Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Spaces

  • March 05, 2018
  • by Tom Infield

How places of worship are testaments to the city’s past—and signposts for its future.

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Trust Magazine Winter 2018

A basket that invites charitable giving sits beneath one of many stained glass windows at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Center City Philadelphia. Founded in 1787 by a former slave, it is the mother church of the country's first black denomination and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. (Lexey Swall/GRAIN)

When the English Quaker William Penn established Philadelphia in 1682, he espoused a philosophy of “religious toleration.” 

And to this day, Penn’s openness to people of all faiths is reflected in the large number and diversity of the city’s historic sacred places, defined in a new Pew report as “buildings designed for religious use and constructed before 1965.” Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative found that the city of 1,568,000 residents is home to 839 of these places, a considerable concentration of one for every 1,900 residents. 

Whether these churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship thrive or become worn and vacant is a matter of public importance that goes beyond their value to the congregations that occupy them, the report suggests.

If well maintained and in active use, historic sacred places can be civic assets. They provide stability in changing neighborhoods. They offer services government cannot. They rent space to nonprofits or startup businesses. They stimulate local economies by offering employment and purchasing goods and services.

Even if these buildings are redeveloped as apartments, offices, or other uses, they might retain stained-glass windows or other significant architectural features that lend beauty and solidity to a neighborhood otherwise chockablock with mundane structures. And, the report found, about 10 percent of the buildings have been converted to these uses.

On the other hand, if buildings of such magnitude become unwanted and derelict, they turn into eyesores—and worse. They become drags on their communities, discouraging investment and thwarting optimism.

“These buildings, even if they are not public buildings in the usual sense, are an important part of the landscape of the city and its civic infrastructure,” says Larry Eichel, who directs the research initiative. “Even if you are not a member of one of these congregations, you still think of the buildings as an important part of your neighborhood, and if something happens to them, it matters to you.”

The Pew study, notes Eichel, doesn’t make recommendations about the future of historic sacred spaces, but does seek to put their fate on the public agenda.

The research included creation of a comprehensive database that assessed the use and condition of Philadelphia’s religious buildings. “As far as we know,” Eichel says, “there has never been a study like this. We have put facts and numbers behind a situation where there was just anecdotes.”

Overwhelmingly Christian in number, Philadelphia’s historic sacred places stand on corners where new arrivals from many faith traditions found a home from the 17th century onward. Early Scandinavians who settled along the Delaware River established Old Swedes Church. Some of the Founding Fathers who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution worshipped at Christ Church in Old City. Mother Bethel AME Church, in Society Hill, is the oldest property in the nation continuously under black ownership. 

Irish immigrants of the mid-1800s built St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church at Fourth and New streets. Italians, Poles, and others founded their own churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More recently, Russian-speaking immigrants have taken their place at Pennypack Baptist in the northeastern part of the city, and Cambodian immigrants have remade a former church in South Philadelphia as Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple. 

The study found that many buildings have remained houses of worship by being handed off from one congregation to another, or from one religion to another. In the West Oak Lane neighborhood, for example, a church that became a synagogue is now a mosque.

Trust Magazine Winter 2018

The Pews in Mother Bethel AME Church signify another first. Prior to the church's founding, black congregants were segregated—often in balconies—during services at predominantly white places of worship. But here they chose their own seats. (Lexey Swall/GRAIN)

Regardless of denomination, these buildings represented immense investment in their day. They were made to last, and exterior examination of all 839 buildings— undertaken in 2015 and 2016 by Pew’s research partners, PennPraxis of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and Partners for Sacred Places—found that the majority are still in good or very good condition. 

The report found, however, that deferred maintenance has taken a toll in some locations, with boarded-up windows, sagging roofs, and weed trees growing from steeples. In addition, a number of buildings face major and potentially costly repairs to their interiors and operating systems.

To determine factors that affect vulnerability and resilience, the researchers took deeper looks at 22 of the buildings and interviewed pastors, rabbis, and other leaders.

They found that some factors are internal: An institution’s precarious financial condition goes hand in hand with poor maintenance. Likewise, poor church leadership and lack of communication between pastor and laity put buildings at risk. Structurally, the more complex a building’s architecture—if it has spires, vaulted ceilings, and other ornamentation—the more costly it is to keep it up. 

The fate of historic religious buildings can be linked with the relationship between congregations and their surrounding communities, the study found. Congregations that are buttoned up, serving mainly their own, were judged to be more at risk of their church shrinking or deteriorating than congregations that reach out. 

The Rev. Cheryl Pyrch, pastor of Summit Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia’s West Mount Airy section, told the researchers that her church “wants to be a good neighbor” and considers community services an important part of its mission. Summit houses a day care center and after-school program, and it shares space with a Jewish congregation, P’nai Or. It also invites community groups to hold meetings in its facilities, and it rents space to a theater troupe, a dance studio, and a classical-music group.

“The congregation considers itself very much rooted in the neighborhood,” Pyrch said, “and most people in the congregation live in the neighborhood. Or perhaps they used to live here and are now retired just a little bit further away.”

The Rev. Joe Melloni, pastor of First Christian Assembly in South Philadelphia, said in the report that outreach is the church’s purpose. “God provided the building. People from all over the community, from all over the city, even further … they come and they get help.”

External factors that lead to vulnerability for congregations and their churches, the researchers found, include the general decline of religiosity in American life. Lack of a support from a denomination —or, conversely, autocratic decision-making from afar —can also weigh on a church’s future.

Factors of resilience, in many cases, were seen as the flip side of vulnerability—strong finances, good leadership, helpful denominational support.

An additional positive factor is historical recognition. Of the 839 sacred places in the report, 177 are named on the National Register of Historic Places or a similar registry in Philadelphia. When a building is redeveloped for nonreligious purposes, historic designation may protect distinctive architectural features. And when a building faces demolition, the designation may halt—or at least slow the advance of—the wrecking ball.

Historic sacred places, taken together, represent the religious life of Philadelphians from many nations and cultures over more than 300 years. All may not be preserved over the long haul, Eichel says, and all may not deserve to be, but he calls their collective fate “an issue worthy of public attention.” One reason that historic sacred places may not gain attention from policymakers is the unease some public officials may feel when government takes an interest in anything religious—even if it’s just the use of brick and mortar.

“It’s understandable,” Eichel says. “But it’s a similar issue to the fate of school buildings,” which Pew has also looked at. “In residential neighborhoods, churches are often the largest buildings, the most notable structures. When they are closed, that’s a big deal for a lot of the same reasons that a school becoming vacant is a big deal.”