In 1928, responding to the needs of a growing Catholic population in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty established the parish of St. Athanasius, Rev. Thomas L. Clooney, the founder pastor undertook the task of building a church and school while the religious functions of the fledgling parish took place in tents, small chapels, and basements throughout the neighborhood. The first-church building was completed in 1930 and the Sister of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, arrived to staff the school. In 1941, construction on the current “lower church” was begun and subsequently completed in 1943. As the parish continued to grow, construction of an “upper church” began in 1953 and was completed in 1955. During the decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s, demographic changes caused a reduction in the size of the parish, but never its vibrancy. Since its foundation under Rev. Thomas L. Clooney, St. Athanasius has thrived under the leadership of its successive pastors: Msgr. Hugh McMullen, Msgr. John Caulfield, Msgr. Michael Burke, Msgr. Kenneth McAteer, and Msgr. Herbert A. Bevard, who was the Vicar of Philadelphia North.
Under Msgr. Bevard’s leadership, the upper church , closed for twenty years, was restored to its former beauty and reopened for the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments. Today, St. Athanasius Parish is a flourishing, predominately African American community with many spiritual, social, and community outreach organizations. Its school merged in 1987 with neighboring Immaculate Conception School and it is still under the leadership of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who in concert with a dedicated lay faculty, offer a quality education in a state-of-the-art institution which boast Smart Boards, classroom computers, expanded library, art, computer, and science centers.
Msgr. Bevard was appointed Bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in July, 2008. The church of St. Athanasius was graced with the appointment by His Eminence Cardinal Justin Rigali, of Father Joseph Okonski as the new pastor of this prayerful and vibrant congregation. Father Okonski is the only pastor in the city of Philadelphia who is also a son of his parish.
With the help of God and His Holy Mother, and under the guidance of Father Okonski, St. Athanasius will continue to be a beacon in the community and a spiritual stimulus to the parish family.