Thursday, July 30, 2009
A little Viso folklore follows:
We were taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. One of them (don't remember which) told us that the parish was originally St. Cecelia's but that it was changed after the following: Seems an elderly widow was dying in Episcopal Hospital and her daughter went to the rectory to arrange for the priest to visit and to administer Extreme Unction (an oldie but a goodie) to her. The priest went to the hospital and did this. As he was preparing to leave, the woman asked how he came to visit her and the priest told her that her daughter had come to the rectory and requested such. The woman replied that this was impossible as her daughter (an only child) was dead. The woman had a old photo plate of her daughter and the priest confirmed that that was the woman. The widow always prayed to the Blessed Virgin and it was proposed that Mary had interceded and made a Visitation to the priest on her behalf. Spooky, eh? Kept us in line for weeks.
I asked my dad (91 years old, Viso '33) about this and he said that he knew the parish name was once St. Cecelia's but wasn't sure about the story. However, he did remember that Viso published a pamphlet on the 100th anniversary of the parish which he could not find. I checked with the Archdiocesan Historical Center and they have it - "Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church: A Century Together in Christ" published in 1974. I'll be in Philly in a few weeks and I'll check it out.
Now, a bit of a confounder regarding the date of the name change.- the Philadelphia GeoHistory Network has a website ( www.philageohistory.org ) that has an interactive map viewer which allows you to look at old maps and atlases on line. Two atlases available are a 1875 one by Hopkins and a 1910 one by Bromley. The 1875 one shows the Viso property as a vacant lot owned by Price Pallon but the 1910 shows the church and school and they are clearly labeled as St. Cecelia's RC Church and school. Would/could a city atlas be wrong? The St. Cecelia's on Rhawn St. was founded in 1911.
My family genealogy research shows our first American born child being baptized at Viso in 1888. Of course, they would have just changed the name on the parish record book when they changed the parish name.
Interesting, no doubt. The Project looks forward to what your PAHRC visit reveals. In the meantime, of course, alternate theories and evidence are encouraged.
Oh, and P.S., that GeoHistory Network is one of the coolest things the Project has seen in a long time. Tom is right, though. The 1910 map does says "St. Cecilia." If the maps were created by the city, then yes, they quite possibly could be wrong. The Project doesn't trust the city to tie its own shoes, let alone make accurate maps.
(We do trust the City Planning Commission, but only so much.)
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
After I dropped a text-based hammer on Project hater and all-around malcontent Regina Holloway, she offered a somewhat cooler-headed reply. I give her props for actually doing so, although it still sadly doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Again, you don't consider using tire irons a tad classist and racist? Please, North Phila. neighborhoods deserve better. Can you name any site that encourages pilgrimage/touring and then warns readers to "beware"? This is a missionary attitude that should have died with the end of the colonial era. I welcome your informal approach, and find it worthwhile. But you need to dig deeper to gain the respect of poor and minority Catholics, who don't appreciate their neighborhoods portrayed in such a manner. I'm not trying to criticize the value of your site, as I, too, love church architecture. Yes, I have thoroughly browsed your site, but please be open to the sensitivity needed when addresssing the demise of parishes that have seen better days.
Once more onto the breach, dear friends, hopefully for the last time....
The tire iron thing is just a joke, like grading the architecture by “crosses.” It is not intended to be anything more than that—and by trying to find some nefarious meaning in it, you’re missing the point. And no, it is neither classist nor racist, because we use the same scale for all neighborhoods, from and Bryn Mawr to North Central and Nicetown-Tioga.
I agree that North Philadelphia neighborhoods deserve a brighter future, and that is one of the driving forces of the Project—to open people’s eyes and get them to see that, despite 40 years of abandonment and marginalization, there are still wonderful things to be found in these neighborhoods, and that they can still be saved if people wake up and work to make it happen.
To do that, though, you need to be honest about their current state. That’s mainly because the health of a parish is tied, for better or worse, to the health of the surrounding community. You can’t fully and accurately evaluate that health unless you do the same for the community, warts and all.
Also, again, the Project serves as a travel guide of sorts for others who want to make similar journeys. I encourage all people to explore these areas, but you have to give them the honest facts about what they’re getting into. You don’t seem to understand the need to provide people with relevant safety information, but it’s critical. The last thing we want is for would-be visitors to get hurt or killed because we didn’t tell them everything they needed to know. If it’s almost happened to me, it can happen to anyone else.
Sugarcoating potential dangers does not only a disservice to potential pilgrims, but also the current residents as well. These people are not stupid; they understand the reality of their situation, and I would be doing them no great service by ignoring that. In fact, they would no doubt question the competency of anyone who wrote unusually glowing things about their neighborhoods—just as I would if someone did the same for mine.
More importantly, if you’re looking to effect change in these neighborhoods—and we are—you have to be real about the challenges they will have to overcome.
I recognize the feelings of current residents, which is why my reviews are more nuanced appraisals than just a tire iron or cross score. At the end of the day, though, the Project calls it the way we see it. And that truth is not an easy thing, because it may necessitate unpopular or difficult sentiments.
But it enables us to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, those who have been forgotten by the rich and the careless. You may not agree with our methods, but I suspect our goals are very much the same.
I sincerely hope you are able to see that someday.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Not that the Project tries. Given our focus and our somewhat sassy stylings, we occasionally make enemies. Usually these people are just upset because of a bad review or a smart-alecky remark about their favorite church.
But never before had the Project received a letter so so utterly and completely venomous as this one, from new Project archenemy Regina Holloway.
Dear Sir, I stumbled upon your site, today, and I can't tell you how offensive I find it. It screams of, "I'm a white boy, who is afraid of minority neighborhoods because my white welfare is soooo in danger". If your site is meant to be about , then stick to what you know, and forget the thinly veiled racist comments. Tire irons=safety....really? You so need a lesson in sensitivity. I have lived in, and worshipped at, many of the churches that you visited. Your tone is condecending, at best. Your attitude reflects all that is wrong with the Phila. Catholic community. Stay in your segregated neighborhood, buddy, as your site is offensive to all , black, brown and white, alike. Oh, BTW, I'm an old who SAFELY lives, works and worships in those parishes you consider "scary".
Boy, someone took their cranky pills today. Or didn't take their pills, if you catch my drift.
So ridiculously vicious is this note that it doesn't almost seem legitimate. Regardless, though, the Project doesn't let any personal attack, no matter how insane, slip by unanswered. To that end, here is the carefully worded reply I sent Regina. Let this be a notice to anyone else who feels compelled to impugn the Project's reputation with utter nonsense.
I regret that you find the Philadelphia Church Project offensive. However, judging from your e-mail, I find it hard to believe that you actually took the time to read the site. If you had, you would understand that the Project is not driven by fear, racism or condescension.
A couple of points:
I have no idea how, in any context, you could find the Project racist. We speak glowingly of our experience in minority neighborhoods and parishes. We’ve been given gift bags in Germantown , shared hugs and kisses in Strawberry Mansion , took up the gifts in Haddington, and bought food from street vendors in West Kensington . And we’ve loved every minute of it.
does note when things are new or surprising, but that in no way equates to racism or condescension, and that should be clear to anyone with even a modicum of reading comprehension.
It’s worth noting that no less an authority than Father Ed Hallinan, the miracle pastor of St. Martin de Porres, is a huge Project fan, and we still keep in touch. I have also done the same with pastors and church staff in other such areas. I would be proud to call any of those parishes “home.”
Racist? An insult to all Catholics? Please.
As for the Project being “afraid of minority neighborhoods,” again, please. If we were truly afraid of these places, would we have gone there in the first place? No.
The “Travel Tidbits” section is designed to help other church fans plan a trip, if they are so interested. It’s the Project’s duty, then, to evaluate the neighborhoods and give tips and advice for fellow pilgrims. Cautioning people that Hunting Park, Fairhill and Camden are bad areas and should be approached carefully is not fear—it is reality. These are bad areas, and pretending otherwise is irresponsible.
For the Project’s part, we have been monitored and we have been accosted, and in one case feared for our safety. But there is still no neighborhood in this city that we will not visit, and the evidence of that is on the site.
The fact is, the Project is an incredible endeavor that has touched more lives than I count, and has brought me to places both beautiful and weird, crazy and calm, off-putting and uplifting. I have seen more than I ever thought I would, and I feel incredibly honored to be able to chronicle these experiences in this space—to help people relive a piece of their past, or to open up these worlds to people who might never have considered them.
You don’t like the Project? That’s fine. You don’t have to. Our irreverent tone is not for everyone. But to come here and make such an outrageous and unfounded attack is inappropriate—and, frankly, it only serves to highlight your own ignorance.
If you have constructive criticisms, by all means send them on. But leave the inflammatory race-baiting at home. It does you no credit.
Love us or hate us, at the end of the day the Project’s work speaks for itself. And we stand by it proudly.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
1) Was originally founded as St. Cecelia's at C and Cambria Streets in 1872 where a chapel was constructed. The fourth pastor, Father Thomas Barry received permission in 1875 to move the church to its present location and rename it Our Lady of the Visitation. The corner stone was laid on Oct. 22, 1876 and the church was completed on Sept. 9, 1883. (Source: "History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884", page 1383 by Scharf and Wescott. This is available on Google Books and offers the history of all the early Philly churches by denomination.)
I am intrigued by the name change and can find no reason for it and do not know of it happening in other parishes. One of the nuns that taught me once offered a local folklore explanation which I can relate if you are interested.
2) Viso is probably more of a magnet than you think. The archdiocese had purchased a large part of real estate on the west side of Kensington Avenue between Lehigh Ave. & Huntington St. and constructed a shelter for battered women. I think the official title is Visitation Homes. You can see them on Google Maps street view.
3) I still attend the alumni mass every April -UPPER CHURCH, BABY!!! - and the architecture and beauty of the building are timeless. I am also happy that the shrine "Our Lady of the Armed Forces" survives in the lower church. This mass is followed by a reception in the school hall - another flashback!
Upper churches do indeed rule, and Visitation has one of the best around. (Although the Archdiocese claims Visitation was dedicated in 1880, not 1883. Who's counting, though?)
The curious note here is the name change. Visitation was indeed founded as St. Cecilia in 1873, but the name was changed to infinitely cooler Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1876. Why? Good question. As Tom points out, the answers are not readily available. Even the Archdiocese's surprisingly good 200th anniversary book, "Our Faith-Filled Heritage," doesn't explain the reasoning behind it.
We asked for Tom's folklore explanation, but he has yet to provide it. In the meantime, if anyone happens to have any information, feel free to send it on.
It's worth noting that, Tom's thoughts to the contrary, Visitation is not the only parish to undergo a name change early in its history. Incarnation of Our Lord, for example, was founded in 1900 as St. Justin. It wasn't until 1902 that it received the cool, unique moniker it has now.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
This is a little outside the Project's sphere of influence, but it's of great interest to us anyway.
According to a report from the good folks at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese is closing four Catholic churches in a 10-block radius, and consolidating them into a fifth. St. Casimir, St. Columba, St. Rochus Croatian and Immaculate Conception--all ornate, grandiose ethnic national parishes--are getting the axe, and will be replaced by a new parish, Resurrection, which will be housed in the building of the former St. Stephen parish, also ethnic.
There was a sixth, too--St. Emerich--but it was demolished in 2003.
Six churches in a 10-block radius? The Project feels faint.
From the report:
The Catholic churches of the Cambria City neighborhood have survived floods and mine accidents, but in the end they couldn't overcome the changing cultural and economic landscape of their community...
For each ethnic group - first Irish and German, followed by Slovak, Polish, Hungarian, and Croatian immigrants - the stories were similar: They were fleeing oppression and searching for better jobs in the United States, where factories were hungry for unskilled labor.
In Johnstown, they labored in the coal mines and at the Cambria Steel mill, at one time the largest producer of railroad rails. But they forged their own identities in their off-hours, in the fraternal societies and the magnificent churches built on this sliver of land hemmed in by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Conemaugh River.
Their homes may have been simple, but the ethnic communities hired their own architects and built large churches in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, weaving their cultural identities into the buildings' fabric, with their own icons and saints and hymns. They paid homage to the living and the dead in stained glass.See Alley, Church. Also now facing the same problems.
The most interesting thing here is the discussion about the fates of these historic and beautiful buildings. The former parishioners of these parishes are understandably concerned, and don't want to see these monuments torn down.
Yeah, join the club. The Project finds the possibility of converting them to restaurants or performance spaces amusing. Not that we doubt the sincerity of the talks, but...our own experience suggests otherwise. We hope we're wrong; maybe the Altoona Diocese is far more competent and sympathetic than others.
Keep an eye on this one, folks. We may be seeing the same thing sooner than you think.
Monday, July 20, 2009
From the mailbag:
Thank you for taking on this project. I grew up in Logan and this was my parish. It was a great place! Monsignor Charles B. McGinley was the second pastor, I think and he was there for quite a long time. He was a very kind man, as I remember and would sometimes give us a ride to school as he was coming home from a sick call. He is pictured in the last photo with Father Carroll.
The case of Holy Child / Our Lady of Hope is indeed a sad one, and a personal one, too, since the Project's grandparents were married in the parish back in 1954.
I don't go out of my way to criticize the , but it's examples like this that make it far too easy. History tells me that the Oblates did a tremendous job of stabilizing the troubled parish in the 1980s, making big strides in turning it around despite a declining neighborhood. They then returned control to the Archdiocese, who promptly closed and renamed it. Their stewardship since then has been, to put it mildly, less than inspiring.
Logan stands a good chance of turning around in the coming years as North Philadelphia continues to gentrify and remake itself. It would be rewarding to see OLH benefit from that--assuming, of course, that it's still around. Given the indifference the Archdiocese usually shows urban parishes these days, that's far from a certainty.
Hope for everything, expect nothing.
P.S. If OLH has any hope (pun intended), it'll have to come from the alumni. Why not another reunion? The parish phone number is 215.329.8100. If any other ex-parishioners are reading, give them a call and get the ball rolling.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Not that I'm complaining, of course. Especially when the letters are as helpful as this one, from Project reader Frank:
I have attached two photos from the 50th Anniversary Memorial Booklet that was issued in 1955. The aerial shot compliments your description that the buildings cover an entire city block and is on a raised plane. Last year I visited the site and discovered that the convert has been demolished. The third and fourth photos are of Cardinal O'Hara entering the church for the 50th Anniversary Mass and the exterior decorations.
Transfiguration's upper church are at St. Elizabeth's. The pastor, Msgr. Thomas Mullin attended Transfiguration Church & School as a youth. from Transfiguration, there are 12 windows in the new St. Elizabeth's in
For more pictures of Transfiguration and other West Philadelphia Catholic Churches visit our West Catholic Boys Class of 1958 website:
Keep up the good work.
Transy, eh? Whew, good thing they didn't go with "Tranny." Even if they did, though, that still would have been better than the rather gross moniker that was once bestowed upon Most Blessed Sacrament by its adolescent male parishioners.
Anyway, the pictures in question appear below:
Good stuff, all of it. The aerial view reminds us of how mammoth the complex was (few can best it in size), while it's always a pleasure to get vintage interior shots. What really intrigues the Project is the last image. Not because it shows the church sparkling and dressed to the nines, although it's undeniably good to see it not looking like a rotting piece of crap.
No, what the Project really finds striking is the front window actually opened. Look at it. Never, ever have we seen that before. Like the spiral staircase out front, it's truly one of a kind. Well, was one of a kind.
(Yeah, that's the kind of minutiae that gets us excited. What? Don't give me that look. The Project is comfortable with its nerdiness.)
Oh, and the Web site Frank mentions is a treasure in and of itself, with images from a number of churches, include MBS, St. Francis de Sales, Our Lady of Victory (deceased), St. Carthage and Visitation BVM. Only a select few are actually vintage, but its still well worth the trip.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Turns out, we were right on the money.
From Project reader Tom Lochhead:
Hi, First, I would like to tell you how much I enjoy your web site. My great grandparents emigrated from Scotland in 1887 and we were Vistation (Viso to locals) parishioners from then to 1975. After grade school (1960), my world expanded and I made friends in other parishes and occasionally attended mass with them. This led me to St. Bonnies (both of them, - in Kensington when you said St. Bonnies the next question was always "Which one"?), St. Ed's, Ascension, and St. Mike's to name a few. Finally, weddings (including my own at St. Anne) led me to many other churches that you have reported on in your blog.
Tom goes on to offer the following nugget about St. Anne, the parish of his bride:
I always thought that St. Anne was a rather sterile building. By marrying "into the parish", I learned that the building had suffered a major fire in 1947 which led to a ceiling collapse and some major wall damage also. I think that when it was reconstructed, it followed the lead of some of the "big box" churches in the northeast. You can go to www.stannealumni.org and follow the link to church history which will show the church after the fire and provides another link to a 1908 postcard of the church interior which (I feel) shows it in a much better light.
That's putting it mildly. For the record, here is what St. Anne looked like pre-1947:
All together now: HOLY $@#$!^. Who knew that St. Anne's austere form belied such an opulent past? Italian-Renaissance and then some, featuring intricate paint and mural work, detailed moldings and even a cleaving balcony, a feature common to older churches. It's incredibly reminiscent of neighboring Nativity BVM, only wider, with a better altar and with the balcony--which means that it was a real looker.
Things like these are why Tabula Rasa is perhaps the cruelest theorem. It spares a church's life, but robs it of its original beauty. St. Anne is sadly no exception.
Oh, and the pictures of the church after the fire? Yikes. There are few things creepier.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
That's right! St. Boniface again--truly, a church that will never die. For the record, you can find her entry here. It's an interesting endeavor, and they give us a nice mention to boot.
Monday, July 13, 2009
The July 9 issue of the Catholic Standard & Times bears the following clerical notice--and thanks again to Project reader Bill for this piece:
OLHC Pastor Dennis Fedak will take over both parishes effective August 3, while Nativity Pastor Anthony Orth is getting banished to the corn fields.
The CS&T hasn't, to the Project's knowledge, directly covered the twinning yet, but this pretty much confirms that it's going to happen--at least in terms of resources, if not officially in name (a la Immaculate Conception and St. Michael).
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Some readers asserted otherwise. Turns out, they are right.
My initial map-and-photo surveys of area turned up nothing that struck me as a former Catholic church, so I wrote the place off as having met its match at the business end of a bulldozer. But Pompeii, unlike its famous namesake city, was not so easily run out of town.
Proof is provided by a recent photo by Project fan Bill--
--and by the book Images of America: Italians of Philadelphia, which has a similar picture and confirms that the church in question is indeed the former Pompeii.
What can I say? We do make mistakes from time to time. And you can't blame us, really. That does look more Protestant than anything else. But we know better than anyone that not all old architecture is great, so...shame on us.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, there's no Long Goodbye for Pompeii. It was Caveat Emptor'd into the Solomon Baptist Church. Their site has an animated portion in the upper left-hand corner that briefly shows an interior shot of the church. It's hard to tell much, but it doesn't appear as if the place was pimped into oblivion--unlike unfortunate neighbor St. Stephen.
Friday, July 10, 2009
Sources close to the Project reveal that Our Lady Help of Christians and Nativity BVM, two-thirds of the marvelous Church Alley, are going to be twinned--i.e., Dead Parish Walking. A public announcement was supposedly made at Nativity recently, and the current issue of the CS&T has a small note about OLHC pastor Father Fedak taking over both parishes as early as August.
The Project has not received official confirmation of this, but the sourcing is credible enough for me to believe it. Barring a miracle, or a lapse in our grapevine, it's all but done.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
It's terrible news, but really, not at all surprising. Port Richmond is a great area, but there's only so much Catholicism to go around, and no neighborhood can support three parishes in a seven-block radius. The Project has long been amazed that the arrangement has lasted this long.
OLHC and Nativity just happened to be the least prosperous of the bunch. OLHC, despite a surprising spunkiness in trying to repair their damage, is only drawing 200+ in average attendance. And as I noted in during my visit to Nativity, the consolidation of the three parish schools could be considered a harbinger of things to come. Who knew it would happen so quickly?
The sad thing is, OLHC is doomed. Regardless of what the parishioners say, regardless of what the Archdiocese says, it's only a matter of time. Dead Parish Walking is never reversed; much like consolidation, it's a permanent scarlet letter. It's life support. And things will get to the point where OLHC, as the smallest and weakest, will get the axe. The Project sees it coming.
And unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about it.
More on this as it develops.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Answer: when things get so bad it's forced to close 12 years earlier.
That's right! Case in point, West Philadelphia's St. Gregory, at 52nd & Warren Streets, which closed in 1981, a full 12 years before the Year of Hell, 1993. Now that's a bad area!
(Yes, I know that the YOH is usually used in connection with the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction, but it can apply elsewhere as well. 1993 marked the end of many parishes in Chester, for example.)
Anyway, Gregory's building has become Caveat Emptor'd into a Protestant church. But for those looking to relive the good old days, Project reader Terry Callen was good enough to send over some photos of St. Gregory, including a prized interior shot, and a stylized photo from a 1911 postcard:
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Case in point: St. Boniface, which has given me more e-mails than I care to count. The latest is perhaps the most spectacular, however. Project reader Henry Buehner kindly forwarded roughly 30 old pictures of the church. Interior, exterior, holidays, you name it.
The Project values old photography more than anything, so these are a real treat. I'm still figuring out a way to make all of them available to you. In the meantime, however, here are some previews:
A real rarity, an image of Boniface with its spire. First one of its kind I've ever seen.
The last mass at the church. You can see where some of the windows were already removed. (Though not, as I previously believed, all of them.)
And the church with holiday decorations. Words fail me.
More to come, but enjoy these for what they're worth. And thanks again to Henry for providing these timeless photos.
Monday, July 6, 2009
The only thing the Project loves more than compliments is suggestion lists. To answer:
Our Lady of Pompeii closed in 1993, a victim of the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction, circa Year of Hell, and the building has since been demolished. I have not yet come across any pictures of the place, so I can unfortunately say nothing about it. If anyone out there has any, feel free to send them on.
Holy Angels is indeed a poor comparison. I actually did make a visit there back in the fall, but found it to be so substandard that I left and visited my Plan B church instead. (Which turned out to be St. Bonaventure.) In another time the Project would have taken the bad with the good, but I now need to be more selective in my choices.
And, finally, Olney's St. Helena. Jessica actually isn't the first person to suggest this church, a mammoth tweener near the city's northern border. I've referenced it a couple of times, but haven't done a Project visit. Why, you ask? Well, St. Helena has the pesky tendency to avoid using their football field-sized upper church, even when they tell you they're going to, so visiting is tough.
On a more personal note, though, St. Helena is actually the Project's home parish. Come on, you knew I had to have one, right? Back when I wasn't a religious nomad, I grew up in the neighborhood and attended St. Helena for 18 years or so. I'm no longer a registered member, of course, but the parish holds a special place in my heart. And out of respect to that, I'm saving the Project review for a special occasion.
When will that be, you ask? As with all Project matters, you'll just have to wait and see.
Friday, July 3, 2009
But I was intrigued by a curious article that breathlessly reports the closing of Holy Trinity parish in Society Hill.
It's curious because the Project believed that Holy Trinity, a former German national parish and one of the oldest parishes in the city, wasn't actually an independent parish anymore. All signs pointed to it existing solely as a worship site for nearby Old St. Mary's: the fact that Mary's bulletin lists mass times for Holy Trinity; the fact that said mass times are relegated to holy days only; and the fact that Mary's pastor, Paul DiGirolamo, administers everything at both.
How in the world does that add up to an independent parish? Argh, my head hurts.
Whatever. Holy Trinity is now officially being designated as an Old St. Mary's worship site, and the wonderful old building will continue to find use. Says the Archdiocese: "Because of its historical significance, Holy Trinity Church will remain open as a worship site of Old St. Mary’s Parish."
Oh, so now, suddenly, historical significance is important to you? I'm sure the fact that Society Hill is rich and influential has absolutely nothing to do with this decision.
Ah well, the Project isn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Thanks, guys!