Note: this article is Part II of a series. Click here for Part I.
Two months ago, as we stood in front of St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church, Frank DeSimone recalled one of his fondest childhood memories: the annual visit of the Joseph A. Ferko String Band.
In the 1950s, Philadelphia was defined not by neighborhoods, but by parishes, and the local string band was a parish’s pride and joy.
“In those days, there would be a million and half people along North Broad Street,” Frank said. “It was HUGE!”
And every New Year’s Day, the populace of St. Monica’s Parish was serenaded by 85 very honored guests.
The Mummers Parade, which formally began in 1895, was initially a kind of subversive institution, an assertion of Roman Catholic identity in a largely Protestant city. The Quaker founders, who strove for simplicity in life and worship, were particularly suspect of “popery.” Like the Puritans of New England, Quakers viewed liturgical feasts such as Christmas as excuses for public revelry and mischief rather than quiet devotion. In 1733, the city leadership grew concerned that the Jesuits had arrived in Philadelphia. The Provincial Council of Pennsylvania noted that it was: “no small concern to hear that a House lately built in Walnut Street.was sett apart for the Exercise of the Roman Catholick Religion and it is commonly called the Romish Chappell . where Mass [is] openly celebrated by a Popish priest, contrary to the Laws of England.” Remarkably, the Council determined that Philadelphia’s fledgling Roman Catholic population was protected by William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, which guaranteed religious freedom for all. The “Romish Chappell” in question became Old Joseph’s Church, which still stands in Society Hill. Yet the hostility continued. In 1808, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a bill declared that “masquerades, masquerade balls, and masked processions were public nuisances” Some of this animus against dressing up was no doubt fueled by anti-Catholic sentiment, which grew to a fever pitch during the “Know Nothing” Philadelphia riots of the 1830s, in which Protestant rioters torched Roman Catholic churches, homes, and businesses.
By the late 19th century, a huge influx of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany tipped the balance of political power in Philadelphia in favor of the Roman Catholic electorate. Inspired by the religious pageants from their native lands, as well as celebrations of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the city’s burgeoning working class — whose toil in the factories and mills supported the lifestyles of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age elite — decided to put on their own annual fete. In 1923, a new string band joined the ranks of revelers parading up Broad Street at the start of every year: the Joseph A. Ferko String Band. Its clubhouse was located near the Delaware River on 2nd Street. The band’s founder Joseph Ferko was a pharmacist from North Philadelphia, who for nearly fifty years led the group up Broad Street, and on to twenty first place finishes.
St. Monica’s Parish — centered around the church at 17th and Ritner — was located relatively close to the parade’s starting point at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue. So every New Year’s Day, the Ferko String Band would arrive at St. Monica’s basement and change into their elaborate customs. At 10am, Frank recalled, the 85 men of the Ferko String Band would walk out in all their colorful finery and serenade the 35 nuns on the convent steps with their renditions of “Alabama Jubilee,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and other popular songs.
Then, the priest of St. Monica’s Church would bless the men of Ferko, and off they would strut to the parade route.
“I wouldn’t go to the parade until I saw Ferko!” Frank said.
And the performance pleased the nuns who taught Frank and his friends at the parish school. “If you spoke out of turn in class,” he said, “you were a ‘bold, brazen article!’ The last thing you wanted was for your parents to receive a note from Sister.”
Interview with Frank DeSimone, March 22, 2015.
“The Joseph A. Ferko String Band,” accessed May 6, 2015. http://www.ferko.com/pages/jandband.htm
“Old St. Joseph’s in the 18th Century,” accessed May 6, 2015. http://oldstjoseph.org/blog/about-osj/history/18th-century/