Inside the Shimmering Nave

Photo: Philadelphia Church Project

“You never really leave St. Gabriel’s,” says sexton Kathy Diering of the traditionally Irish Roman Catholic Church that heroically guards the intersection of 29th and Dickinson Street in Grays Ferry. This sort of bond is what enabled this congregation in limbo at the center of a neighborhood in free fall to raise the funds for a massive interior renovation in 1995.

Now, its interior restored, can St. Gabriel’s look ahead? And what does the church’s future mean for the neighborhood?

Designed by noted church and theater architect Edwin F. Durang in 1902, the exterior of St. Gabriel’s is craggy, rough-hewn granite, erected by the Irish men of the neighborhood. A ring of clerestory windows and a hipped green copper roof crowns the nave. But if the exterior is hulking and sober, post-restoration, the interior is lofty, and shimmering. “I was stunned at how magnificent it looked,” says artist Tom Curley, who grew up attending St. Gabriel’s. Gone was the fear and dread of his youth. In their place: “brilliant, golden and cream hues.”

Photo: Peter Woodall

The floors and altar are made of polished white marble. The vaults and walls are yellow with white accents. The seven Stations of the Cross, carved in heavy relief and painted in vivid colors, line the walls of the nave. Biblical murals accent ceiling, including one of God the Father, whose eyes appear to follow you wherever you go.

Likewise, St. Gabriel’s has kept an eye on her children. At Christmas, they come a thousand strong from Delaware County, South Jersey, and beyond. It was at St. Gabriel’s that they were baptized, married, and educated. No matter where they live, the church remains their spiritual home. And, by and large, they paid for the renovation.

“Everyone wishes they could come back to St. Gabriel’s,” says Donna Connor, who grew up in Grays Ferry but now lives in Florida. “Life revolved what was going on around the parish.”

Indeed, many white residents who can afford to have moved elsewhere. Row houses are abandoned, lots filled with trash, and cats and dogs roam the streets. Racial violence, collapsing real estate values, and the loss of industry have taken a brutal toll on Grays Ferry. A heroin scourge ripped through the community in the 1970s, and scores of addicts died of overdoses in fetid back alleys. Irish-Catholic whites brutally clashed with African-Americans living in the recently demolished Tasker Homes. Angry words led to hurled bricks, beatings, and even bullets. In 1997, a group of whites leaving the St. Gabriel’s Parish Hall attacked two black teenagers, and the resulting street fight made national headlines.

In the fall-out, two nearby Catholic parishes have closed their doors and merged with St. Gabriel’s: King of Peace (historically Italian) and St. Aloysius (historically German). Their banners now hang in St. Gabriel’s nave, a symbol of unity for congregations once rigidly segregated by ethnicity.

But can this sense of unity extend beyond church walls? Likewise, can St. Gabriel’s reinsert itself into the life of the neighborhood? These are questions I pose in part 2 of this article, appearing in Vantage tomorrow.

About the author

Steven Ujifusa is a writer living in Philadelphia with a specialty in historic preservation and urban planning. His first book, A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect's Quest to Build the SS United States, will be published by Simon and Schuster in July 2012.



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Jewelry Designer Adds Flair To Old Stable In East Passyunk

Jewelry Designer Adds Flair To Old Stable In East Passyunk

October 9, 2019  |  Art & Design, Preservation

An old horse stable in South Philly finds a new function in the fashion world. Stacia Friedman takes a look inside > more

Salvage City: Recycling History One Object At A Time

Salvage City: Recycling History One Object At A Time

October 7, 2019  |  Art & Design

One person's trash is another person's treasure, especially in the world of architectural salvage. Jacqueline Drayer takes a look at a new art exhibition at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens through the lens of the city's reclaimed materials industry > more

Special Collections Show Their Stuff For Archives Month Philly

Special Collections Show Their Stuff For Archives Month Philly

October 3, 2019  |  History

Archives Month Philly kicks off with a long list of October events in the Delaware Valley. Kimberly Haas spoke to archivists from across the region to get the details on what's in store this year > more

The Crowning Glory Of Christ Church’s Steeple Comes Down For Restoration

The Crowning Glory Of Christ Church’s Steeple Comes Down For Restoration

September 26, 2019  |  Preservation

In Old City, Christ Church's 265-year-old weathervane come down from the steeple to undergo restoration. Kimberly Haas has the details > more

Op-ed: Spreading The Gospel Of Deadbox, One Bottle Cap At A Time

Op-ed: Spreading The Gospel Of Deadbox, One Bottle Cap At A Time

September 26, 2019  |  City Life

In this essay Len Davidson makes the case for resurrecting a long-lost Philly street game that once contributed to the vibrance of neighborhood life and the human connection of row house culture > more

Concrete Cowboy Of Southwest Philly Finds A New Home At Bartram's Garden

Concrete Cowboy Of Southwest Philly Finds A New Home At Bartram’s Garden

September 24, 2019  |  City Life

After being ousted from vacant, City-owned land, an urban cowboy and his posse of young protégées find a permanent place to hang their hats. Sam Newhouse has the news > more