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