A little over three years ago, the Project visited a Kensington parish named Ascension of Our Lord. Tucked away at F & Westmoreland streets, off Allegheny Avenue, the church's robust Italian-Renaissance design stood in stark defiance to the crumbling decay of the neighborhood around it.
Or at least we presumed. We were denied entry, being told that the upper church was in such sad shape that the parish couldn't let visitors see it, to say nothing of actually using it themselves. To date, it is the one and only time the Fat Girl Principle has ever failed.
My inability to see this place long rankled at me--until my powers of persuasion (and a few choice contacts) helped me gain entry to this mysterious building.
Some selected pictures of my excursion appear below. (I've included these and the rest in the Ascension of Our Lord picture section.)
The fact that Ascension parish can't even use this church is proof enough that it's in bad shape. But actually seeing the place puts it in a whole new light.
In short, it's not a total disaster, but it's close. Water damage scars the walls and arches and surrounds the windows. Buckets lie here and there to catch falling paint and plaster, which mostly misses and lines the floors like a fine dusting of snow flurries. Construction accoutrements lie haphazardly around. Whole sections of pews have been torn up and removed, presumably so they can hold mass in the rectory.
And that's just the main section of the church. The real joys come from the auxiliary spaces, which are so derelict they defy imagination. A baptismal alcove that would probably be condemned if it stood alone. Back rooms littered with debris and old, unwanted items. Dirty hallways, shaky supports and places where wooden floors have almost completely rotted away. Oh, and the world's worst bathroom.
What makes this a particularly unsettling experience is the feel. This church feels like a veritable ghost town, like a structure that's been abandoned for decades. If not for the copious evidence of their existence, you would have to wonder if this building ever housed happy, spiritually fulfilled people.
But the fact is, it did. And it still kind of does. This isn't an abandoned church. This isn't a closed parish. This is a fully active parish. A parish that still holds mass, still celebrates sacraments, and, up until this year, still supported a parish school. And that's what really disgusting about the whole thing.
Tell me, Archdiocese of Philadelphia--is this part of your grand plan? How can you rest, knowing that an active parish under your watch is in possession of a building that looks and feels like this?
Sure, Ascension itself bears some of the blame for a church that, even 15 years ago, was purported to be in pretty pristine shape. But you're the landlord. You're ultimately responsible for them and what they do. And while you've been buffing your already pristine Basilica and wearing out your knees begging for pennies, you carelessly let a tragedy like this unfold under your eyes.
I knew you were callous. I knew you were cold. I knew your motives were, at best, murky.
But I didn't know you were this bad.
Not that it matters, right? In six months or so you'll tearfully announce the closure of the parish, citing declining numbers and failing structures. You'll carefully omit any mention of your culpability, of course, and attribute it to vague things like the changing of the times and the godlessness of newer generations. Then you'll strip it, send its ornaments to the suburbs, and sell it to the wrecking ball. And it will be a wrecking ball, no doubt, because no community group has the money to restore this place. And it's not like you're going to do it.
But I'll remember, as will everyone else who follows the Project. These pictures are proof enough of that, and you can never, ever live them down.
In another world, Ascension would still be a shining beacon in the darkness. The interior is expansive, the sanctuary fixtures classical and timeless, and the Paula Himmelsbach Balano windows are a masterful exercise in depth and color. And even now, at the right angles, in the right light, you still see some of that beauty, that promise, that ethereal splendor.
But then the clouds creep and the shadows grow, and it disappears behind a twisted mask of arrogance and greed.
I've covered nearly 100 churches, and this is without a doubt that worst thing I've seen yet.