With Churches Fast Disappearing In Fishtown, A Chance To See What’s At Stake

 

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The stain glass windows of First Presbyterian in Fishtown were donated by church member and celebrated 19th century shipbuilder William Cramp | Photo: Michael Bixler

The New Kensington Community Development Corporation will host an open church tour on December 28th to highlight six historic houses of worship in Fishtown and Kensington. On the heels of the continued loss of churches in both neighborhoods and across the city, the tour is both an opportunity for the general public to see the inside of the sanctuaries and an effort by the NKCDC to elevate exposure for churches at risk of closure and demolition.

Churches have played a crucial role in community building and social order for centuries in Philadelphia. Congregations and parishes have shaped the city block by block. Lately, however, development pressure in transitioning areas, coupled with the financial burden of maintaining grand historic buildings for ever-shrinking congregations, has posed a serious threat to the city’s older religious buildings.

With possible demolition looming over the Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ at 1407 Marlborough Street and the closure in March and recent removal of sacred objects from St. Laurentius, at 1608 E. Berks Street, NKCDC officials fear that the continued loss of churches in the neighborhood will only accelerate with time. “These churches are such an important part of our neighborhood,” says Sandy Salzman, executive director of the NKCDC. “They take up so much of the block and define the community. When they go dark, it’s not good and causes problems.”

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Siloam United Methodist, now owned by a photographer and artist, has been converted into a massive residence and studio | Photo: Michael Bixler

In cases like East Baptist at 1236 Columbia Avenue—the last baptist church left in the area–that was abandoned for almost a decade and recently sold for a mere $385,000, the threat of demolition and development seems imminent, despite efforts to work with the existing structure. The new owners’ plans to reuse the building with 15 apartments was recently halted by neighborhood zoning opposition–due to the influx of development in the immediate area, no off street parking planned, and apprehensions about the history of upkeep of the property by the current owner– that effectively stopped renovation, placing the building once again in limbo.

A prime example of church extinction in Kensington and Fishtown is Marlborough Street, which at one time was home to three. “My concern is we keep losing these churches which have been the mainstay of the neighborhood for years,” says Salzman. “Hopefully we won’t see anymore close.”

A few churches in the area have been saved by reuse, like Siloam United Methodist Church on Susquehanna Avenue–part of the tour on the 28th–which was converted into live-work space. Emanuel Epispocal at Marlborough and Thompson Streets has also been converted into residential use. These are positive outcomes, says Salzmam, but she believes filling the community void the congregations leave when historic churches close is first priority. “Through the tour we are trying to come up with plans with Partners for Sacred Places for when churches close and the space isn’t used anymore so they don’t sit dormant and get torn down,” says Salzman. “One initive is to bring the arts to help the church community. They have lots of space and, in essence, stages for performances.” Salzman says Beacon Presbyterian is an example of filling that social void. Closed as a full time church, Beacon has recently been reimagined as a neighborhood faith and community arts space. “Their external lights installation is really cool,” Salzman remarks.

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“Old Brick”, the elder statesman of Fishtown and Kensington,  is still standing tall at 300 Richmond Street | Photo: Michael Bixler

The cornerstone church on the tour is Kensington Methodist Episcopal (fondly referred to as “Old Brick”), the oldest church in Kensington and Fishtown. Erected in 1854 with building materials from the congregation’s former church–hence the nickname–Old Brick is barely holding on, according to Salzman. One of the unique features of the church is the Indian burial ground in the basement, due to its proximity to Penn Treaty Park, an area that was considered sacred ground by the Lenni Lenape.

Other churches on the tour have unique features of their own. Visitation BVM–at Lehigh and B Streets–has a steep staircase because the grade of Lehigh Ave was lowered. The basement is now at ground level. Also, First Presbyterian, on Girard Avenue, has stained glass windows donated by longtime member and distinguished 19th century iron shipbuilder William Cramp.

Tickets for the Fishtown-Kensington church tour on December 28th are $25 and include a bus ride to each of the sites and light refreshments. The last day for registration is Friday, December 19th. Purchase tickets HERE.

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. mmbixler.tumblr.com

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7 Comments


  1. That’s some beautiful glass at First Presbyterian.

    These buildings give structure and scale to neighborhoods. Many do not regret their loss, but the losses are forever diminishing the character of the city.

  2. George Lippard in Quaker City

    Where oh where is the Historical Commission? Busy helping developers get demolition permits for protected buildings.

  3. You hear so much about churches closing all the time. But what doesn’t get discussed so much is exactly *why* they’re closing. Is it because the population in certain areas is changing or moving away? Has operating an old and large structure become cost-prohibitive? Is the population poorer and unable to financially support the churches? Or are they attending different churches elsewhere… or none at all? When people talk about church closings, that question seems to be the proverbial elephant in the room.

    • I know what really happened to Beacon. I was there for all of it. You’ll never get the real story from any article or video.

    • There are many reasons that churches are closing — its not at all simple or easily narrowed down to one particular cultural or economic trend. Either way, even in circumstances where the congregations are smaller and have less resources than in the past, these places are opening their doors and providing services for their communities that add up significantly. These are not just important places because of their history and aesthetic value, they are important to their community because they feed and clothe individuals, they welcome people who need to find services and they provide a place for many different kinds of groups and activities that would otherwise have no where to go or pay high costs to meet in a different space (addiction and recovery meetings especially.)

  4. Beacon Presbyterian Church was not “recently” reimagined. I’d be happy to tell you what actually happened. We were forced to sign a contract by the Presbytery of Philadelphia with Broad Street Ministry under the pretense that Broad Street Ministry would take over maintenance and utility cost of our building. AFter the contract was signed suddenly all of their “interpretations” of the contract were different from what they told us and we were forced to pay them rent and pay for all utilities and maintenance. They knew up front that we could not afford this (I know because I was there at every meeting). They bled us dry and took away our keys. We were told to take a “summer vacation” and never allowed back. Our last day of worship was June 19th 2011. That was my son’s baptism. We weren’t allowed to have a luncheon and we had to vacate the premises after the service. We finally had a meeting in November and were told at that meeting that everything was our fault, the Presbytery and Broad Street Ministry held no blame, and they were taking a vote to dissolve our congregation. We voted against it but it didn’t matter. Even though our congregation held the deed to the building, the Presbytery said the building belonged to them because “that’s how the by-laws work”. After fighting for months, we were finally allowed to have a closing ceremony in January of 2012. In order to get that service, my silence was demanded. Broad Street Ministry may be able to use our name, but they will never have the loving people and outreach that we had.

  5. Here’s some pictures inside the First Presbyterian Church Kensington: http://romanblazicwordsandpictures.blogspot.com/2014/07/first-presbyterian-church-kensington.html

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