The church campus and school of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Southwest Philadelphia, once one of the largest parochial grammar schools in the nation, will return to use this September as Independence Charter School West, a progressive school committed to bilingual Spanish immersion and global citizenship. Building on the successful 15-year track record of Independence Charter School in Center City, ICS West will open its doors on September 6 to 300 students ranging from kindergarten through the second grade. If all goes well, the school will grow to 900 students in six years, according to plans submitted to the School District of Philadelphia’s Charter School Office.
In preparation, following the designs of architecture firm Blackney Hayes, contractors have been upgrading, repairing, and painting the central school building and gymnasium and stabilizing the church abandoned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2007; school leaders and volunteers have cleaned the public spaces around the buildings last used by Mastery Charter School.
In a city filled with decommissioned parochial and public schools, this reuse gives both education officials and preservationists hope that the 1920s-era buildings that once served as the pride and communal foundation of the neighborhood surrounding 56th Street and Chester Avenue will be permanently reactivated. Questions remain, however, even amidst hope: will the school’s lauded curricular approach work as well in predominantly impoverished Southwest Philadelphia as it does in Center City, where the student population is economically diverse; will ICS West remain at the site beyond its three year initial charter; will the school procure the resources to restore and reuse the striking church building that commands the neighborhood; will the 1916 collegiate gothic S. Weir Mitchell public school, a low-performing elementary school a block away, survive?
A year ago, private investors purchased the MBS complex from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to lease to a charter school operator. About the same time, the School Reform Commission granted five new charters, the first since 2007, including a replication of ICS, which draws students from across Philadelphia to its Spanish immersion and Spanish enhanced curriculum. The SRC stipulated that the new school would be located in underserved Southwest Philadelphia and primarily draw from the children of Southwest and West Philadelphia. “They wanted to make sure schools were opening in communities that needed them,” says Gloria Shabazz, president of the Board of Trustees that governs the school. Admission is by lottery, with a large majority of the 300 students coming from a swath of West Philadelphia that spans from the Philadelphia International Airport to Overbrook Farms.
When ICS West received its charter last year, the school had no building. The Most Blessed Sacrament site was placed on the market unexpectedly. The Mastery Charter School that had been MBS’ tenant made an offer to the Archdiocese for the complex, with a plan to tear down the church to make a room for a football field, according to St. Francis De Sales pastor John Hand, who negotiated the ultimate sale. When the School District approached Mastery about moving to the newly vacated Anna H. Shaw Middle School, it left Father Hand without a buyer. ICS West was considering refurbishing a warehouse in Eastwick when MBS became available. “It all happened quickly,” says Tom Scheid, CEO of Independence Charter in Center City, who has been helping to oversee the transition before the hiring of Julio C. Núñez, the principal and CEO of ICS West.
In this series of fortuitous events, ICS West came out a winner. The MBS campus, says Scheid, is well positioned in the school’s broad catchment and easily accessible by public transportation. The building administrator, Ramzy Andrawos, is enthusiastic about the facility’s potential, assuring a staff anxious about the amount of work to be done to ready offices and classroom for September. Says Rona Buchalter, a former president of the ICS Board of Trustees (and, in disclosure, the wife of Hidden City Daily co-editor Nathaniel Popkin), who has acted as a consultant for the new school, “It’s a site that, with the slightest bit of imagination, will really feel wonderful.”
The Heartbeat of Chester Avenue
In procuring the MBS campus, ICS West is now steward of a prominent piece of Philadelphia history. At the turn of the 20th century, the Archdiocese drew boundary lines on a map to create a new parish that would serve the suburban pioneers migrating from South Philadelphia to an area that was still mostly farms and open fields. Once church and school were built, the parish became a magnet for the families that moved into the new row houses built on freshly gridded streets. The parish and neighborhood grew in tandem. On city maps, the neighborhood may be labeled Kingsessing, or Southwest Philadelphia, but in that tight-knit, predominantly Irish Catholic enclave it was once universally known as MBS.
Constructed in the early 1920s, the complex of six gray stone buildings–church, school, convent, and rectory–once promised permanence and reliability. When the church’s cornerstone was laid in 1922, Monsignor Eugene Murphy declared the building would be “the largest and most commodious church in Philadelphia, except the cathedral and one other…”
Dominating an entire city block in Southwest Philadelphia, these six Catholic buildings, crowned by the elegant 1924 Neo-Renaissance church with its asymmetrical copper-clad spires designed by the architect Charles Willis Gilmore, were the source of neighborhood pride and identity. “We bragged about being MBS,” says Pat Burns, who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1960s. In its heyday, Most Blessed Sacrement was called “the largest school in Christendom.” And though that claim may owe more to the swelling of Southwest Philly pride than fact, in the late 1960s attendance at the K-8 school peaked at some 3,700 students, making it one of the largest Catholic schools in the country.
Author Kevin Purcell remembers his first-grade classroom in 1964 that included 101 kids–ten rows with ten students each with one lone child placed by the teacher’s desk. That teacher, a nun, had sole charge of the classroom and maintained order by patrolling the aisles with a yardstick in hand. In contrast, at ICS West no more than 25 students will occupy each of the spacious, airy classrooms, and the younger grades will have teachers aides to assist a head classroom teacher.
While the packed school may have felt like “a cattle farm,” as one former student described his MBS experience, the church sanctuary inspired loftier sentiments. Anya McCoy, a student during the 1960s, said, “We lived in mid-sized row homes, with postage-stamp sized yards, but we felt we were connected to something larger due to the grandeur of the church, clad inside in marble, oil paintings, mosaics, and huge stained glass windows.”
The neighborhood at the time was essentially a monoculture. “There was some diversity, but there were no blacks,” says Pat Burns, who remembers there being only one Jewish family and one Greek family on her block. The neighborhood changed rapidly in the late 1960s. As African American families moved west the white families fled to the suburbs. Property values plummeted. Southwest Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s was rocked by racial tension and gang warfare. “There were race riots every weekend,” says Burns, whose parents packed her off to Wildwood one summer for safekeeping. When her family moved from their home at 60th and Springfield Streets in 1976 they were one of the last white families left.
MBS church and school remained, and became a stabilizing influence in a changing neighborhood. The parish, committed to serving the Catholics who resided within its boundaries, transitioned into an African American parish. The congregation was smaller than its peak in the 1960s, but new members found the parish a source of neighborhood connection, and the pastors and parishioners dedicated themselves to addressing the needs of their community. The parish ran a soup kitchen, a thrift shop, food pantry, and outreach center. In the early 1990s, at the height of the crack epidemic, a police mini-station was housed in the rectory basement. The Archdiocese even invested in other local parish buildings. In the 1990s, Most Blessed Sacrament merged with St. Francis De Sales (and, in disclosure, I am a parishioner) with one pastor serving both churches. The parish, renamed “Saint Francis De Sales Parish: United by the Most Blessed Sacrament,” raised enough money from both congregations to upgrade and renovate the sweeping terra cotta arches and stained glass of Saint Francis De Sales’ sanctuary.
By 2002, when the Archdiocese closed the school at MBS, enrollment had dwindled to 250 students. The church followed suit four years later and shut its doors in 2007 despite undergoing an extensive and expensive renovation. Fewer than 200 families were registered on the parish rolls, and only 80 of those were active members. As is Archdiocesan practice after a church is closed, the stained glass and other sacred ornament were stripped from the sanctuary and sent to adorn a newer church, Saint Bede the Venerable in Holland, PA. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia worked to ensure that Most Blessed Sacrament, like nearly every church in the diocese, would not be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and therefore protected from significant alteration.
Vacant, the church and sanctuary were left vulnerable to the elements, break-ins, and vandalism. While the school buildings and convent have remained occupied by tenants since the school closed in 2002, losing the church left a deep void in an already struggling community.
An Optimistic Appraisal
Today, just nine years after closing, the sanctuary is already a ruin. The smell of mold is overwhelming. Paint drifts from the ceiling onto the floor in curling flakes. Graffiti blares across the walls. Empty beer cans and damp, decaying missals from 2005 litter the pews. In the marble-clad narthex, carved egg-and-dart molding and volutes crumble on the floor. Scheid says that when he first inspected the building, turkey vultures were nesting in the belfry. The school has secured the leaking windows with plywood boards to prevent further damage.
Scheid walks through the rubble undaunted, shielded by his optimism towards the church’s potential. “What makes this space so useable,” he says, pointing at the barrel-vaulted ceiling, “is it’s not a church with columns.” He envisions the wide and soaring space of the upper church as an ideal gym, while the lower church could serve as a school cafeteria, with enough room for a music room in the back.
Despite his enthusiasm, that vision may take a while to realize. The School District has initially granted the five new charter schools with three-year charters, making ambitious visions and any long-range planning difficult. Budgeting is also a constraint. “The big renovations can’t happen on the budget we have. Our scope is basic repairs, fresh paint, stabilizing the property,” says Buchalter. “We’re using public funds,” she adds. “We have a responsibility to be the best stewards of those funds.”
Shabazz agrees, “There is a certain responsibility when you take on a building that has historical significance. But our main responsibility is to educate our kids and not to preserve historic properties.”
While the future of the church of MBS is uncertain for now, the sale of its buildings has been a blessing to its parish partner. The Guastavino-tiled dome of St. Francis De Sales has been encased in scaffolding inside and out for as long as Father Hand has served as pastor. The latest project, repairing and sealing the church’s 37 roofs, had left the parish deeper in debt. “We needed the money,” says Father Hand. “We paid off $800,000 to the diocese.”
Parishioners at St. Francis De Sales have always celebrated the beauty of their church, says Father Hand, but MBS parish was never fixated on architecture. “Most people talk about the parish life. ‘We had so many masses and it was always packed.’ They never talk about the beauty of the church. The focus was on parish community.”
The first order of priority for ICS West is building and supporting a community. Just as MBS parish drew Catholic families to a newly built neighborhood at the western edge of the city 100 years ago, the leaders of the charter school are hoping that the Independence Charter name and reputation will have a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhood. “For me, it was important to be in a community where families didn’t have a lot of choices,” says Shabazz. “Education not a simple thing, especially where there are large concentrations of poverty and need. We all want the same things for our children. Some of us have more opportunities. We all benefit from a healthier, well-educated community.”
Unlike the original parish, whose well-defined boundaries engendered fierce local pride and loyalty at the expense of accepting outsiders, ICS West is committed to expanding the world view of their students, encouraging them to break through the defining boundaries of geography and regional identity. “Our mission is global citizenship,” says Shabazz. “It’s important for our students to know that they’re part of a broader community, that they have a responsibility to understand and be responsive to a world that’s bigger than themselves, and bigger than just 5600 Chester or Southwest Philly.”