I always have fond memories of Thanksgiving in Gray’s Ferry. One especially important reason is simply because when you live in an urban neighborhood, everyone is quite frankly an extended family member. Of course, Saint Gabriel’s Parish has always been know for it’s close family relationships. You were always running into first cousins, distant relatives and pseudo-related and intermarried kinfolk all of the time. No one really ever left Gray’s Ferry, they just got married and changed their names…but they stayed until the last. Perhaps, that is the reason that the Parish life of Saint Gabriel has always been so strong and productive.
Recently, I had the chance to read something from Saint Gabriel’s past…namely, The History of Saint Gabriel Parish, the First Eight Years, written by an earlier parishioner and edited by Fr. Patrick Mellon, the founding pastor.
It is amazing how all of the familial names are the same as when we lived there in the 1960’s. The activities of the parish included carnivals, holiday celebrations, 50/50 chances and building campaigns for various buildings of the Saint Gabriel complex. When building the church, and rectory, Fr.Mellon was asked if the contractor should charge extra to dig the foundations of the church and rectory. Father Mellon responded simply,” No we dig our own foundations here at Saint Gabriel!'”  What a remarkable spirit and tenacity our forefathers had when it came to supporting each other and the Catholic Church. My own suburban parish, has abandoned the traditional pre-Thanksgiving Mass and distribution of food to the needy in favor of an ecumenical and interfaith service at the local Presbyterian church. Nothing like that would happen in the Thanksgiving period at Saint Gabriel’s then or now. Thanksgiving for Catholics at Saint Gabes was about giving thanks and making sure everyone was able to share the feast with our fellow neighbors and friends.
Another memory of the celebration was this: We did not live in the Martha Stewart world of make believe holiday celebrations. Our parents, grandparents and great grandparents were hard working, blue collar people. Some were welders, some were policemen, some were firemen. Others worked at the various utilities that surrounded the area, PECO, PGW, Sun Oil and so on. Quite often, our fathers and grandfathers worked multiple shifts on holidays, because their work kept the gears of industry and public safety grinding away so others could have the entire day off. My own father and grandfather were Philadelphia policemen and worked most holidays. It was a rare occasion when my father was present at our Thanksgiving celebration, or was awake….after working a night shift, graveyard shift or a double shift to keep Philadelphia safe and secure.
Regardless, our fathers and families knew the real meaning of the Thanksgiving celebration was our overall thankfulness for our Catholic faith, our families, our neighbors and our friends. The holiday was really about appreciating each other in our ethnically isolated enclave in Gray’s Ferry.
Growing up in the concrete urban jungle, makes me appreciate even more the great hardships our ancestors endured for the survival of the Catholic faith, their families and their manner of living in an Irish Catholic neighborhood.
I miss having multiple Thanksgiving meals, one with each set of grandparents, one paternal the other maternal…where food, laughs, whiskey, beer and cigarette smoke filled the rooms, blended with a great appreciation for life both here and in God’s heavenly kingdom.
Thanksgiving in Gray’s Ferry meant either watching the parade on TV or being lucky enough to make it to Market Street…where the real parade went by Gimbels waiting for the finale of Santa climbing into Gimbels to start the holiday season.  Tradition has it that Santa was always one of Philadelphia’s finest firefighters, that would scramble up the ladder and climb into Gimbel’s second floor window. That Santa might have been one of Gray’s Ferry’s finest…doing his job while others celebrated the Thanksgiving season.
Faith, Family and neighborhood and friends were always the hallmark of the resilient multicultural residents of Gray’s Ferry….living cultural diversity even before the term and the concept were conceived…
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone that was part of my Thanksgiving celebration growing up in Gray’s Ferry.
When we sit down and give thanks today, and devour the meal…don’t forget to thank all of those countless friends, relatives and neighbors that are now with God for the great blessings they showed us of our Catholic faith, our cultural heritages and the tenacity of our ancestors’ immigrant dreams.
Pray especially for Fr. Mellon, whose remains are still in Saint Gabriel’s Churchyard under the massive Celtic Cross. Thank him for making us a community of faith, a neighborhood of good people that contine to inspire past, present and future generations in and from Gray’s Ferry.
Slainte! Happy Thanksgiving to the diaspora of Gray’s Ferry everywhere….

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that muses on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology degree program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia.
Hugh writes daily at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com , http://catholicsacredarts.blogspot.com . He writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com.
Hugh also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
Hugh welcomes your comments via hugh.mcnichol@verizon.net.

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