Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament was originally founded as Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church. The congregation was an outgrowth of the neighboring Our Mother of Sorrows. The cornerstone of the church was laid in October 1888 with great fanfare. Over 1,000 people attended the ceremony, with multiple church bands and temperance societies among their numbers. Inside the cornerstone were names of officiating clergymen, the name of the president, the Pennsylvania governor, gold and silver coins minted that year, medals, and copies of The New York Times, and other newspapers from that day.
Two years later, on October 5, 1890, the finished church was dedicated. The tickets-only event was packed to the front doors. During the procession, Ave Maria was played by an orchestra that was accompanied by a solo violinist, a harp, and the church’s brand new Mudler pipe organ. After the ceremonies, a procession of 4,000 children from the Sunday schools of Our Mother of Sorrows and Our Lady of the Rosary marched down the street. Articles about the dedication ceremony proclaimed that Our Lady of the Rosary was the “prettiest little church in Philadelphia.”
It was indeed a beautiful church, designed in the Romanesque Revival style by architect Frank Rushmore Watson, who also planned St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church at Broad and Butler Streets and New Tabernacle Baptist Church at Chestnut Street west of 40th Street. Built to seat 1,000 parishioners, Our Lady of the Rosary was constructed with locally-quarried Haddington stone with granite trimmings, and its interior was fashioned with antique oak. 15 stained glass windows depicted different mysteries of the rosary, and the belfry spire was 122 feet high.
Other than the addition of a parochial school in 1901, articles about the church and its congregation were unremarkable marriage and funeral notices. Like many churches, Our Lady of the Rosary served mainly one ethnic group (in this case, Irish-American), but welcomed others in the community decades before other area churches followed suit. The population of the neighborhood shifted, and by 1996–a year after Our Lady of the Rosary merged with the former Our Lady of Victory Parish and was renamed Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament–90 percent of the 600 attending members were African and Caribbean American.
One of the more significant events in the history of the church occurred after the painting over the altar, entitled The Assumption of the Virgin, was destroyed when it fell from the wall as a result of the winter freeze-thaw cycle. In 1996, retired art teacher and gallery owner Lucien Crump was brought in to paint a replacement and opted to create a 14-by-28-foot portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ flanked by St. John the Apostle and the Virgin Mary. As a reflection of the ethnic makeup of the congregation, Crump’s figures were Black, a decision lauded both for its representation of the inclusivity of the church and, in all likelihood, its historical accuracy. Crump, who worked tirelessly to complete the piece and passed away a decade later, clearly felt the painting was to be his life’s work, and a newspaper article written about the painting closed by observing that the church had an artwork worthy of hanging on its wall for the next century.
Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament would not exist for another century, however; it was merged again with St. Cyprian Parish in 2013, which used it for occasional liturgies. St. Cyprian was responsible for maintenance, including $3,500 in repairs that were needed to fix damage from a broken water pipe. St. Cyprian was also struggling, with only 440 members attending Sunday mass. Without parish funding they would have to cut staff and outreach programs to maintain Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. St. Cyprian petitioned to close the church rather than pay for its upkeep, and in 2014 the building was left vacant. A year later the property was sold to Boys Latin Charter School, despite the fact that the organization was known for razing the Church of the Transfiguration for a proposed expansion to their school and had then done nothing with the lot for over a decade.
When Celeste Morello nominated Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament for a historic designation that would potentially protect the property in 2019, the meetings with the Philadelphia Historical Commission were testy. Boys Latin opposed the designation because they claimed it would more than double the costs of repurposing the building for a gym. The fact that Boys Latin’s school was located in one of the former Transfiguration buildings that had an empty lot next to it where the church had once stood that would be perfectly suitable for new construction, or that Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament was over two miles from them and thus would not be conveniently accessible without bussing students to it, did not appear to have impacted the decision. Despite meeting the Historical Commission’s designation criteria, the nomination was denied largely because Boys Latin promised the Commission that it would renovate the church rather than destroy it.
By the time the demolition notice was posted on the door of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament on Memorial Day weekend of 2021 there was little anyone could do. Before the demolition of the exterior began in July, the interior was already being stripped. Councilperson Curtis Jones Jr. expressed remorse for supporting Boys Latin’s efforts to deny historical designation, saying that had he known that the school had planned to demolish the building all along he would not have written a letter on its behalf. It was too late, though. The appeals to prevent the demolition had been denied. Without sufficient time for public opposition to the demolition to gain traction, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament was destroyed. In its last days, only the bell tower remained standing and then that too was gone. Months after the demolition the lot is still just a gaping hole in the ground, serving as a metaphor for its own loss. Another piece of the neighborhood’s few remaining historic and architectural treasures is no more, and empty space is all that is left.
Step inside Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church during its final days. Photographs by Matthew Christopher.