Editor’s Note: As someone who’s been following the fortunes of Philadelphia’s aging houses of worship, Christopher Mote compiled this list of ten architecturally and historically significant churches that appear most threatened by demolition, whether for redevelopment or simply for the safety of its neighbors. In a sense, this compilation is a companion piece to John Vidumsky’s map, The Geography Of Retreat, which plots each of these churches, many of their peers, and schools both parochial and public that either have closed, are closing, or may likely close. See also our report on Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s church closing plans, HERE.
The ten churches here, reaching to nearly all the corners of the city’s 135 square miles, were selected from Chris’ own research, and the assistance and suggestions of a number of preservationists, parishioners, and neighborhood residents. At the end of each church’s profile, a “see also” section offers an additional threatened church for consideration in the vicinity of the one profiled.
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Word Tabernacle Baptist
Address: 5200-10 Chester Avenue
Architect: Joseph Huston
Originally First United Presbyterian, Joseph Huston designed this church just as his prolific career was experiencing a fall from grace. A former associate of Frank Furness, Huston earned notoriety for his work on the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, for which he was convicted of fraud for overcharging the state on contracts. Since 1976, the Kingsessing church has been in use by the congregation of Word Tabernacle Baptist. The congregation has relocated its services away from the main church as holes in the collapsing roof have become visible. While several sections in the windows have been boarded up, others continue to decay.
See also: Word Tabernacle is one of several Kingsessing churches whose architects worked with Furness. The severely damaged Church of the Atonement (now St. Peter’s Church of Christ, 4700 Kingsessing Ave.) came out of the firm of Furness, Evans and Co.; across the street, the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Kingsessing (now Crusaders for Christ) is the work of onetime Furness apprentice Edward Hazelhurst.
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New Covenant Baptist
Address: 5250 Wayne Avenue
This Germantown church and its Gothic bell tower have looked over the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Queen Lane for generations, but it may be soon counting its days. Founded as West Side Mission, the church was subsequently renamed Ethel Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church and was later called the Church of the Advocate. A merger in the 1970s with nearby St. Stephens resulted in Advocate/St. Stephens Church, and in the 1980s New Covenant Baptist started calling the church home.
Despite the history of use, recent vacancy and deferred maintenance have left the building in a critical state. The city is likely to tear down the bell tower, which the department of Licenses and Inspections has labeled “imminently dangerous,” if no immediate action is taken. However, a few congregations have expressed interest in occupying and using the main sanctuary for services.
See also: St. Peter’s Episcopal (6008 Wayne Ave.), just up the street from New Covenant. After several years of vulnerability, this vacant, historically-listed property is finally under contract to serve as the campus for the Waldorf School.
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Ascension of Our Lord Roman Catholic
Address: 701-21 E. Westmoreland Street
Architects: Paul J. Henon, Jr. and Rowland Boyle
This striking Romanesque work wouldn’t look out of place in Florence. Instead, it stands (for now) as a symbol of gentility in one of city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Ascension was formally closed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2012. In reality, the church’s demise had begun much earlier; the West Kensington parish was holding Masses in the basement as upkeep of the deteriorating upper church became impossible. Without extensive reinvestment, Ascension is vulnerable to the same fate that befell Kensington’s St. Boniface, which met the wrecking ball early last year.
See also: Kensington Congregational Church (3001 C. St.). Owned by the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, this church which dates to 1910 has been marketed on and off for sale.
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Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal
Address: 4233 Chestnut Street
Architect: Isaac Pursell
The sight of this partially collapsed edifice is a reminder that even in the face of all human effort, unforeseen acts of force majeure (if not the Almighty) can still prevail. Isaac Pursell was one of Philadelphia’s most active Protestant church designers, and his Victorian Gothic Christ Memorial is a contributing property to the West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb National Historic District.
In 2004, Christ Memorial’s towering spire—which one historian likened to “a great exclamation point on Chestnut Street”—crashed to the ground during a storm. The Episcopal parish vacated the church after a legal imbroglio with the insurance company, selling it to local developer Guy Laren. A homeless shelter has operated out of a portion of the church’s vast premises. However, Laren has not shown any inclination to assume the costs of a full restoration.
See also: St. Andrew’s Chapel (4201 Spruce St.). The former Philadelphia Divinity School site is now owned by the University of Pennsylvania as the campus of the Penn Alexander School. Formerly used as a library and tech center, the chapel now sits vacant.
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St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic
Address: 45 West Logan Street
Architect: Francis F. Durang
Designer of Catholic churches and facilities for the Archdiocese, Francis Durang continued the line of work of his more famous father, Edwin Forrest Durang (the architect of many extant churches including the endangered St. Bonaventure). St. Francis of Assisi, Germantown’s largely Irish parish founded in 1899, took sanctuary in this Romanesque granite and terra cotta gem 25 years after. Dwindling enrollment led the Archdiocese to close the parish in 2012. Since then, the vacant church has already been broken into by vandals who have desecrated the altar and stolen religious ornaments.
See also: the imposing Immaculate Conception (1020 E. Price St.), Germantown’s other Romanesque church, also closed last year. Both parishes were merged into that of the locally-designated St. Vincent de Paul (101-23 E. Price St.).
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Most Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic
Address: 5600 Chester Avenue
Architect: Charles W. Gilmore
An impressive example of Renaissance Revival church architecture, the Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament kept its doors open to Southwest Philly parishioners for 80 years. The large congregation numbers declined heavily in the late 1970s, by which time most worshipers had migrated to the suburbs. After being paired for a time with St. Francis de Sales at 47th and Springfield, MBS finally closed in 2006 and has remained empty as an archdiocesan property since. The final denouement came when the church’s interior relics were stripped and sold to a suburban parish, St. Bede the Venerable in Bucks County.
See also: Numerous Catholic parishes west of the Schuylkill have or will soon join MBS on the closures list. They include St. Donato (401 N. 65th St.), Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament (339 N. 63rd St.) and Our Mother of Sorrows (4800 Lancaster Ave.).
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Kensington “Old Brick” Methodist Episcopal
Address: 300 Richmond Street
Old Brick is a church that has held firm amidst the retreat of the city’s river ward population from its own riverfront. Kensington Methodist Episcopal Church (now Kensington United Methodist) traces its history to 1804, when it served the spiritual needs of workers in the Delaware’s shipyards. First the shipyards closed, then I-95 sliced through the neighborhood. Today, with its congregation diminishing in number and with the Fishtown riverfront hosting one casino (and possibly another), the Grecian-style church with minimal alterations in 150 years may find itself targeted as a barrier to upscale development. Its historic designation, while no guarantee of its survival, will at least allow for a consideration of its enormous significance should such a conflict ever arise.
See also: Church of the Immaculate Conception (1018-20 N. Front St.). Not to be confused with Immaculate Conception in Germantown, this 1875 church is sits right on the other side of I-95 behind the Piazza at Schmidt’s and swathes of gentrification. Immaculate Conception’s parish no longer exists, but the church is technically in use for the time being as an alternate worship site for St. Michael’s in Kensington.
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Adath Jeshurun Synagogue/New Greater Straightway Baptist
Address: 1705 North 7th Street
Architect: J. Franklin Stuckert
New Greater Straightway’s unique onion dome and Moorish-style keyhole windows are a giveaway of its long history as a multi-denominational house of worship. Originally Adath Jeshurun Synagogue and later the home of the Congregation Ohel Jacob, the building served the Jewish populations of North Philadelphia’s Ludlow neighborhood in the 1960s. Straightway’s Baptist congregation took stewardship in the 1980s; in 1986, it was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The last ten years have seen considerable renewal to the neighborhood following decades of upheaval. The church’s interior, however, remains in delicate shape.
See also: B.M. Oakley Memorial Temple (formerly Trinity Reformed Church). One block down from Straightway sits this overlooked 1869 church by Samuel Sloan. While not historically protected, today it’s home to an active Church of God in Christ congregation with charismatic leadership at the helm.
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Hope Presbyterian Church/James W. Queen Memorial Chapel
Address: 1301-19 South 33rd Street
Architect: Charles W. Bolton
Hope Presbyterian Church grew out of a mission to the children of rough-and-tumble Grays Ferry in 1871. Founded by preacher John Neff, the “Hope mission” grew into a worship center for children and adults alike, eventually requiring a sizable church for accommodations. Today, the church sits in anonymity a nose hair away from the Schuylkill Expressway. The premises have been listed for sale.
See also: James W. Queen Memorial Chapel–immediately to the south of the church. It was built in 1895 thanks to funding from Abbie S. Queen, a Hope congregant, in memory of her deceased husband, and used as a library and education center. Recently, it was in use as a Head Start office.
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Highway Temple of Deliverance/St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic
Address: 2401 North 8th Street
Architect: George Audsley
The historic St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church closed for the first time in 1993, right when the majority of North Philadelphia’s Catholic churches were suddenly shuttered for good. Audsley, whose best-known work in Philly was the Wanamaker Organ, also designed this Medieval-like giant at the corner of 8th and York Streets in the Hartranft neighborhood. Despite the parish closure, the church got a second lease on life as a Pentecostal worship house, Highway Temple of Deliverance. As of this writing, the building and its many parish facilities are once again for sale. Although listed on the local Historic Register, the church’s size and detail present considerable challenges to future congregations.
See also: the imperiled St. Bonaventure (2842 N. 9th St.), a few blocks to the north, whose Catholic parish closed in 1993, the same year as St. Edward’s. The Church of the Assumption (1123-33 Spring Garden St.) was vacated two years later.
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Special thanks to Mathew Grubel, Rachel Hildebrandt, Ben Leech, New Kensington CDC, Andy Trackman, Allison Weiss, and Aaron Wunsch for their insight and suggestions in compiling this list.