Almost from the beginning, there were communities of Catholics scattered throughout the Delmarva Peninsula, and prior to founding of Old Bohemia, it had been a most arduous task to service these far-flung ‘congregations’ from Jesuit headquarters on the Western Shore of Maryland. In the state of Delaware alone, there was a congregation near the present Lewes from the end of the seventeenth century, another around Murderkill Creek (near the present town of Frederica), Kent County. There existed a congregation of Catholics also close to the town of Dover, others in the Appoquiniminck and Taylor’s Bridge areas, another closer to New Castle, and later another at Mt. Cuba, west of Wilmington.
The History of Catholicism in the Smyrna area is part of the history of the Jesuit Mission of St. Francis Xavier at Warwick, Maryland (commonly known as Old Bohemia). The Jesuits established their plantation mission there in 1704 and placed it under the supervision of Father Thomas Mansell, S.J. He was associated with the mission until his death about 1725.
Old Bohemia was selected as a base of missionary operations for many very practical reasons. It was remote, at that time, from the more heavily—and persecuted, Maryland areas; but yet it was near to Philadelphia, an important advantage insofar as Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies, and was also the most tolerant of Catholics. Additionally, land was available and cheap in this remote area. Most of all, however, it was centrally located to the numerous Jesuit missions of the Maryland Eastern Shore and State of Delaware.
From immediately before the the erection of the Diocese of Wilmington in 1868, the priests at New Castle were responsible for Smyrna and it’s general vicinity. In fact, not only for Smyrna but also for Dover—and even Salisbury. On September 11, 1868, Bishop Becker laid the cornerstone of the Church of St. Mary in Salisbury, and in 1870, on November 9, that of the Church of the Holy Cross at Dover; the cornerstone of the new church for New Castle had been laid on May 5 of the same year. The bishop had only recently assigned a regular pastor to it. The priest cared for both Smyrna and Dover; but immediately prior to this (1865) —and after the Jesuits had ceased to serve the area, it was Father Cajetan Sorrentini of New Castle, and later, for about two years, Father John Daley—also of New Castle, who provided the spiritual wants of these stalwart Catholics on a monthly basis.
Early Catholics of Smyrna
From the Smyrna Times, November 7th, 1868:“The members of the Catholic Faith in this town have rented a room in the Odd Fellows Hall for religious services. They have started a Sunday School which will be regularly organized by the Reverend Father Daley, who holds services at the room this afternoon. The establishing of this school is a move in the right direction, as these children numbering 75, do not attend other religious schools, it is important that they should have one of their own choice. It is also the nucleus of a Catholic Congregation.”
The above news item could well be considered as an account of the establishment of the Catholic Church in Smyrna, Delaware. At least it was the ‘beginning of the end’ of Smyrna as a simple mission station. For over 20 years the Jesuits from Bohemia had been coming to Smyrna and renting a house from Jacob Raymond. We know this from a letter written by the Reverend George King, S.J. (Superior at Bohemia, from 1837-1851), wherein he states that Father William F. Clark, S.J., who was with him in the late 1840’s, owed Jacob Raymond some money for the rental of the house.
Father Edward Ignatius Taylor, first pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover, according to his sacramental records, performed a magnificent ministry during his incumbency, covering practically all of Sussex, Kent and Southern New Castle County. By 1883, the fabulous George Bradford was pastor at Dover. He had already built the church at Chestertown, purchased one at Church Hill, and established one at Galena, Maryland, and now as pastor of Dover, he is responsible for the first church in Smyrna. The Catholic Mirror (the official organ of the Archbishop of Baltimore and of the bishops of the suffragan sees of Baltimore – of which the See of Wilmington is one) gives the following account on June 23, 1883:Church dedicated at Smyrna, Delaware. The Catholics of Smyrna, Delaware under the charge of Reverend Bradford of Dover, have at last succeeded in procuring a church. Some two months ago a neat and substantial building 35 X 50, until recently owned by the Presbyterians, was purchased for the sum of $2000. On Sunday, the 10th inst. the building was solemnly dedicated to the service of Almighty God under the name St. Polycarp, by the Reverend Bishop Becker of Wilmington, assisted by Reverend Fathers Keiley of Wilmington and Bradford of Dover. The High Mass was sung by Father Keiley of St. Peter’s of Wilmington, assisted by his own choir. The singing of the Mass by this choir of twenty voices was admirable. The people of Smyrna declare it to be the finest ever heard in their own town.”
The Catholics were having Mass in St. Polycarp’s Church only once a month. The priests from Dover found the trip very arduous. At first they came to Smyrna twice a month, but in 1895 they had cut down to one Sunday a month. Later they arranged for the Salesianum priests to come by train from Wilmington once a month. Finally, in 1911, the Josephite priests, from Clayton, began holding Mass at St. Polycarp’s on the first and third Sundays of each month.
1918 to Present
Early in 1918, Bishop Monaghan decided to sell St. Polycarp’s to the Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church and build a new church in Clayton. The Diocese purchased land on West Street, adjacent to the present-day Ewell’s—St. Paul Methodist Church. However, due to the outbreak of World War I, the building plans were postponed and the chapel at St. Joseph’s Industrial School, in Clayton, which was established in 1895 by Reverend John A. deRuyter, S.S.J. became the parish church. Meanwhile, the land that the diocese bought in Clayton was sold to the Methodist Church there.
For the next fifty years this Josephite Missionary Society served the needs of the church and under their care great strides were made in solidifying Catholicism in upper Kent and lower New Castle Counties. Bishop FitzMaurice was anxious to revive the Smyrna Parish of St. Polycarp’s with a diocesan priest as pastor, but was prevented from doing so by World War II and the shortage of priests.
In 1963 Father Francis J. Tierney was appointed the first diocesan pastor. He continues to build community among Catholics of the area, using the facilities at St. Joseph’s School in Clayton. Finally, on May 26, 1964, Bishop Hyle announced plans to build a new St. Polycarp’s Church on South Street and Ransom Lane in Smyrna. The new parish opened it’s doors for services for the first time on January 20, 1968 and was solemnly dedicated by Bishop Mardaga on May 26, 1968.
In May of 1969, Father John Masterson was appointed to replace Father Tierney as pastor. During Father Masterson’s six years as leader, the parish continued to grow. Ministry to the new prison at Smyrna was part of Father Masterson’s duty, as was service to the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill. He was ably assisted Reverend Mr. Robert Barcaly, then Reverend Mr. Paul Jennings, and then by Father Joseph Durkin.
In May of 1975, Reverend Philip Siry was appointed the new pastor. Again, the programs of growth continued. Bells and a new cross were added to the structure through the efforts of Father Durkin and Russell Mesina. Reverend John Cremin served St. Polycarp’s for a few months in 1982, during Father Siry’s ten year term as pastor. Reverend Leonard Mackiewicz became pastor in June, 1985, the year of St. Polycarp’s Centennial celebration. Reverend Patrick O’Neill became administrator in March 1987.
From June to November 1987 Reverend Chris Papp resided at St. Polycarp. From 1987 to 1992 Reverend Russel Perkins served at pastor. From 1992 to 2002 Reverend Ralph Martin was pastor of St. Polycarp, being followed in Spring 2002 by Reverend Thomas Flowers. Through extraordinary efforts by Father Flowers, Father Martin, Deacon Robinson, Sister Ellen Gerlach and the parish of St. Polycarp, a new building was constructed to house the Parish School of Religion, meeting rooms, a parish library and parish staff offices. The building was solemnly dedicated in October 2002 following a Mass celebrated by Bishop Saltarelli.
In June of 2015, Reverend James D. Hreha became our pastor. Fr. Jim is currently leading us in formation and the re-establishment of many committees. We are blessed to have Fr. Jim with us.