my thoughts turn to the former SS Cosmas & Damian Feast, a great celebration that combined faith, family and community. After a century of celebrating the festive event, SS Cosmas Church was ordered closed, (Merged) by the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the final feast was celebrated six years ago in late September, 2013.
If you’re interested I thought we could take a walk down memory lane together taking us back a century or so. When Conshohocken was incorporated in 1850 we had 737 residents mostly made up of Irish immigrants. Due a combination of economic hardships throughout Italy and the need for laborers throughout Montgomery County it created the perfect circumstances for Italian immigrants to pour into Montgomery County and by the late 1800’s many of those immigrants settled in Conshohocken taking jobs at Alan Wood Steel and many of the other industries in and around the borough.
When the Irish settled in the borough, a good portion of them settled on lower Maple Street to the point where lower Maple Street became known as “Cork Row,” a term referring to the area in Ireland known as “Cork County.”
As the Irish became more settled with some of the better paying jobs in the mills they started moving their families out of the lower Maple Street row houses to the nicer twin and single homes on the avenues. As the Irish moved out the Itialians moved in and eventually occupied the majority of lower Maple Street from Elm Street to Fifth Avenue and along the lower avenues including West Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Avenues. By 1910 the lower end of Conshohocken on the west side of town became known as “Little Italy.”
Once the Italian population settled in, so did the yearly celebrations. “Italians to Have Big Day” was the headline from the Conshohocken Recorder newspaper dated July 19, 1910. The article was of particular interest because the Italians didn’t have a Conshohocken Church in 1910, and SS Cosmas & Damian was still a year away from becoming a church name.
Below is the article that ran in the Conshohocken Recorder on July 19, 1910.
THE LOCAL ITALIAN SOCIETY IS CELEBRATING ITS ANNIVERSARY TODAY
MAPLE STREET WILL BE A MAZE OF COLORS TONIGHT
The local Italian Society will celebrate its anniversary and will have as its guest the Royal Italian Band of Philadelphia. Maple Street where most Italians live is profusely decorated with arches of various colored tumblers in which will be placed after dark lighted candles. A circular band stand has been erected and is gaily decorated with bunting and cloths from which are suspended glass pendants.
The band arrived here at 7:45 this morning over the P. & R. railway and marched to Maple Street. Here they were met by the whole Italian colony and giving a rousing reception.
At 8:30 o’clock the Italian Society escorted by the band held a street parade. The route was on Elm Street to Ash, to Hector, to Fayette to the borough line and countermarch to Seventh Avenue, to Maple, to Sixth Avenue, to Fayette Street and to the Italian Hall on Maple Street.
This evening will be a festive night in the colony. The band will give a concert from 8 o’clock until 11 o’clock and there will be much merry making in the brilliantly lighted street.
It should be known that the Italian Societies and Italian Beneficial Society, better known as the old society, were formed sometime between 1905 to 1910, even though the societies were and are affiliated with SS Cosmas and Damian. And when referring to the “Italian Hall on Maple Street,” well, neither of the Italian clubs were built yet at Third Avenue and Maple Street or at Fifth Avenue and Maple Street. The early Italian societies had a Hall located at 111 Maple Street where they met and conducted business.
These massive street celebrations had been conducted by the Italian societies as early as 1905, about the same time local Italian residents started discussing the need for a church where a catholic mass could be celebrated and heard in their native Italian language. By 1911, enough of the Italian leaders gathered to generate interest in a church of their own.
In the fall of 1911, on the second floor of Little’s Opera Hose, once located on the northwest corner of First Avenue and Fayette Street, Conshohocken Italians gathered to hear mass. A large portion of the Italian immigrants came from the Province of Isernia in Italy, where there was a shrine dedicated to the patron saints SS Cosmas and Damian. The twin brothers were physicians and martyrs for the Catholic faith. Their names had appeared in the Canon of the Mass for centuries. It was an easy decision for the church group to honor the twin brothers, naming their Conshohocken Church SS Cosmas and Damian.
On March 1, 1912, Father Nicola Coscia was appointed the first pastor of SS Cosmas and Damian Parish and walked into a beehive of activity. The congregation had no church of their own, and Father Coscia performed his first Baptism within a month of his arrival. Father Coscia pushed for the building of a church, and after performing his first marriage on August 25, 1912, Bishop Prendergast negotiated the sale of property located on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Maple Street from Hiram Corson for $1,200. It was the Bishop’s intention to construct a church for the growing Italian immigrants, however some of the parishioners didn’t understand the purchase of property sitting high on the hill at Fifth Avenue and Maple Street. The property was farmland at the time sitting on the out-skirts of town, while other members of the church praised the location of the property due to its proximity to Little Italy.
By the time the church was completed in the spring of 1913, the membership had already outgrown the seating capacity of 80. By 1913, more than 170 Italian families called Conshohocken home. The 170 families were made up of more than 1,000 men women and children. Maple Street could no longer hold Little Italy, as the Italian movement now pushed out onto Second, Third and Fourth Avenues.
During the construction of the new church, several block parties were thrown in an effort to raise money for the construction of the church, but one small article from the Conshohocken Recorder caught my eye, from January 13, 1913, the following article in full read;
CANNOT RAFFLE GOATS TO AID CHURCH
District Attorney Stops A Raffle in Aid of a Church When he Receives Information
That One is to be Held Here—Evangelist Buys A Ticket And Later District Attorney Acts.
A number of local Italians anxious to aid in the building of a new church here decided a good way to raise money would be to have a raffle and one man offered to contribute two goats to be raffled and the receipts be donated to the church. Several of the men took charge of the affair and had a number of tickets printed and were offering them for sale. On Tuesday last, the Italian Evangelist, who last year, was denied police protection while he held meeting in the Italian colony, on Maple Street, purchased a ticket for the raffle from one of the men in charge of the affair. The Evangelist informed the man who sold him the ticket that the raffle was a violation of the law.
The day after the Evangelist purchased his ticket a stranger entered a local barber shop, conducted by an Italian and after receiving a haircut asked for a couple of the raffle tickets. The barber replied that he had no tickets. The man then left the shop and went to another Italian barber and secured some of the tickets.
Yesterday, word was received here from Norristown, from a Presbyterian clergyman, requesting several of the local Italians to meet him at the office of the District Attorney. The men did not comply with the request but refereed the invitation to their attorney Charles D. McAvoy.
The men who were getting up the raffle stated that they did not know they were violating the law and in order to avoid trouble have called the raffle off and will refund the money to all purchasers of tickets. This morning, they called upon District Attorney and explained the situation to him.
The action taken against the Italians will be far reaching in its effect. If the law is invoked and raffles and drawing will be stopped. Paddle and horse wheels, which have been popular at block parties in the various towns, will be placed under the bans as will all games of chance.
In July of 1913, the Italian Societies of the borough and church held a street party called the “Greatest Celebration their Countrymen has ever given.” The street party that was held on Maple Street and ran from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue with morning, afternoon and evening bands and daytime and nighttime fireworks. The celebration was held in honor of the patron saints of the Italian Church, SS Cosmas and Damian. This was the first official celebration in the borough in honor of the twin brothers. However it was a celebration held in September 1913, which set the standard for the annual SS Cosmas and Damian Feast as we know it today.
On a late September Saturday, when the evening sky looked like a painted canvas, a gala event was held like no-other celebration before it. A twenty-piece Conshohocken Band marched early in the morning to start the festivities, followed with celebration church services, and an evening concert by a 40-piece Italian band. The highlight of the day came at the conclusion of the church services when the statues of St. Anthony and Cosmas and Damian were carried in a procession. The procession was led by both bands and the children of the parish, all dressed in white. The Saints statues were carried in the procession with ribbons hanging so dollar bills could be attached.
The procession started at the Italian church on Maple Street to St. Mary’s Polish Church at Elm and Maple Streets, countermarch on Maple Street to Seventh Avenue and countermarch to the church at Fifth Avenue. The statues were placed on wooden planks and carried by a number of the parish’s men. The bearers of the statures considered it an honor to carry the statues through the streets of the borough. The various societies involved in the procession held a meeting, and the carrying places were put up for auction. The ones bidding the highest prices were selected as the honor men who carried the saints.
Maple Street was a sea of color from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue. Every home had colorful bunting hung across the front walls of the houses. Electric lights were strung along the parade route so when night fell the street would be illuminated. Two bandstand stages were set up, one at First Avenue and one at Fifth Avenue. As the sun dropped out of the evening sky, children squealed as they knew fireworks would soon fill the night sky.
Thousands of residents witnessed and attended the SS Cosmas and Damien event in 1913. The entire affair cost $950. Remember, fireworks cost a fortune back then, $500 for the 45 minute display. The Italian Societies contributed $650. While the general public contributed $300.
As the Recorder newspaper reported on September 30, 1913:
Outside of the one arrest for drunkenness there was no
other untoward incident except the act of a mean thief who stole
the large Italian flag which was used in decoration of the stands.
Five years after the first feast on October 17, 1917, the St. Rita Sodality of SS Cosmas and Damian Church was established, the first of many church organizations formed over the years. SS Cosmas and Damian Feast was the oldest and longest continuing celebration in this borough’s history. The church celebrated their centennial in 2012 in their third church building, all located at Fifth Avenue and Maple Street. The feast celebrated their 100th and final year in 2013.
It all started in the late 1800’s when a small group of Italian immigrants choose to make Conshohocken their home, Conshohocken welcomed them with open arms just as the borough did for the Irish, Polish, and Germans. When the old folks of the town say “I miss the od Conshohocken” they’re talking about the love and family and the celebrations of all the immigrants who chose to call Conshohocken home.
I miss going to the fall feast of SS Cosmas & Damian, however I did enjoy the roast pork sandwich and fried dough at the Andrew Lannutti Post on Sunday September 29. I flashed back to the cool October Friday nights, attending an Archbishop Kennedy football game and hustling down to the feast after the game to snap a few photographs for the Conshohocken Recorder (the feast was held in October for a number of years)
I’m sure most of us never thought the feast would be a memory discussed at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table, the classic, “Remember When” conversation.
My memories of the feast besides taking photographs for the paper will always be the sense of family, warm greetings, the children, (who are all grown up now) the love and faith of the event.
I’m happy I lived in a time where I got to experience both SS Cosmas and St. Mary’s Feast, what a time!
Thanks For The Memories!
A good portion of this article was taken from the book “Tales of Conshohocken and Beyond” written by Jack and Brian Coll
Enjoy a few photos from over the years. The color ones are all from 2011, and the black and white is from the early 80’s.