Demolition Imminent At North Philadelphia Landmark St. Bonaventure (Updated)

 

Sign of the times: the degradation of St. Bonaventure's steeple is the tip to the deteriorating iceberg below | Photo: Bradley Maule

Sign of the times: the degradation of St. Bonaventure’s steeple is the tip of the deteriorating iceberg below | Photo: Bradley Maule

The decaying former St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church in North Philadelphia has been given its final sentence and is slated for complete demolition.

Entire panels are missing and major portions are rotting on the steeple | Photo: Bradley Maule

Entire panels are missing and major portions are rotting on the steeple | Photo: Bradley Maule

The church, a towering landmark in the city’s Fairhill neighborhood, has an extensive list of safety violations, with the crumbling steeple being the immediate focus of neighbors’ complaints. But the liability posed by the rest of the property is too great, L&I’s director of communications, Rebecca Swanson, told Hidden City.

“The entire church needs to be demolished,” she said; “engineers and our inspectors have determined that it is not feasible or safe to just take down the steeple.”

A city contractor has begun preparation work on the site at the 2800 block of North Ninth Street, and near neighbors are being notified of the impending demolition activity.

The neighboring school building is also to be demolished, Swanson said, because engineers determined that the site of the school is where the work on the church will need to be staged. The complex’s former convent (next door on Ninth Street to the church) and rectory (to the rear, on Hutchinson Street) are in good condition and will remain.

The New Life Evangelistic Church, which owns the church and school property, has filed several motions for reconsideration in the city’s Equity Court, but all have been denied. Although the congregation has appealed the denials to Commonwealth Court, and also has an appeal pending before the L&I Review Board, there are no stays of demolition in place to prevent work from proceeding.

St. Bonaventure interior | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

St. Bonaventure interior | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

“The church has not provided any evidence that it is capable of correcting the imminently dangerous conditions,” Swanson said.

Noted church architect Edwin Forrest Durang designed St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church in 1894, and its construction was completed in 1906. It was one of a dozen churches closed by the Archdiocese in 1993, many of them in low-income neighborhoods of North Philadelphia.

For more photos of the church’s interior, click HERE.

Update (3:57 p.m.)

In a follow-up email, Swanson elaborated on the City’s rationale for demolishing the original parish church and school building in addition to the main church.

At the court hearing when demolition approval was granted, she explained, L&I and a professional engineer testified that staging the work on the church from the site of the school, which dates from 1890, would be the City’s safest and least expensive option. The only other option, conducting it from Ninth Street, would entail its own set of complications, including having to close off the street and force the evacuation of residents within range of collapse of the steeple.

“The street closures and the evacuation of residents would last for the entirety of the demolition,” she said, and “the City would be responsible for paying for temporary housing for all displaced residents during this time.”

Swanson emphasized that taxpayers will assume the demolition costs, which will be around $1 million under the approved plan. (The costs will be taken out as a lien against the property.) The alternative, removing the steeple only and repairing the rest of the property, could double or triple L&I’s costs, she said.

New Life’s leader, Rev. Carswell Jackson, could not be immediately reached for comment. In his hopes to raise funds to restore the church, Jackson was said to have received an estimate from a contractor of $77,000 to repair the steeple.

Gerry Fisher, former executive director of Historic Fair Hill, which operates the nearby Quaker burial ground, called St. Bonaventure one of the last buildings of architectural value in the neighborhood.

“It’s a shame that the City will pay to tear it down but will not put the same amount into trying to stabilize for potential future use,” she said.

Swanson said that L&I does not repair buildings and reiterated that Jackson has failed to demonstrate an ability to stabilize the church.

About the author

Christopher Mote covers stories of preservation, planning, zoning and development. He lives in South Philadelphia and has a special fondness for brownstone churches and mansard roofs.



15 Comments


  1. So they’ll tear down churches but leave up blighted homes and warehouses?

  2. This is incredibly sad. St. Bonaventure was one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the city. It’s a shame most people here don’t know what they’re losing.

  3. You got two buildings backwards! The red brick building on 9th Street was the Convent and the Grey Rock building on Hutchinson Street was the Priest House (Rectory). I went to the school for 8 years (’46 to ’54).

    • Thanks for the note, James. This was my mistake, not Chris — I reversed them when referencing my notes. It’s been fixed.

  4. So the city will pay 1 Million dollars to tear down the steeple and then put the $1 Million dollar lien on the property? Why not pay the $77,000 to stabilize the steeple, less than 1/10th the cost, and place that much more reasonable lien on the church property, while preserving an extremely historic church structure?

  5. Can’t do that as far as spending 77K to stabilize the steeple as once you do, you become liable for future repair bills on a building you do not own. 1M being spent demoing this church is a safety investment and a life saver in the vent of collapse of the steeple. Lien will be placed on the property once cleared and it will inhibit future development until a responsive, credible developer expresses interest in purchasing the site to develop housing. Then city will consider waiving 1M lien on property to facilitate sale and development.

    • It still sounds like the city will be out 1M in the long run, and will have nothing to show for it except the loss of an irreplaceable landmark. Very irrational the way the law works.

  6. The church has passages leading from the basement church to the main church and from the old priest house to the church, they are so physically tied together demolition will be a tricky proposition. I can see why they have to tear down the first church/school on 9th and Auburn. I see the interior has changed a lot from when the Catholic’s owned it. They removed a lot, altars, pews and probably a lot more. It seems all the New Life Church got was the shell. It was such a beautiful church, I am saddened to see it torn down. The house we lived in on Auburn is gone, the whole neighborhood use to be so beautiful. Time and changes, some good some bad and a lot “sad.”

  7. Who is the demolition contractor that will do the work? I want to contact him and see if he will save any of the beautiful decoration of the church. Most contractors just come in and smash everything and haul it off to the dump. I hope that is not the case with this beautiful historic building. Does anybody know who is doing the demo work?

  8. Who cares?

    • I think the real question is why did you come to a website that focuses on architecture, historic preservation, and urban planning to then click on a story, which discusses the fate of a 100 year old church only to ask a nonsensical question like “who cares”? Is this page linked to Stumbleupon or something?

    • Kathyn M. Shotzbarger-Ford

      The people that lived in that neighborhood and went to St. Bonaventure’s for Mass and went to the school. We spent our childhood there. That’s who care. Some of my siblings care. I care. There are many that care, even if you don’t.

  9. Jack, I kind of doubt there is anything you would want out of there. The property has been opened and vandalized for several years. As I said, the Catholics removed a lot of the beautiful items that the church had. Someone in the City government should be able to tell you who the contractor would be. JA, great comment. There is also a connection to the Convent (the 3 story red brick building). The nuns had a passage from their convent (3rd floor I think) into the choir tier of the church. This one and the one from the priest house on Hutchinson have more than likely boarded up, but still there are these connections. Plus it has another connection to the old church/school which they are going to demolish anyway. I sure would love to see it again, but I do not live close by. Thank everyone at “Hidden City” for this great on line pub. Take care.

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