Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ascension of Our Lord Revealed

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.

Shame.

27 comments:

  1. wow, catastrophic water damage. most churches have coverage for water damage. i dont know if any insurance covers this type of neglect. it can be fixed. very sad.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not seen in the revealing photos, as tragic as they are, are the lost dreams, hopes and the missing daily worship of its parishioners over its long and venerable history and into the present day. Sad, but not without hope.

    Joe Dirvin

    ReplyDelete
  3. Terrible, just terrible. Looks like its going to collapse any minute. I am surprised the light fixtures even work.
    The mural above the altar of the ascension of Jesus is absolutely stunning. Such a shame.
    I wonder about these churches that are decaying and/or have closed. Surely they must have had, at one time way back when- parishioners with money. Not one endownment in the hundreds of people who have worshipped there? My church still gets an endownment from someone who died in the early 1900's! It's part of why we still exist!

    ReplyDelete
  4. My sisters and I were all married at Ascension. Our wedding pictures still show the beauty of the church. It was stunning.

    To look at this update is beyond sad.

    ReplyDelete
  5. If not for all of the child molestation lawsuits, many still ongoing, the Archdiocese would have enough funds to keep this church as viable and vibrant as it was 15 years ago.

    Imagine a church like this in Europe. It would be considered a cultural, not a religious, travesty to allow it to fall in on itself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The parish will be closed as of Sept 30th, 2012. No real surprise since the pastor was removed during the lawsuit investigations/recommendations. The Church was still used weekly until the appointment of the last pastor. He had other priorities. Alienating the long standing parishioners. Started mass in Spanish although majority of attendees spoke English. We lost many elder members year after year.

      Delete
  6. Robert,
    Don't fool yourself, the church has the money with or without the child molestation lawsuits. They have made a business decision here because they are more concerned with the bottom line. Why invest in a neighborhood who won't be able to contribute enough to satisfy their insatiable greed. These people need their help and they have turned their backs on them, not very Christian of them is it?

    ReplyDelete
  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I grew up in the Ascension Parish and always went to the upper church for mass. The place was absolutely stunning. Years back, there was a roofing problem, the parishioners collected the funds to have it fixed, the roofer was a scam artist and stole the money. Then this happened. I've also been to the St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City and I've toured the museum. It's absolutely horid that this can happen to our little church without help from the Holy See. The history of the Ascension Church should be preserved. I know that I would be a part should we, as past parishioners, be able to do something to save the building.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I grew up in the Ascension Parish and even went back to be married in the upper church some 17 years ago. The church was beautiful if not in pristine condition. It is yet another example of the Archdiocese turning their back on the poor and simply letting them and their church rot away.
    What a shame!

    ReplyDelete
  10. OK the founders of many Philadelphia Unions help build this Church Why can't we get volunteers from the trades ,family and friends and save this church and others like it...this is so sad and heart breaking ...I'm not too talented but I can use spackle...we need to get together and save this Chursch...God Bless those who sacrificed EVERYTHING for their Faith.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I bet the Diocese will close the church and take the valuable stain glass window. I was married there in 99', they had just done some renovations up stairs.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I made my First Communion at this Church, circa 1960's.. its condition saddens me to the core.

    ReplyDelete
  13. It is quite sad. I went to school there in the 80's and the upper church was amazing and to see it like that is quite sad. I almost wish i didn't see the pictures.....

    ReplyDelete
  14. A dear family friend, Fr. Charles Mallon was the pastor at Ascension for many years. He would be devestated to see this.

    ReplyDelete
  15. My first thought is.. wow! I was baptized at this church, and went there for K-4th grade. This is extremely sad as this church was undoubtedly one of the prettiest in the city, both on the outside and inside. I can recall as a child how big I thought it was, and how beautiful I thought the upstairs was. How awful that such a thing can happen in a matter of (arguably)15 years! Not only that, but the community is now full of Hispanics who tend to be mostly Catholic and very religious! This is where they are left to practice their faith in this decaying neighborhood. How depressing..

    ReplyDelete
  16. Charles HorochiwskyAugust 11, 2012 at 12:15 PM

    Father Mallon was at Ascension when I went to school there. I remember thinking when we were going to confession; I hope I don't get Fr. Mallon. As I recall he was a good preist and pretty nice too, I just didn't want to get him because he was such a visible figure.

    ReplyDelete
  17. It's over: http://archphila.org/press%20releases/pr002034.php

    ReplyDelete
  18. I was baptized in this church, attended school here and fondly remember singing in the upper church choir loft for masses and all of the gorgeous holdiay masses that were held here. I was also married int his church 22 years ago and it was beautiful. How sad that the church will not help maintain and fix this beautiful church.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Fr. Charles Mallon was my uncle, and I can remember when we were kids, and used to visit him that we use to clean the pews in the church. We use to joke about slave labor, but the church was beautiful. He would be so sadden by what it look like today because he took pride in his parish.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your uncle was an amazing man. To this very day I still remember the best sermon I ever heard. I was 9 at the time, I am now 58. He asked what was the most important word in the Our Father...''AS'' ....forgive us our sins AS we forgive others....I always think about how I forgive others due to his spiritual sermon.

      Delete
  20. These photos are hard to look at. I was converted to Catholicism at age 10 and baptized in this magnificent church. I had my First Confession, Confirmation and 8th Grade Graduation here. May Processions, weekly confessions, and choir rehearsals and Sunday masses were just part of growing up Catholic. I'll always cherish my memories of being part of the Ascension Parish family.

    ReplyDelete
  21. The stained glass windows will go into the Cathedral being built in Raleigh North Carolina. The first purpose-built Cathedral we've had in this Diocese. I hope you folks will be proud of the restoration work being done on them and they are as beautiful here as they were in Ascension of Our Lord.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I just visited the Ascension with my son this past Sunday. Despite its sad condition, still beautiful. This is my family's original parish, and I wanted my son, who is 19, to see its beauty in person.
    Do you happen to know if the plans to knock it down are still pending?
    Too bad we can't just all move back into the neighborhood and support a reasonable restoration.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I miss this place so much .. It was my dream home. - L.L

    ReplyDelete
  24. i went to this school it was the best 2 years of my life

    ReplyDelete
  25. Good







    Good God where will it all end, this was the parish my mom and dad were married in. The church and school I grew up in 9:00 mass upper church every Sunday. Both my sister and I were married here and both my children were baptized here and laid on Mary's alter dedicated to her after the sacrament I understand it's not just Ascension. I now live in the suburbs and six of our parishes our now being studied to down sized to three. What are we all doing wrong? What kind of Spiritual Home will my grandchildren have. Churches like Ascension are only the beginning. Pray


    ReplyDelete