A "Kinger" Laments the Closing of a Beloved Church

On the same day that Michael Fleming’s op-ed on the fascinating history of St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine appeared in the News Journal, Bishop Malooly of the Diocese of Wilmington was meeting with the parishioners of Christ Our King Church in Wilmington to tell them they were closing the church in September of this year.

While not completely unexpected, the parishioners were clearly shaken by the news. These remaining loyal “Kingers” have stuck by the church through years of declining local Catholic population – many driving deep into the inner city from the outer reaches of the county to attend weekend masses. A few years ago the Bishop put the parish into the hands of Father Joseph Brennan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, the religious order that runs the highly successful Salesianum School. The likeable Father Brennan quickly developed a strong following but he was clearly swimming upstream against a heavy current.

While the Bishop must have known he would be met by a disappointed flock, I’m not sure he was ready for the barrage of questions and emotions that came his way last Tuesday night – the Kingers did not want to go down without a fight and they were frustrated that the diocese was not doing more or allowing more time in order to help keep the institution alive. One member of the congregation after another got up and referred to how their parents were married there, their children baptized there or beloved family members buried from there. You could sense that an important part of the fabric of their lives was being taken away and it was clearly painful.

Several of the questions related to what was going to happen to the magnificent stone church, rectory and convent that fill one of the most beautiful and peaceful blocks in the Old Ninth Ward. To the congregation it was just hard to imagine this oasis in a troubled city surrounded by a cyclone fence with signs warning trespassers to keep out.


The 1960 Kinger baseball team

To this writer and 70-year parishioner, the loss of Christ Our King signifies more than a loss for the Catholic Church and the parishioners who love it. To me it has an element of betrayal to the legacy of our ancestors and the way of life and community that the “greatest generation” sacrificed so much for.

These blue collar Wilmingtonians first built a school to educate their children while cramming into the basement for many years until they could collect enough on Sundays to build their church. Once constructed in the years after WWII, the campus filled two city blocks. The elementary school would educate future mayors, a Speaker of the House, great business leaders like philanthropist Jim Kearns and even a future head of the US Navy SEALs.

Can Christ Our King be Saved?

I guess I was surprised to realize as I listened to the Bishop that Christ Our King receives no direct financial support from the diocese, in fact the struggling parish has been a leader providing support for programs of the diocese – half of the more than $100,000 contributed by members of the parish in a fundraising drive last year was returned to the diocese. And the Bishop started his remarks by saying that in fact Christ Our King is typically one of the first parishes to reach the diocesan fundraising goals each year.

So as I left the church Tuesday night I began to wonder what the reaction might have been had the Bishop instead of bringing his CFO to read us the numbers, had brought a different message – a message challenging the parish to survive, such as:

I’m here tonight to tell you that Christ Our King is in deep trouble – we need to raise an immediate $500,000 to address several infrastructure issues and we need to find a way to raise an additional $100,000 a year – now let’s see if we can come up with a way together to do this!

I am sure that many readers of this publication have been a part of a fundraising drive for amounts greater than $500,000 – and actually the task would be only $250,000 if the convent with a roof in need of repair could be donated to another good cause with deeper pockets than COK’s (there was almost a deal recently to use it as a shelter for homeless women veterans – this and other organizations may have access to state or federal funds).

COK alumni probably number in the thousands and many are still in the area and unaware that an important part of their heritage is about to go under. Perhaps there could be an approach to area foundations, wealthy individuals and other sources of funds, even a “Save COK” dinner could be organized at the Chase Center (maybe we can bring that SEAL home to rally the Kingers). But as the diocese pointed out there would still be the serious challenge of projected deficits (in recent years these annual deficits of approximately $100,000 have been covered by the proceeds of the sale of the school and those funds run out this year). That would indicate that at current giving levels the number of parishioners would also need to rise by approximately 100 to sustain the church.

Who knows, maybe there is a brighter day in the future for the Catholic Church and the City of Wilmington and we just need to build a bridge to that time. But what we can count on for sure is that once Christ Our King closes, it will be gone forever – an edifice that should have stood for centuries in tribute to the families who built it.

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  • Good article! I wish there was something we could do tp keep COK open. The meeting with the Bishop was a sham — it was already decided that Christ our King was to close. I have been a member of COK since birth. My parents are part of the generation to send us to a Catholic school and give us a good foundation of what to do in life. I don’t think the Bishop’s advisors paid any attention to it — just the numbers!! Not the spirit.

    Veronica Boettger

  • Perhaps a meeting just for those who have faith the Church can survive? Without The Bishop, CFO and the others who already had a plan in place.

  • A few lines of a poem by a 1959 COK Grad written for graduation day.
    “Farewell, fellow members of Christ Our King
    To the good old days and all those things.
    The way we fought in school and play,
    Without no food, without no pay.” -James A. Haney

    Okay, written by a 13-year-old. Part of me was lost
    when the basketball courts went down. And,
    fellow Kingers, it will all soon be part of
    “our good old days.” I am happy that I was a
    part of them and they are etched in my memory.

  • I guess I will have to have my parent’s funeral at another church. And that sucks because they put their heart and soul into this one.

    • Hi Gregory If your mother is Mary Jane Mulherin Szymanski I went to COK and Usuline with her.Tell her I said hello and would like to speak with her.I text and my phone # [cell} is 610-400-7930. My cousin Ellen told me today about the church closing and I was shocked and very very sad.Our history is being demolished. Take care Christa Kenney my e-mail is christa.kenney@yahoo.com

  • Excellent article that truly captures the strong spirit of COK and speaks to the heartbroken feelings of the parishioners. Thank you. We were so saddened and disappointed by the meeting with the bishop because the generations the faithful Catholics who built the church “brick by brick” were not considered important enough to be involved in the process.

  • It is just so sad that the leaders just seem to ” busy”, ” tired”, ” not interested”, fill in whatever adjective you want to bother coming up with ideas, solutions to help save and God forbid encourage parishioners to rally behind their parishes. So much is done behind closed doors and by the time we hear of it the result has already been determined. If the diocese has even a few priests with the enthusiasm, spirit and upbeat, can do attitude that Fr. Brennan has maybe the churches would be filled. I, for one am sick of the older priests running the parishes, ( I.e. St. Joseph on the Brandywine) who are tired, uninterested, should be retired and do not want to or encourage anything “new”. I understand their are few younger priests, but there has to be a better solution.

  • Committee meeting starting next Wednesday June 1st in the church hall 7pm. Committee to work with the diocese over the coming months to “close the Christ Our King with dignity”

  • Very good article “Cousin” John. My parents were married at Christ Our King. I was baptized at COK as were most of my brothers & sisters, plus my youngest daughter Katie. “The Yard” was the center of the Old Ninth Ward for many, many years. Very sorry to hear that it’s closing. Many fond memories of those “Kingers” who lived in the area.

  • So sad. COK was a big part of my life. Great article John. You captured all of the emotions I am feeling right now

  • if the “Kingers” got together and put a serious
    effort forth with the right plan, there is no doubt
    that the Church and property could be saved.
    If a passionate group of successful “Kingers” couldn’t
    raise $500k and $100k a year for 5 years to see
    what transpires I’d be shocked! The “Autism
    Golf Classi” held at DuPont CC three weeks
    ago raised $500k in one day! The only question
    here is how bad do you want to save this Wilmington
    Centerpiece with so much history.

  • John,

    Thank you for capturing what so many of us are feeling right now and you did it in a very thoughtful and respectful way. Where did you ever learn to write so well? Of course, we all know the answer to that question. If we can’t save the parish, we will have to keep all of our wonderful memories in our hearts and minds and we can share those memories at our next Christ Out King reunion

  • John, So we’ll put. My parents as well were married @ COK, in the rectory, as my dad was a non-Catholic.
    As promised they raised a 5 of us as practicing members, and my Dad converted late in life.
    What a great place to grow up, was the Ninth Ward. Kids by the bus load everywhere. Parents working hard to make a better life for their children. Many volonteers for sports, scouts, etc.
    Boy were we lucky!
    Monseignor Lynch, singlehandedly built that church from little contributions from many, and without a mortgage, if rumor is correct. Another rumor was his uncanny way of finding realestate for the diocese to expand throughout New Castle County.
    I’m sure that he is reading in his grave at this breach of trust.
    John, Thanks again for the comments, and the opportunity to fondly remember our days as “Kingers”
    Jim Brooks

  • As a 1946 graduate, I was long gone before the ‘new’ church was built. For eight years, my school mates and I turned in many full books of war savings stamps and dropped many a nickel into the collection basket as we dreamed of a beautiful new church across the street from the school. And it was built debt free! I’m not sure anyone but Msgr. Lynch could have accomplished that. And only back in the day!

  • This is a very sad ending for so many tried and true Catholic’s. I hear my mom speak the way each writer speaks about their heart and history of COK. Her’s of Sacred Heart. I agree that if the Autism even can raise $500,000 in a day (with work leading up to it in sponsorships, guests etc. something can be surely put together for this COK loving community. I’m sure I know a roofer that would do a favor. I bet we all know someone that would help in someway. How about a Save COK GolfOuting Day?
    I’d be happy to help in any way.

  • Dear Mr. Riley-
    I definitely don’t want to sound negative, but the time to act has long passed to take action. My family includes two generations of proud Kingers to include the Admiral. However, COK has had financial difficulties dating back to the 70’s and 80’s. I fondly recall walking to school in the mornings from 20th Street with the Ogden’s,Miller’s, Joyce’s, and our cousins about 20 of us in total. When I graduated COK in the early 80’s that walk included about 3, which was close to the total amount of Catholics that were in my graduating class. The diocese had to bus folks in from the bigger suburban catholic parishes just to keep the lights on. The church suffered a loss of parishioners at about the same rate. As I mentioned, two generations of my family attended COK including my Uncle (who became a priest and recently served at COK)and mother as well as all eight of my siblings (including the Admiral). My father worked 2-3 jobs to ensure that his children all attended COK. A generation that cared is sadly followed by generations not willing to make those sacrifices. My suggestion is to petition the school that most male Kingers went to post-COK, and are currently presiding over the Parish. Salesianum is thriving and their alumni are extremely generous. Sallies could utilize the space for both retired Oblates, and an actual church for their students to attend. Sadly, the continued struggle by my brother to battle ISIS and terrorism is a much easier battle for him than resurrecting the ideals and values of my parents and their generation.

    Proud Kinger for life!

  • The Bishop needs to take a serious look at St. Hedwig. Look at that location! Shoot ’em up area for sure. The space of that church is continually being cleaned, repaired, restored, and with the attachment of an electric security iron gate around the rectory and an additional fence of the same magnitude around the leased building across the street from the church. (formally St. Hedwig Elementary School — closed 2006) that is no longer connected with the church except for its income to gussey up the space in the church for declining attendance. “Here’s the church, there’s the steeple — where’s the people???” Why does the church continue to remain fluffy flourishing with many $$$$$$ for who and how many parishioners??!!! Whatever happened to Mojeska Hall??? St. Hedwig owned it.

  • Let it go! These comments are full of nostalgia. That’s fine, but we need to live in the present. I lived across from COK and had my children baptized there, etc…..ut those days are gone.

    God, hopefully, is taking Catholics to a new place. Don’t be afraid to go there.

    Why, on God’s earth, would anyone think that the church could go through the abuse scandal it suffered and not pay for it with church closings and school closings? The church is loathed to close churches because the envelopes keep coming in. It had no problem at all closing COK school as well as St. Thomas’s, St. Mathew’s, St. Catherine’s, Holy Rosary, St. Hedwig’s, St. Stanislaw’s , St. Helena’s, etc.

    Let’s close these churches and regroup to see what God wants to do next. Obviously, the education gig has run its course.

  • Great article, John. You captured the sentiments of all Kingers. I’m still close friends with some classmates (and we know how long ago that was!) — good times, great memories, wonderful education. Am saddened by the news.

  • Lovely piece, John. We all learned to write well there, didn’t we? OR ELSE!

    Although it has been decades since I attended COK, the buildings hold many memories from my childhood. It is always sad when such monumental places close their doors forever.

  • Mary Ellen Brown I lived across from church and went to COK school. If we can pull together as a community and parishioners who moved out Wilmington can we do something to make a difference and save the church..please

  • We can please make a difference in our community and raise money. I will commit time and whose interested?

  • John, thanks for a truly thought-provoking article—an incisive and balanced summary detailing the complexity of the issues facing Christ Our King. While not a ‘Kinger’, I grew up with so many friends from the parish that I almost feel one of them. Sincere best wishes for all efforts to save one of Wilmington’s most venerable parishes.

  • I too, like Shirley {Walman] Ackerman graduated in the class of 1946 and was part of the life of the students lives of that era.Christ Our King was a leader in both academics and athletics and was a feeder school to the growth and accomplishments of Salesianum,Archmere and Ursiline.I just happened to log on to the sad news of its closing
    while visiting with one of my daughters in Doylestown,Pa and felt obligated to add my comments to what a great experience that we the students of a by-gone era enjoyed .