Spring was supposed to be only two days away. But for those who gathered on the chilly, rainy morning of March 19 ,1927 outside the Lehigh Valley Railroad Station in Allentown, it must have seemed a lot farther away. But despite the weather, hopes were high among the presidents of the city’s various Catholic societies, listed in that day’s newspaper as St. Joseph’s, St. Aloysius, St. Francis, Knights of St. George and the Holy Name Society, that were there to welcome His Eminence Cardinal Dennis Joseph Dougherty, the Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia. The Cardinal was coming to Allentown to celebrate a subject that was close to his heart, Catholic schools. He was to officiate at the cornerstone laying at Monsignor Masson Memorial School in Sacred Heart parish. It was named for the late Msgr. Peter Masson, the beloved pastor of Sacred Heart who had died a little over a year before.
For Dougherty, growing up in Ashland, Pennsylvania, the son of immigrants from County Mayo, Ireland (his father was a coalminer), there was no Catholic school for him to attend. Dougherty had always felt the loss in his life and was to build many of them in the Philadelphia archdiocese, of which Allentown was then a part. As trains did back then, Dougherty’s arrived on time at 11:30. After being greeted by the assembled Catholic lay leaders, they drove the short distance up to Sacred Heart’s rectory. Presented with a large bouquet of “Cardinal Roses” by female students dressed in white, Dougherty told them he hoped that they would attend the new school and do well there. He then granted them a “free day” off from school and was given a musical program of welcome by 1,400 American flag-waving students under the direction of the Sisters of St. Francis.
At noon the Cardinal was greeted by the board of trustees of Sacred Heart Hospital. Headed by General Harry C. Trexler, they were William T. Harris, George K. Mosser, Fredrick K. Lanshe, the Rev. Charles E. Bowles, the Rev. Leo Gregory Fink and Allentown’s mayor, Malcolm W. Gross. Trexler, who did not belong to any church, had long been an admirer of the Catholic Church’s “business structure” and is quoted as having said he compared it to AT&T in efficiency. Bethlehem Steel’s Charles Schwab, a Catholic, noted that Masson was one of the best organizers he knew and would have had an excellent career in business if he had not chosen the priesthood.
Following a lunch at the hospital and more music- this time from the Allentown Municipal Band and a boys choir- Dougherty, heading a procession of 40 priests, noted the Morning Call, “wended its way up 4th Street to the new school.” Once on the platform, Rev. Fink adjusted the copper box in which selected items were placed. It included the Bible, an American flag, copies of local newspapers, envelopes with 1927 coins, a crucifix, a rosery, a scapular and prayers to Christ as the Sacred Heart. Masons employed on the construction project sealed the box and Dougherty put the first mortar into place on the cornerstone, ending the ceremony. Brief remarks were given in the church by Rev. Fink, and Dougherty returned to Philadelphia.
Long before that day, Catholic education had been encouraged in the Lehigh Valley. The earliest roots go back to the 1750s when a priest from Goshenhoppen, later Bally Rev. Theodore Schneider, administered to the roughly 150 odd Catholics in the Lehigh Valley. It was in 1858 at Immaculate Conception Church that the first parochial school opened in Allentown under the direction of Rev. Charles J. Schroeder. It was held in the home of Peter Koehler. The 30 pupils were taught by Jonas Adams of Goshenhoppen. Sacred Heart Parish opened its first school in 1870, shortly after the church was established. When Rev. Peter Masson arrived in Allentown in 1911 the school had 370 pupils.
Masson was born in Stadtkyll, Germany on July 31, 1867. Created as a frontier outpost of the Roman Empire, the town was to be a natural path for armies throughout its existence both from France and other German states over centuries. It suffered two devastating fires, one in 1814 and another in the 1850s and was heavily damaged by bombing during World War II. Masson’s father was a municipal official. He had three brothers, Joseph, Henry and John, and a sister, Ernestine. Joseph was a priest in Coblenz, today Koblenz, Germany and Ernestine a nun in Chicago. She died there in 1922. Masson also had a sister who went by Miss Katie Masson and was described in the Morning Call as his “companion and housekeeper” of 22 years, 15 of them in Allentown where she had many friends. She returned to Germany on the S.S. Berlin to live with brother Joseph in Coblenz at Masson’s death. At her departure she received a farewell party from the Ladies Auxiliary of Sacred Heart Hospital that was attended by 200 .
During Masson’s youth the newly formed German Empire, under the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, was locked in a struggle with the Catholic Church known as the Kulturkampf or “culture war” over the church’s authority. Although a settlement was reached, by the 1880s there had been much bitterness. Interestingly Masson took most of his early training for the priesthood in Holland and Belgium. He must have shown an early interest in America in that he selected the American College at Louvain, Belgium for his seminary. Later he would spend several years as its vice rector, also teaching theology and liturgy. Founded in 1857 by Bishop Martin Spalding of Louisville and Bishop Peter Paul Lefevere of Detroit, it was designed primarily to train European young men as missionary priests to America. Masson was ordained there on September 19, 1891.
Following a post-graduate course, Father Masson was called the following year to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by Archbishop Ryan. His first post, according to the press, was St. Alphonsus in Philadelphia. He was pastor of several churches in eastern Pennsylvania. At the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Minersville he built a new church and rectory. He did the same at other parishes. Masson was also fluent in English, French and German and several eastern European languages. On April 14, 1910 he was appointed pastor of St. Joseph’s Church at East Mauch Chunk. Less than a year later he was called to Allentown’s Sacred Heart Church following the death of its pastor, the Rev. Joseph Nerz, arriving in the city on April 29, 1911.
News of Masson’s arrival in Allentown appeared on Monday May 1, 1911 in the Morning Call. It was on the same page announcing the ironwork was going up for H. Leh and Company’s new department store, the celebration of Mother’s Day by the YMCA with a special program, and the finding of a badly battered corpse of an unknown man with a head wound in the Lehigh Canal. The Call gave details right down to his blue serge suit, four-in-hand tie and “No. 7 black button shoes.”
Masson celebrated three masses on Sunday, April 30th at Sacred Heart. “He greeted his new flock warmly and took his text from the tenth chapter of St. John in which he said he would be as the Good Shepherd to the people and do all in his power for them and expected them in return to co-operate and assist him at all times, explaining that without their cooperation and good will he would be powerless.”
The winter of 1926 was a particularly harsh one in the Lehigh Valley with three snowstorms blanketing Allentown by February. But despite it all, Msgr. Peter Masson, age 59, continued his many duties until one day he took to his bed in exhaustion. His doctors diagnosed pneumonia. For several days he remained in bed and seemed to be getting better. But, despite his doctor’s urging, driven by work Masson went back to his desk. Ash Wednesday was on February 17th that year and a busy religious season was also starting. Masson’s curates were noted later as saying he looked almost ashen. Then on the morning of the 17th the Morning Call broke the shocking news that Masson was gravely ill and that doctors feared for his life.
A flurry of phone calls from the leading men in the region were coming into the rectory but there was no good news to report. When Cardinal Dougherty’s office was called with the news, those present remembered hearing shocked voices from his office staff when given they were told. The Cardinal was scheduled to have a meeting with Masson the next day. Crowds gathered inside and outside of the church, praying for their beloved pastor. Those that were present at Masson’s bedside, among them his sister Miss Katie, noted later it was at 9:15 on the evening of February 18th, as the clock at his bedside chimed the quarter hour, that he expired.
Msgr. Masson was hailed in a long obituary and in an editorial in the Morning Call as the founder of Sacred Heart Hospital and his other great works. Under his successor Msgr. Leo Gregory Fink and others Sacred Heart Hospital and Central Catholic High School, a long-time dream of Masson, would be achieved.