Joe Costello and Bobby Scheb often walk the grounds of Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church in West Philadelphia, each step kicking up a childhood memory. They laugh about the nuns who threatened to slice little fingers on the school paper cutter, and the whiskey bottle that a student taped to Mary's hand on the garden Pieta, so tightly that a sister trying to remove it broke off four of the Blessed Virgin's fingers. They marvel at the little old lady in the rowhouse who left the parish a cool $1 million when she died.

Their walks, in the shadow of the now-closed church's looming twin spires, have taken on urgency as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia readies the property at 48th Street and Lancaster Avenue for a pending sale and a probably less-than-sacrosanct use. Naturally, Costello, 68, of Ardmore, and Scheb, 67, of Broomall, would be there Monday for the exhumation of the first pastor's remains from a white marble sarcophagus at the front steps. They couldn't miss it.

The Rev. Francis A. Sharkey, who was born in Ireland, founded Our Mother of Sorrows in 1857 and died on a visit to Liverpool, England, in 1881. He was so beloved by the congregation in a Catholic community of mostly Irish, German, and Italian families that his body was said to have been shipped back to America to be laid to rest, as a sort of eternal greeter.

Our Mother of Sorrows Church in West Philadelphia.
Google Maps
Our Mother of Sorrows Church in West Philadelphia.

The Latin inscription on the stone cover of the grave says as much, said Anthony DeCurtis, an adjunct professor of English at Widener University, who grew up in West Philadelphia and also came by for the exhumation.

The property, which includes a rectory, convent, school and other structures, is under an agreement of sale, subject to approval of a subdivision that will separate the buildings from the adjacent Old Cathedral Cemetery, which will be retained by the archdiocese. Spokesman Kenneth Gavin said he could not comment further on the sale.

Our Mother of Sorrows, once one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese, was closed in October 2017.  Long plagued by declining attendance, it had merged with St. Ignatius of Loyola in 2013, and afterward served as a worship site for Masses and special services.

Our Mother of Sorrows was the second church on the property, according to The History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. The first, St. Gregory's, was founded shortly after Bishop Francis Kenrick purchased a 43-acre farm in 1849 to serve as the cathedral cemetery. A local priest, the Rev. James McGinnis, chaplain at the nearby St. John's Orphanage, began holding Masses for the cemetery workers in a small shed on the property. As attendance grew, the congregation morphed into Our Mother of Sorrows.

The Romanesque stone structure that now stands on the site was designed by the Edwin F. Durang architectural firm, noted church architects in Philadelphia.

In 1996, Mary McGinnis, an 87-year-old woman who lived a frugal life with her brother on nearby St. Bernard Street, left the church $1 million. McGinnis, who dressed in tattered clothing and rode a bus each day to a South Philadelphia senior center for breakfast and lunch, had amassed a fortune working for the Pennsylvania Railroad.  She stuffed much of it inside her old-fashioned cast-iron stove.

With the $1 million, the church established a scholarship fund in her family's name.

McGinnis was a distant relative of Costello, a retired Inquirer pressman, who grew up with 11 siblings across St. Bernard Street. On Monday, he was joined by Scheb,  a retired painter, DeCurtis, and Dan Callaghan, 68, a former grounds supervisor in Haverford Township who also grew up in West Philly.

The men watched for hours as three workers used a backhoe to hoist the 3,600-pound sarcophagus cover, only to find a layer of cement inside the above-ground tomb.  They then wielded pickaxes to chop at the edges of the slab to lift it.

By about 2:30 p.m., a troubling dilemma emerged.

The view inside a marble sarcophagus for the Rev. Francis A. Sharkey, founding pastor of the former Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church in West Philadelphia.
Joe Costello
The view inside a marble sarcophagus for the Rev. Francis A. Sharkey, founding pastor of the former Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church in West Philadelphia.

The Rev. Francis Sharkey wasn't there.

The workers lowered a ladder into the grave, and one of them stepped down in the eight-foot hole just to make sure.

No casket, no jewelry, no bones, no nothing.

"Do you believe it?" Costello said after spending about five hours watching the attempted exhumation. "I spent almost a whole day out here."

Robert Hicks, director of the Mütter Museum of  medical history in Center City, suspects that the priest's remains were never placed there.

"It's just not possible for this man buried in 1881, in this kind of stone crypt, to disappear with no trace," Hicks said.

By way of comparison, he noted the recent work at a cemetery dating to the 1700s at Third and Arch Streets. Excavators of those remains — some buried more than 100 years before Sharkey died — discovered coffins, bones, and skulls with hair, Hicks said. Those bodies were buried in the ground and were subject to the disintegrating effects of the soil. Sharkey was supposedly buried in a tomb lined with stone, protected from the elements.

"There would be a skeleton, coffin, hardware from the coffin. If the man was buried in ecclesiastical robes, some of that might survive," Hicks said. "The fact that there is nothing tells me that there wasn't anything there in the first place."

Hicks asked the obvious: "Where is he?"

It is possible that a casket rests beneath the vault, or that Sharkey was interred or reinterred in the adjacent cemetery, according to Gavin, the archdiocesan spokesman. He said the archdiocese would investigate.

"It's like Al Capone's vault," Scheb said, referring to the secret room that Geraldo Rivera opened to great fanfare, only to find debris.

"Who knows what happened" to the priest, he said with a shrug. "Maybe it was all for show."