St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church

St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi church exterior. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

712 Montrose Street

The first Italian national parish in the United States, St. Mary Magdalen was formed in 1852 by Bishop John Neumann to meet the spiritual needs of Philadelphia's Italian immigrant community within the Irish-dominated archdiocese.

Church leaders saw ethnic churches as a way to fortify the Catholic faith in immigrants and acculturate them to an American style of worship while staving off the temptations of secularism and the proselytizing of Protestants, whose charities often aided immigrant groups. The immigrant parishioners held their national parishes dear because they were centers of both spirituality and community. The parish church supported immigrant communities that were learning to negotiate the wider society of work and urban life.

The original parishioners of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi were Northern Italian immigrants who were more highly skilled than the southern Italian immigrants who followed them, and were fairly well-established by the time the poorer, mostly unskilled southern Italian immigrants arrived in the 19th century and early 20th centuries. The southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants were made to feel unwelcome by the Irish clerics at St. Paul's at 10th and Christian, but also sometimes felt like unwanted interlopers at St. Mary Magdalen.

By 1897, South Philadelphia's Italian immigrant population was approaching 30,000 and the congregation at St. Mary Magdalen, although led by an Italian pastor and uniformly Italian in nationality, was becoming divided by class and region of origin. That year Archbishop Ryan announced that the Italians living west of 8th Street would be given their own church. Our Lady of Good Counsel was established on the site of the old St. Paul's school building at 816 Christian in May of 1899.

By 1930, the Italian population of Philadelphia reached 150,000, with the highest concentration in South Philadelphia. The Archdiocese had by then established Italian national parishes all over the city, with several serving South Philadelphia, including Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Nicholas of Tolentine at 9th and Watkins Streets, and King of Peace at 26th and Wharton Streets. But St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi remained the historic anchor of Italian South Philadelphia.

In 2000, The Archdiocese of Philadelphia merged the parishes of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Paul's at 10th and Christian streets, and designated St. Mary Magdalen a "worship site" — a satellite church offering limited masses and funerals. Next door to the church is the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, established in 1962 and housed in the church's former rectory at 712 Montrose Street since 2002. Legend has it that Mario Lanza, known then as Freddy Cocozza, sang the Ave Maria at his old parish. The church holds a memorial mass in Lanza's honor every year.