Photography

In Remembrance of Our Lady of the Rosary

December 2, 2021 | by Matthew Christopher

Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church at 339 N. 63rd Street was built in 1890 and designed by ecclesiastical architect Frank Rushmore Watson. The Romanesque Revival landmark was demolished by Boys Latin Charter School in July 2021 after the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to deny the church historic designation. | Photo: Matthew Christopher

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.”

Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church in 1931. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

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.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ with St. John the Apostle and the Virgin Mary by the late Philadelphia painter Lucien Crump. | Photo: Matthew Christopher

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.

The bell tower of Our Lady of the Rosary at 63rd and Callowhill Streets during demolition. | Photo: Matthew Christopher

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.



Tags:    

About the Author

Matthew Christopher has had an interest in abandoned sites since he was a child, but started documenting them a decade ago while researching the decline of the state hospital system. His website, abandonedamerica.us, has gained international attention and is considered one of the leading collections of images of abandoned spaces on the internet. You can follow him on Facebook here.

14 Comments:

  1. Jim Clark says:

    Another beautiful church gone, pretty soon all we have are pictures.

  2. Nina Coffin says:

    The correct spelling is Celeste Morello.

  3. Jojo says:

    Really sad to see such a beautiful and unique place disappear.

  4. Robert says:

    Does anyone know if any of the architectural features were saved? Where are such structured usually trashed after demolition?

    1. B. Daily says:

      Thanks for this article and photos. It is important to remember these sacred structures that brought beauty and grace into everyday lives. I know the parish I grew up in Holy Child now Our Lady of Hope may face this fate someday even though it has been designated one of the most beautiful interiors in Philadelphia by Philly Curbed. https://philly.curbed.com/maps/prettiest-interiors-in-philadelphia

  5. Julia Canonica says:

    The archdiocese needs to stop building such big churches. they are beautiful to behold and are spiritually inspiring. but when neighborhoods change these too large churches can’t be sustained. however no one has learned big churches are still being built to suit the present population that attends. if some thought were given to the future and possibility that the church would have to close bec. of changing demographics maybe there would be less big sized churches that have to be closed and destroyed, and we could possibly preserve what is already standing. it is a thought. stop building really big churches and take care of what is standing. churches are real anchors in neighborhoods. it is a tragic to the surrounding neighborhoods to lose these anchors in the city.

  6. Aaron Wunsch says:

    What does it say about the Philadelphia Historical Commission that it took Boys’ Latin’s claims and promises at face value without asking for such a basic guarantee as a memorandum of agreement? And let’s not forget this gem: https://hiddencityphila.org/2021/10/whistleblower-accuses-mayor-of-manipulating-preservation-process/ This is an agency to which the City is now directing more money without any requirements for reform?

  7. Dana McDonnell says:

    Sad to see. Does anyone know what became of the items placed in the cornerstone?

  8. ann Doley says:

    This article brings tears to my eyes. I would like to know what happened to the late artist Lucien Crump’s 1996 painting “The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ with St. John the Apostle and the Virgin Mary (all painted as Black figures). I presently live next door to the former Lucien Crump Gallery on Germantown Ave. (first Black owned gallery in our city, I believe) and am a longtime admirer of Mr. Crump as an artist and for what he stood for, especially his deep commitment to and understanding of the centrality of actual “representation” and images as well.

    I appreciate this article and the beautiful photos; sadly, it is a eulogy. While I once spoke highly of Boys Latin, to me, they have destroyed their credibility and I no longer respect them as an institution. The words of Adam Wunsch(in comments above) should be heeded. It was a weak Philadelphia Historical Commission that allowed this to happen and that same entity now has been given more money by the City. I lost a great deal of faith and trust in the Commission when they capitulated to technicalities in the case of the designated Pearson House – formerly in Germantown where I reside, demolished in 2021.

    Keep up your excellent and important work at Hidden City! Thank you.

  9. francis dolenc says:

    Just saw this now in the process of sending a gift of Tie pin and Cuff-links to my nephew’s son in Ohio. So as to correctly label my photo, I googled the address of ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’ to find the correct address: 63th and Callowhill (in my brain from 70 years ago I’d recalled 61st St.) Anyway, while attending 2nd Grade at OLOTR I made my First Communion in May 1951and received the monogrammed Cuff-lind set as a gift. Only have photos of family in the Church yard. We lived at 5901 Chestnut St. in West Philly and I used to catch the Trolley at 59th and Market every day to get to school. one day I was late – and in order to NOT miss the trolley I ran across 59th Street – and of course was hit by a car! But, not serious! I survived to write this vignette. francis dolenc, now 78 years old!

    1. barbara Marie Fahy says:

      I am glad you made it to 78. Many more years ahead, I hope. I used to ride horses out of Felton Street (400 north block). My route to the park always took me down Felton, up Callowhill (across from Our Lady of Rosary), across 63rd to Gross St.. Then left to the park at Race. I used to listen to the bells at the church at 5 and 6 in the evening, I believe. I did attend a funeral mass there but was never a parishioner.
      I am so happy you recovered from your mishap with the car.

  10. Robert P. says:

    My parents were married in this church, how can I find any documentation for the marriage?

    1. Christopher says:

      Sacramental records including Baptisms, Confirmation, etc can be found at Saint Cyprian on 63rd and Cedar. Call the rectory.

Leave a Reply to Robert Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *