New Castle, Delaware
Community History and Archaeology Program 
Brandywine Crossroads Sept 25, 1986

Pioneer Catholic church nears 200th anniversary

By Ann Morris Mertz
Seven miles west of Wilmington in Mill Creek Hundred on the south side of Lancaster Pike, stands an iron sign, a state historical marker.

It says, "St. Mary's Church, site of the first Catholic Church in Delaware, usually called 'Coffee Run Church.' Land purchased 1772 by Rev, Matthias Manners. First church erected shortly there- after. Last church erected by Rev. Patrick Kenny. Remained standing until 1908. Services discontinued in 1884 upon erection of churches at Hockessin and Ashland."

But there's more than that to the story of Coffee Run Church -- there is pathos, emotion, endurance, labor, love. And more research has accomplished since the sign was put up in 1933; it' s not entirely accurate.

Until a year ago, a small building -- neither historically significant nor terribly old -- stood near the marker, beside the old cemetery. It sheltered an altar but became so dilapidated that the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington had it torn down. A marble altar is still there, out in the weather, used once a year a by the Knights of Columbus.

The organization has offered a Mass there every July Fourth for more than 30 years. About 100 people attend, to recognize the cradle of Catholicism in Delaware and to celebrate the memory of its first Catholic Church.

Now there is growing interest in this spot. In four years, Catholics will mark the 200th birthday of the first real church, a 1790 log building that at first was called Mill Creek and later was known as St. Mary of the Assumption at Coffee Run.

The Knights of Columbus and St. Mary of the Assumption parish want to erect a replica of the old log church on the spot where it once stood. At the same time, St. Mary's will update the history of the Hockessin parish.

No exact picture exists of the 1790 building, only an imaginative artist's sketch. And it is unclear who built it. But there is a ground plan, drawn in the Rev. Kenny's precious old diary. In 1802, Kenny rebuilt the small log structure so it would accommodate 14 pews.

A regular occupant of pew No. 1 for quite a while was Mrs. Victor du Pont (a native Frenchwoman, Gabrielle Josephine de Pelleport). She was a devout Catholic who lived at Hagley on the Brandywine.

Pictures do exist of the next building, a frame structure erected in 1850 - but not by Kenny, as the historical marker says. Coffee Run connects two eras of U.S . Catholicism - the Colonial and the national - by linking early mission farms of English and German Jesuits to 19th century parish churches. The mission, lying right in the path of missionaries traveling from Maryland to Philadelphia, was between two great Colonial religious holdings. It proved to be an example of the doctrine of tolerance - William Penn's Quaker lands in Penn's Sylvania (woodlands) were just north of it, and Lord Baltimore's grant south of it had been given by the King of England as an American province/refuge for Catholics.

As early as 1745, Maryland and Delaware Catholics were served by traveling priests, English Jesuits from Bohemia Manor at Warwick, Md., just a few miles from the Delaware line. They often stayed at the homes of Catholic families. In Delaware, Cornelius Hallahan, a well-to-do Irish immigrant farmer and ironmonger (blacksmith), had arrived in the United States by 1747. He bought a plantation from William Penn's daughter, Letitia Aubrey.

The property had been part of her "Manor of Stenning," 1,500 acres on Red Clay Creek, a corner ot which is still marked by a stone on Burnt Mill Road. "Letitia's Manor" also took in Yorklyn, Ashland and Hockessin. Many times thereafter, Mass was said at the Hallahan house, "Cuba Rock" (later known as Mount Cuba) near Loveville Road. During the Battle of the Brandywine, the Hallahans' only son, John, and his Quaker wife, Phoebe, were hosts to Gen. George Was hington, who used their home at Chadds Ford, Pa., as his head- quarters.

In 1772, a permanent base for the earliest Catholics had been established in Delaware by the Jesuits, who bought a 208-acre farm from Samuel Lyle in Mill Creek Hundred on a stream called Coffee Run. (It was said that the water was so muddy it was the color of coffee.)

The Rev. Matthias Manners, a German Jesuit, could not legally hold title to land, hence the purchase was made in the name of the Rev. John Lewis. On this "plantation," Lewis built a log residence that doubled as a house and chapel for at least 15 years, possibly longer. Lewis, Manners and the Rev. Robert Molyneux all operated out of Bohemia in Maryland, serving many outlying missions with Mill Creek Hundred as a base, until 1790 when the first log church was built.

[section missing] Eleven years later he built a larger house across the road which is also still in use. Then he completely renovated SL Mary of the Assumption, the Coffee Run church.

By now, Hockessin - an Indian word meaning 'little foxes - had grown into a thriving settlement.

It was a long walk and even a hard buggy ride from the Hagley Yards, where the Irish powdermen's families lived. But it was their closest Catholic church for many years. Kenny served the Irish families at Hagley and gave immediate personal attention to victims of powder explosions.

Kenny often said Mass at the Victor du Pont home at Louviers on the Brandywine. The family was generous with hospitality, books, kindness and money for special needs. It was through Kenny s efforts that St. Joseph's-on-the-Brandywine was established, although he did not live to see it completed.

Worn out with his full but difficult career, this lame but untiring priest died at 80, having molded a diocese in an era of "growing pains" in and around Wilmington. He also had been instrumental in starting St. Peter's Church in Wilmington, St. Peter's Church in New Castle, an orphanage, a boarding school and a college.

After his death, Coffee Run church was used only intermittently because of the two new churches on the Brandywine and in Wilmington. But 10 years later the Catholic population center returned to the Coffee Run area because of work in numerous nearby quarries, so the old church was re [missing] --- THE REV. John Rosseter, an Augustinin, had been credited with building it, but recent research indicates that he didn't come to America until 1794. He is now considered "the first resident pastor at Mill Creek Hundred", before his arrival, it is believed that the priests of Bohemia Manor continued to serve the log church during their travels as they had been doing in homes for many years.

The White Clay Creek plantation was served for four more years after Rosseter by the Rev. Charles Whalen, a Capuchin, with two occasional substitutes. Then Delaware's remarkable 'pioneer," Patrick Kenny, arrived after a short residence in Pennsylvania.

After six years he was able to buy Coffee Run Farm, the church and the cemetery from the Jesuits. By farming the land to produce cash, and with much self-sacrifice, he was able to nurture the spiritual welfare of this church and many missions in three counties and two states.

Kenny endured both physical and spiritual suffering for 36 years, first riding by horseback and later in a four-wheeled dearborn with a cloth top, he traveled to mission stations in West Chester, Ivy Mills, Concord, Doe Run, HagleyYard, Wilmington, New Castle, Londonderry and Philadelphia.

By 1812 he had constructed a large barn and then built for himself a rectory of stone. This was refurbished and reopened

More space was needed, so a small frame building, painted brown, replaced the log one in 1850. It had a simple cross over the doorway and an interior of bare simplicity. A wood stove piped "central heating" across the front of the church near the ceiling. Another population shift came 30 years later, due to farming, clay pits, lime kilns, the Yorklyn snuff mill, Wooddales' quarry, and the building of the Delaware and Western Railroad. A Catholic church was built at Ashland and very soon another in Hockessin.

The little St. Mary's of the Assumption at Coffee Run was demolished in 1912.

The old Coffee Run Cemetery still remains, now guarded by an iron gate. Historians believe the burying ground predates the first log church by many years, possibly dating as far as 1750. Graves have been obliterated by time; some are unmarked, the writing on some stones illegible. One headstone appears to be dated 1764.

We know that Cornelius and Margaret Hallahan were buried there in 1788, before the erection of the log church.