Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Churches of Philadelphia's 38th Street

Philadelphia has 2393 miles of streets and 2169 churches, which means you would expect, in this city of one and a half million people, to drive, on average, 1.1 miles between churches on any given street. On 38th Street, you would drive 672 feet.

Running north-south through the University City, Powelton Village, and Mantua neighborhoods of West Philly, 38th Street covers a distance of 1.4 miles, but in that span is home to ten functioning places of worship and one former church. The churches range from Catholic to Episcopal to Baptist to A.M.E., from huge cathedrals to modest houses, from former synagogues to current apartment buildings. The earliest was built in the 1870s, the newest 2005. These are a sampling, of which more can be found at Flickr (and on this Google map).

St. Agatha–St. James Roman Catholic Church, at the corner of 38th and Chestnut in University City, is the southernmost of the group, and one of the oldest and largest. It was built in the Gothic style in 1887 by E.F. Durang, who designed many prominent, nineteenth-century Catholic churches in Philadelphia. Originally the Church of St. James, the building took on a new name when the St. Agatha parish merged in the 1980s, abandoning the sister church several blocks north. It now serves both the neighborhood and the community of the University of Pennsylvania, to which it is adjacent.

The Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral is just across Chestnut from St. Agatha–St. James. It was built by C.W. Burns in 1898 in the Italianate style, reflecting an architectural trend in the neighborhood during the period. It contains the seat of the Bishop of Pennsylvania. The original edifice was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1906. The interior was extensively renovated in the late 1990s and early years of the millennium to create an impressive but minimalist space. From the sidewalk, its most distinctive features are an imposing bell tower and doors with whimsical hinges.

North of Lancaster Avenue, 38th Street transforms from an arterial thoroughfare to a relatively quiet residential street, cutting across a corner of Powelton Village, the oldest neighborhood along the route. Powelton is correspondingly home to the oldest churches and the densest concentration thereof—it has four within a span of about five hundred feet. This church at the corner of Hamilton was built in a sort of medieval style in the early 1870s; its northern addition, shown here, was completed in 1885. It is now home to the Tyree African Methodist Episcopal congregation. Much of the building's original features are preserved with the addition of some necessary modern retrofits. The A.M.E. denomination, which began in Philadelphia, incorporates the roots of its founders, who were of African descent, Methodist theology, and an Episcopal government structure.

Originally St. Agatha's Roman Catholic Church, the building at the corner of Spring Garden is now part of an apartment complex called The Cloisters. Durang built St. Agatha's between 1874 and 1878, but a century later Powelton could no longer support it. The parish merged with St. James's to the south, and the building was abandoned for a decade. Between 1991 and 1993, Pennrose Properties gutted the church and adjacent parish buildings to build affordable apartments, managing to preserve much of the exterior. The renovations included new additions to the roof line, seen here.

Besides Tyree and The Cloisters, Bethel Community Baptist Church, which stands as a neighborhood landmark at the bend in 38th, and Mount Pleasant Primitive Baptist Church, which is possibly the oldest of the 38th Street churches, also serve Powelton.

North of Powelton, 38th Street crosses into Mantua, a working-class neighborhood served by four smaller churches, three of which are Baptist (as are nearly a quarter of the churches in the city). St. Jude Baptist Church stands at practically the dead center of Mantua, where Wallace crosses 38th. According to its cornerstone, this newest church building on 38th was constructed in 2005 under the leadership of its pastor, Cleveland M. Edwards Jr., the son of the man who founded the church in 1948. The younger Edwards is an active leader in the NAACP. First United Baptist Church, Transfiguration Baptist Church, and Church of Faith, Inc., (in a former synagogue building) also call Mantua home.

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Blogger Bleimanimal said...

Honorable mention should be given to Smokey Joes on 40th St.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous matt said...

You mention former synagogue, can you please mention more about that. There seems to be no mention of a synagogue in your posting or the map.

2:18 PM  
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Blogger happy said...

How interesting! I am a native Philadelphian; infact, my church was at 38th & Haverford Ave., it is currently a strong-standing fully operating house of worship. I suppose those 2,169 churches along 2,393 stretch of Philly miles did not include all of the storefront places of worship along the way. Good job! Casn I quote your statistics? I'd like old friends out West to know this bit of trivia - especially my son. Thanks---mpembleton@aol.com

3:14 PM  
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Anonymous Richard Boles said...

These marvelous churches on 38th Street are at par with the other magnificent churches in Europe. Looking at the architecture of these places of worship - from the clock tower and roofing to the front door and patio - 38th Street can truly be a haven of these structures of faith. Now, which one of here is the biggest? The oldest?

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