Last summer, after Mayor Jim Kenney declared that our city would offer a safe haven for all immigrants and refugees, whether documented or not, Senator Pat Toomey introduced a bill to cut Federal funding to Philadelphia. The bill failed in the Senate, but he has vowed to reintroduce it. Cutting funding would put the most vulnerable of Senator Toomey’s constituents at risk and compromise public safety. But just as critically, with this gesture he is also betraying the very principles on which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was founded.
Long before there was even a dream of a United States of America, William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania as a Holy Experiment. The city of Philadelphia was envisioned as a haven for immigrants fleeing religious persecution in their homelands. Following the model implemented by Roger Williams in Senator Toomey’s home state of Rhode Island, William Penn wrote freedom of religion and tolerance of diverse cultures and beliefs into Pennsylvania’s original Charter of Privileges. Philadelphia, in other words, was the world’s first Sanctuary City. Some hundred years after Penn founded the colony and its major city, his Charter of Privileges, with freedom of worship at its heart, became the template for the Bill of Rights.
I don’t expect Senator Toomey or his colleagues to be swayed by my words alone. Unfortunately, we live in a time when words have become slippery and unreliable. Instead I propose a tour of Philadelphia to reveal the physical manifestation of moral and political ideals and demonstrate what a Sanctuary City looks like, from the 18th century to today. William Penn’s founding principles are evident in so many buildings of our city; a tour of them suggests that his vision lives on today.
First Stop: Old City Congregations
The physical evidence of William Penn’s vision remains strikingly present on the streets of Old City and Society Hill. There, within a half mile radius, well will find a variety of houses of worship that trace their origins to colonial times. Some may be familiar for their architectural beauty and their historical significance. From Christ Church, whose elegant tower was once the tallest structure in North America; to St. George’s, the world’s oldest Methodist Church building in continuous service; to Old St. Joseph’s, where the first public Catholic masses were celebrated in America, protected by Pennsylvania’s charter in defiance of English law; to Mikveh Israel, a synagogue, now in a 20th century building, which began in 1740. Each of these centuries-old congregations has a fascinating story in its own right. Even more remarkable, though, is the panoply of houses of worship seen as a whole. In America we take for granted that Presbyterians, Catholics, Quakers, and Jews all worship in the same neighborhood, their sanctuaries within striking distance of one another. But in the 17th century, the juxtaposition of denominations and faiths in the houses of worship on the streets of Philadelphia was radical, even jarring. Pennsylvania represented a conscious paradigm shift from the separatist impulse that spawned most of the other 13 British colonies in North America. Unlike Puritan Boston or Catholic Baltimore, Philadelphia openly welcomed diverse religious practice.
Not that everyone was holding hands and singing Kumbaya on the streets of colonial Philadelphia. Far from it. Diversity was just as messy and contentious back then as it is now. The Jesuits of Old St. Joseph’s, for example, had to build their chapel in an alleyway set back from the main streets and hidden behind iron gates, lest their “Popish rites” attract attention. But coexistence forced colonial Philadelphians to grapple with disagreement and settle conflict. As Sydney E. Ahlstrom observed about Pennsylvania in A Religious History of the American People (Yale, 1972):
“Though troubles and dissension naturally came, for the most part they were transcended. … [In fact, Pennsylvania’s] solutions to … manifold problems made it nearly a paradigm of latter day American democracy than any other colony.”
These congregations have coexisted on the streets of Philadelphia, some for close to 300 years, and in that long course of worshiping side by side, groups once ready—in another time and place—to fight Holy Wars against one another have realized that their shared values, nurtured in the sanctuary Philadelphia offered, are more important than their differences.
Second Stop: St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church and St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church
That spirit of tolerance was severely tested in the early decades of the 19th century when an influx of refugees from a country plagued by war and famine sought haven in America. A group of Philadelphians, self identified as “native-born” Americans, regarded these new immigrants with suspicion and treated them with hostility. These refugees’ religious practices were suspect. They owed their allegiance to a foreign power. They read a different holy book than the Protestant majority, and their religious leaders’ insistence that their children study that book in school enflamed a rumor that these Irish Catholics wanted to ban the Bible from public education.
The website of St. Philip Neri Church in Southwark (now Queen Village), attacked by Nativist mobs on July 4, 1844, explains the context:
“Many Protestants and members of the American Nativist Party believed that the Pope had a plan to take over America. The Irish were singled out as the most dangerous immigrant group because of their papal loyalty over centuries of persecution. At a signal from the Pope, the Nativists claimed, the Irish might well rise in a bloody revolution or a political coup at the ballot box.”
When we stand on tranquil, tree-shaded Queen Street and contemplate the simple, austere façade of St. Philip Neri, it’s hard to imagine such an unassuming building inciting such violence (a dozen people died in a heated exchange of cannon fire on July 7, 1844). Yet, Irish Catholics—Senator Toomey’s forebears—were the Syrian and Iraqi refugees of the 19th century. Starving, evicted from their blighted land, they sought sanctuary in Philadelphia and instead were reviled and terrorized.
A few months before the Fourth of July attack on St. Philip Neri, St. Augustine’s Church in Old City was a flashpoint for mob violence. Founded in 1796 to serve a growing population of German and Irish immigrants to the young United States, St. Augustine’s, constructed with funds contributed by President George Washington and financier Stephen Girard, was the largest church in Philadelphia. In 1829, the church added a bell tower designed by William Strickland, who also designed the bell tower at Independence Hall.
Impressive as it sounds the original structure is no longer standing. On May 8, 1844 a mob of “Nativists,” members of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party, culminated three days of burning Catholic buildings and attacking Irish residents in Kensington by marching into Philadelphia and burning St. Augustine’s to the ground. They also destroyed what was regarded as the finest theological library in America. The church you see today was built in 1847 with compensation the Augustinians received after suing the City for not protecting its First Amendment rights. That successful case was the first test of the right of religious freedom in the Supreme Court. The Augustinians, once suspect as subversive foreign agents, would go on to establish one of Pennsylvania’s premier institutions of higher learning, Villanova University.
Stop Three: 45th and Walnut, “Little Beirut”
Once we’ve immersed ourselves in Philadelphia history, we begin to see how this founding idea of Philadelphia as a sanctuary, welcome to all, persists today. There are many places we could go, and other guides might have other, equally illuminating suggestions. But I would like to stop in my own neighborhood, West Philadelphia, specifically the intersection of 45th and Walnut.
Here we might stop for falafel at Manakeesh or Saad’s, while we contemplate the intersection’s most striking building, the Musalla Ahlus-Sunnah mosque on the northeast corner. Once St. Andrew’s Methodist Church, this magnificent structure, with its whitewashed walls, green dome, and enormous windows wreathed by carved green garlands, is today transformed into a bustling cultural and educational complex, as well as a house of worship. It also serves as the headquarters for the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects. Just as St. Philip Neri, St. Augustine’s, and other Catholic churches once provided immigrants arriving in a strange land a welcoming space and familiar rituals, this West Philadelphia mosque plays a key role in helping Muslims from diverse cultures across Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, come together in common worship.
The building across the street from the mosque, on the northwest corner, is not nearly as eyecatching. Newly constructed, the blocky gray and manila structure gives very few hints of its function. It could be a new condo complex or clinic, but, as the subtle silver lettering on its side says, it is a church—the University City Chinese Christian Church. Its presence here, another sanctuary for a religious group persecuted in their own country, right across the street from the prominent mosque, is a juxtaposition that would make William Penn proud. His Holy Experiment is ongoing and ever expanding, encompassing cultures and religious practices he couldn’t have begun to imagine at the turn of the 18th century.
Stop Four: The Far Northeast
There are so many more parts of the city I would like Senator Toomey and his colleagues to see. Last February, when I walked the entire perimeter of Philadelphia with a small group of fellow artists, I was impressed with how we encountered diversity—religious, racial, ethnic—in almost every section of the city we passed through. I had imagined the neighborhoods of the Northeast, where the majority of Republican voters in Philadelphia live, would be more homogenous. But I discovered that teens in hijabs waiting for their school bus are as common a sight in Fox Chase as West Philly. I was particularly moved by the tombstones in a cemetery we crossed in the farthest northwest corner of the city, where graves in Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian mingle with historic Philadelphia families like the Olneys and John Hart, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
If we take our tour on a Saturday we can conclude with a 4PM mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Philadelphia, where native-born and foreign-born Americans continue Philadelphia’s longest tradition of tolerance.
I don’t want to suggest that Philadelphia doesn’t have its share of problems and challenges, many of them exacerbated by our differences from one another. Just like in colonial times or in the early years of the new republic, there are tensions and clashes—between established residents and newly arrived immigrants, between different races and religions. There is a huge and growing disparity between rich and poor, not just in terms of material resources, but in opportunities for education and jobs. These problems are not caused because Philadelphia is a Sanctuary City and they certainly will not be solved by cutting federal funds like community development block grants that the city depends on.
What I would want Senator Toomey to see when I take him on a tour through the city’s past and present is that our strength, as a city and a nation, has always been in our capacity for offering welcome and refuge. At a time when Europe and other parts of the world struggle to respond to an international refugee crisis, we have William Penn’s vision—300 plus years of an ongoing Holy Experiment—to offer as an example. As a Sanctuary City and a Sanctuary Nation we serve as a role model for the rest of the world.
About the author
Ann de Forest has written frequently about design, architecture, and the built environment for the Philadelphia Inquirer, ID Magazine, and Attaché, among other publications. Her short stories have been published in Cleaver, The Journal, Hotel Amerika, Timber Creek Review, and PIF. She teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-13 and adults over 70 and is writing a time travel trilogy for middle grade readers involving old maps.
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