Phila.'s first Catholic mission still a symbol The Willcox estate has been in the family since the 1720s. Friends of Old St. Thomas seeks funds for renovation.
CONCORD TOWNSHIP — Since 1995, Mark Willcox 3d has been renovating his family's once-grand homestead, a three-story colonial also known as the first Catholic mission in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
He estimates that he has already spent "several hundred thousand dollars" to refurbish the 9,500-square-foot home, money he hopes to recover by renting out the building for weddings and social gatherings once his work is complete.
"That's how we hope to keep supporting the place," Willcox said. "Plus, I just want people to see it."
The Willcox Estate has been in the family for eight generations, since the 1720s, when priests traveling to Philadelphia from Maryland stopped to rest and say Mass. That first Mass established the Willcox home as a Catholic mission.
By 1837, the Willcoxes had expanded their home and built inside it a small chapel they called St. Mary's Chapel, which helped to accommodate the traveling priests and a handful of local Catholics who came once or twice a month to worship.
"We feel this site is the physical manifestation of religious freedom," said Marianne Squyres, the president of the Friends of Old St. Thomas, a group that seeks to maintain historic buildings in the area. "It's a place where the idea [of religious freedom] really grabbed hold."
Friends of Old St. Thomas is conducting research on possible grants toward renovation and is trying to spur community support for the project.
At the home, the first and second floors have been refurbished and look new. Hardwood floors gleam, and large windows let sunlight stream in. The third floor, however, has been roped off. There, the dark rooms smell like earth. Old, scuffed floors creak, and broken furniture is stacked all over.
The Rev. Michael J. McNally, a professor of church history at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, stumbled upon the Willcox estate, and St. Mary's Chapel, in March.
"I had done some study of the Jesuits of Maryland and knew [St. Mary's] was one of the first in Philadelphia," he said. "I'm wandering around, and I get to the house and I didn't think anyone would be home. Well, Mark Willcox 3d was there, and he gave me a tour."
After asking Willcox's permission, Father McNally brought a group of about 30 seminarians to the chapel for Mass. Such a service had not been held in the chapel since the 1850s, when the nearby Catholic church, St. Thomas the Apostle, was erected on land donated by the Willcoxes.
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St. Thomas the Apostle is considered the first Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Thomas Willcox and his wife, Elizabeth Cole, settled on the property, at Ivy Mills and Polecat Roads in the 1720s, Squyres said.
The family established a thriving paper mill, which would produce paper for Benjamin Franklin's print shop, colonial currency, and the first United States currency.
She said the first Mass in the Willcox home was celebrated about 1720, although the first priest who said this Mass is unknown.
Father McNally said it was not unusual for Catholic priests of that time to saddle up and visit private homes, saying Mass, and spreading the faith.
"They just traveled," he said. "They would go from place to place, sometimes visiting once a year."
The Willcoxes offered an especially attractive venue, he said, because paper mill workers would come to Mass with the family. The more Catholics the priests could visit at one place at one time, the better.
The house has been passed down through generations, although the family always maintained a good relationship with the archdiocese. In the heat of the summer, the young seminarians from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary would vacation there. They also took refuge there during the Know-Nothing riots in the 1840s.
In 1924, the last of the Willcox mills ceased operation. During hard times, the family would take in boarders or sell eggs to keep from selling the home. In time, it fell into severe disrepair. Willcox said, however, that the home had been continuously occupied until renovations began in 1995.
A newly placed historic marker, which stands along the tree-lined drive of Ivy Mills, simply states that "an early Catholic mission was established on the property."
Mark Willcox 3d said he was working to restore both the property of his family and the history of his community. And he wants others to be involved. Only a handful of volunteers have chipped in to help, however, signing their names in felt-tip pen on a wall inside a closet.
"Right now, we're doing it all out of our own pocket," he said.
Kelly Wolfe's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.