By Al Dorof
Few people in Queen Village could tell you where the Emanuel German Evangelical Lutheran Church is located. But almost everyone knows the church for its stunningly beautiful spire at South 4th and Carpenter Streets, the tallest 19th-century structure in the neighborhood.
When Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church opened at South 4th and Carpenter Streets in 1869, its graceful 187-foot-tall steeple became an instant and enduring landmark in Philadelphia. It guided ships coming up the Delaware River, and the bells of its clock tolled time for neighborhood residents.
In 1997, Michael Stern, then director of the historic religious properties program at the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, described Emanuel as “an extraordinarily beautiful lace, a work of art in its own right.” But the beloved old landmark was shuttered in fall 2008, a victim of a declining congregation, dwindling funds to sustain the institution, and changing demographics in the neighborhood.
The German community in Philadelphia dates back to the late 1600s. They worshipped at Swedish churches until their community grew large enough to establish its own church at North 5th and Cherry Streets in 1748. Greater numbers of German emigrants began arriving at the turn of the 19th century, and many settled in what is now South Philadelphia.
The Emanuel German Evangelical Lutheran Church was founded to serve German and German-speaking congregants in Queen Village, which was then part of the Southwark district. The church grew out of a parochial school founded in 1864 at South 6th and Montrose Streets, the former Robert Rilkes School, which boasted 25 teachers and 365 students soon after opening. Religious services were also held at the school, the first was conducted on January 14, 1866.
The Lutheran Church decided to establish a church in Southwark in 1866, provided it could sell a graveyard on 8th Street above Race. The city approved the sale in 1868 and a plot of land at 4th and Carpenter Streets was bought for $14,000. Emanuel’s cornerstone was laid on July 29, 1868, and the church was consecrated on July 4, 1869. The new church had 500 congregant families. The cost to build the church was $97,859.28—$1.6 million in current dollars.
The steeple’s clocks were made by the Von Christian Möllinger firm of Berlin for $1,160 ($18,765 current value). The Möllinger firm, founded by Jacob Möllinger (1695-1763), was renowned in Europe for the artistry of its terrestrial and astronomical clockworks. Its clients included the kings of Prussia, and its works today are in churches, museums, and private collections.
The steeple’s three bells were cast locally by the Joseph Bernhard foundry at 120 North 6th Street for $1,686 ($27,274 current value). They weigh 600, 1100, and 1600 pounds. Bernhard’s foundry was one of two that claim the honor to have drilled out the small crack in the Liberty Bell in 1846, so it could be rung on Washington’s birthday. The result was the crack visible today.
Growth and Decline
Emanuel’s congregation grew and prospered for 40 years. By 1906, more than half of its German congregants moved to west and north Philadelphia, and to the suburbs. They were replaced by African American, Polish, Irish, Italian, and other newcomers to Queen Village.
In 1940, Emanuel adapted to the changing demographics of its community. It offered its first English-language church services and organized social programs and charities to benefit the poor of its Southwark neighborhood—widows and orphans, children and old folks, the working poor and middle class.
But the congregation continued to dwindle in the post-war years, numbering fewer than 200 by the mid-1950s, half of whom lived outside the neighborhood. Emanuel’s church fell into disrepair; its steeple clock stopped, and its bells were silenced. The city announced plans to build Southwark Plaza, a low-income housing development, on the four blocks surrounding the church. Emanuel’s parsonage and 419 row houses, many of which were the homes of congregants, would be razed.
By 1959, the church was at a crossroads—whether to follow the exodus of its congregants to the suburbs or remain in Queen Village and rebuild its congregation. Emanuel chose to stay and renew its commitment to active participation in the community as an urban ministry under the leadership of Reverend Carl A. Werner, a former welfare case worker.
In the early 1960s, Emanuel launched a $90,000 renovation project that would restore the church for its expanded role in community leadership. The sanctuary was rebuilt, part of the ground floor was reconfigured as a small chapel, copper louvers were installed in the steeple, and the interior and exterior were repainted and repaired. The pipe organ was restored by the church organist, who also brought the steeple clock back to life.
The new building was rededicated on May 2, 1965.
Emanuel recognized the many different needs within the changing community and resolved to meet them. With support from the Lutheran Board of American Missions and Lutheran Children and Family Services, Emanuel established a wide range of social programs and community services.
Since the late 1960s, Emanuel’s many contributions to the betterment of the Queen Village community have included a community center, settlement house, hospitality kitchen, school and kindergarten, after-school care for middle-school students, a family and community life center, sport and recreation programs, summer camps, social support and advisory offices, and meeting spaces for neighborhood organization. It also continued the charity programs for the poor that were established at its founding in 1868.
Emanuel also provided support and leadership to the community’s effort to stop the construction of I-95 through the heart of Queen Village along Front Street. And it joined other Queen Village churches and activists to establish Queen Village, Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring abandoned homes as low-cost housing for single families.
In the late 1980s, government and Lutheran Church funding for Emanuel’s community services was cut back to the point that many programs were discontinued. As the congregation withered to fewer than 15 members in the last decade, Emanuel found it difficult to remain open for religious services, much less to maintain the large—and largely vacant—building or even a few social services.
Emanuel was shuttered in fall 2008 and has merged with the St. John the Evangelist Church at 1332 South 3rd Street. Since then, its congregation has rebounded to more than 65 members at its new location.
By January 2010, the Lutheran Synod had stripped the clockworks from the steeple, leaving gaping holes in the tower; removed the organ; tore up the floor and pews and supporting posts of the main church; and let the building’s windows, roof, and masonry of the abandoned yet historically “protected” building deteriorate. The Philadelphia Historic Commission filed a petition in the Court of Common Pleas to order the Synod to maintain the structure and the Department of Licensing and Inspection declared the building unsafe.
Emanuel’s savior is the Phat Quang Temple, a Buddhist congregation serving the growing Vietnamese community in the neighborhood—and beyond. Dr. Anh Ly, a local dentist leading the effort, notes that the Temple hopes to build a vibrant congregation of members from South Philadelphia, the suburbs, Reading, New York, and Maryland. Two Vietnamese monks and a nun from Pittsburgh now guide the Temple.
Cheerful Buddhist flags and a sign now decorate the exterior of the building, and incense and music suffuse the arched ground floor spiritual space, decorated with statues, and shrines. Dr. Ly hopes eventually to restore the main floor sanctuary to its past glory with the help of congregants who volunteer their time to clean, paint, and rebuild this hallowed landmark. She welcomes all neighborhood residents to donate whatever skills and funds they can offer in this community effort to restore the landmark building. Meditation classes and other activities will be offered to the public.