James Forten (1766-1842)

By Al Dorof

This article was previously published at the Southwark Historical Society.  It has been reprinted with permission.

Portrait of James Forten by unknown artist
Portrait of James Forten by unknown artist

 

James Forten would be considered a remarkable man in any era, but especially so in Colonial Philadelphia. Born a free man, Forten became one of the most successful sail makers at a time when most African Americans were still slaves, was an astute real estate speculator, invested in stocks and other financial ventures, became a respected money lender and financial adviser who was admired for his fairness, and was an outspoken abolitionist and pioneering supporter women’s rights.

Forten was born in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766 to Thomas and Margaret Forten (1722-1806). His paternal grandfather lived and died as a slave in the Pennsylvania colony. Thomas managed to become a free man at some point, but Margaret might have been a slave during her early life. Under Pennsylvania law at the time, had Margaret had children while still in bondage, they would have been slaves, too. So Margaret waited until she was 41, when she was free, to give birth to her first child, Abigail, in 1763. She was 44 when James was born. The family lived on Third Street near Walnut Street in the Dock Ward.

 

Privateer and Prisoner
Thomas Forten was a master tradesman who worked as a sail maker for Robert Bridges. Bridges rented a loft on the top floor of a warehouse on Willing’s Wharf belonging to Thomas Willing and Company. Thomas taught his young son the basics of his trade at the Bridges sail loft. Thomas died in late 1773 or early 1774 when James was seven years old, and Margaret was left to support the family, probably as a domestic servant. Still, she managed to send James to a Quaker school for African Americans, which was run by abolitionist Anthony Benezet. But with just two years of schooling, James was forced at age nine to work full-time as a chimney sweep and later in a grocery.

In 1781, at the height of the Revolutionary War when James was 14 years old, he signed on as a powder-boy on the Royal Louis, a privateer captained by Stephen Decatur, Sr. (1752-1808). The ship had a crew of 200, 20 of whom were African Americans. The fledgling American Navy was in no position to challenge the British naval forces, the most powerful in the world at the time. To supplement its small fleet, the Continental Congress authorized private ships along the East Coast to attack and seize British commercial vessels. American privateers captured about 2,280 enemy ships, compared to fewer than 200 seized by the Continental Navy; they provided more than two million pounds of seized gunpowder to the Continental Army. A crewmember could earn as much as $1,000 from the ships and cargo seized and sold by privateers.

Forten’s first cruise on the Royal Louis was a success, but the second was a disaster. The British captured the Royal Louis and took its crew prisoner aboard the H.M.S. Amphion, captained by John Bazely. Impressed by Forten’s “honest and open countenance,” Bazely assigned Forten to look after his 12-year-old son Henry on the voyage to New York harbor, where the privateer crew would be transferred to a prison ship. The two boys quickly formed a close friendship, and Henry urged his father to spare Forten when they arrived in New York. Bazely asked Forten whether he would change allegiance, accompany Henry back to England, be educated with him, and pursue a trade in freedom. Forten declined, explaining that he could not betray his country.

Bazely made sure that Forten would be included on the list of prisoners of war to be exchanged for British citizens captured by the Americans. This spared Forten from being sold as a slave in the British West Indies, the typical fate of blacks taken by the British. On October 23, Forten became prisoner number 4102 aboard the H.M.S. Jersey, an infamous prison ship. After seven months, he was released and made his way back home to Philadelphia on foot.

 

Master Sail Maker and Business Owner
After the war ended, Forten’s sister’s husband, William Dunbar, a merchant seaman, persuaded him to join him on a voyage to England aboard the Commerce, which sailed in April 1784. When they arrived in London, Forten decided to stay on and find work as a sail maker in one of the many shipyards and sail lofts along the Thames. After a year of training and experience, Forten returned home and apprenticed himself to Robert Bridges, his father’s old employer, at age 19. Within a year, he was promoted to foreman. Not surprisingly, the white tradesmen in the sail loft bridled at the prospect of being bossed by a man of color. But Bridges used all his authority and the respect his workers had for him to accept Forten as their foreman.

In November 1792, Bridges loaned Forten 250 pounds on favorable terms to buy a two-story brick house and lot on the south side of Shippen (now Bainbridge) Street, close to George (now American) Street. Forten shared the home with his mother Margaret, sister Abigail (1763-1846) and her husband William (unknown-1805), and their children, Nicholas (1786-1852), Margaret (1785-1852), and William Jr. (1792-unknown). What motivated Bridges to make the generous loan? Certainly it indicated his respect for Forten’s skill as a master craftsman. Perhaps he was also grateful to Forten for the new type of sail hoist he invented, which enabled ships to rig sails more quickly while also improving maneuverability.

When Bridges retired in 1798, he sold the business to Forten. Although Bridges had children who might have inherited the firm, he had higher hopes for them. He encouraged his sons to become merchants or lawyers rather than craftsmen, which they did. And he intended his daughters to marry up, which they did. Forten had the experience, business acumen, and ambition to manage and expand the sail loft, and he did.

At age 32, Forten ran one of the most successful sail lofts in town, supervised more than 40 apprentice and master tradesmen, and had the respect—and contracts—of the leading merchants and ship owners along the waterfront. Within a decade, he added to his wealth by diversifying. He started by buying, selling, and renting real estate. He bought a lot in Southwark in 1803, built a house, and rented it out. In 1806, he bought a three-story brick house at 336 Lombard Street, which became the Forten family home. In 1809, he acquired a second house on Lombard, between 10th and 11th Streets. In 1812, he invested in a lot in Blockley Township on the west side of the Schuylkill River and another house in the city on 9th Street. From 1816 to 1820, he added to his real estate holdings in Southwark, Philadelphia, and the suburbs. He used the profits of his real estate sales and rents to buy bonds, mortgages, bank and railroad stocks, and shares in various companies. He also made loans to friends, neighbors, and business associates. Forten became one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, white or black.

 

Champion of Social Justice
Having established himself as a respected man of business, Forten turned his attention to raising a family. In 1803 he married Martha (Patty) Beatte in at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas at Fifth and Adelphi (now St. James) Streets, just south of Walnut Street. She died the following year. Forten married again in 1805, taking Charlotte Vandine (1785-1884) as his wife. Charlotte was a teacher and an outspoken abolitionist.

The Forten’s had nine children, several of whom were named in honor of Forten’s business associates and patrons and most of whom followed their parents’ lead in supporting abolitionist and suffragist causes: Margaretta Forten (1806-1875), Charlotte Forten (1808-1814), Harriet Davy Forten Purvis (1810-1875), James Forten, Jr. (1811- circa 1870), Robert Bridges Forten (1813-1864), Sarah Louisa Forten Purvis (1814-1884), Mary Theresa Forten (1815-1842), William Deas Forten (1823-1900), and Thomas Willing Francis Forten (1827-1897).

Mindful of the rare opportunities he enjoyed to master a trade and achieve success, Forten made a point of hiring black apprentices and journeymen in his sail loft. Black and whites were integrated into his business, worked side by side, and were paid equivalent wages. His business was described as an academy where, in the words of a commentator at the time, the “best class of colored youth of Philadelphia and surrounding States” were trained. Forten even allowed his employees to board at his house on Lombard Street. Census records showed that many more people than Forten’s immediate family occupied the home: 15 people in 1810, 18 in 1820, and 22 in 1830!

In 1813, when freed slaves moved north in search of work, Philadelphia politicians proposed a bill to require that all newly arrived blacks register with the state. Forten wrote and published a pamphlet, Letters from a Man of Color, to protest the plan, arguing that it would perpetuate the general opinion that blacks were not equal to whites and would violate the rights of all free people. The bill did not pass.

In 1817, Forten joined abolitionist leaders Reverend Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church, and Absalom Jones in establishing the Convention of Color. The Convention’s 3,000 participants denounced the American Colonization Society and its plan to repatriate freed slaves to Africa, where they would presumably enjoy a better life and more opportunities for self-determination. Forten also argued against the Convention’s proposal to help ex-slaves find a better life in Canada. The Convention was a pivotal event that shaped black resistance to any plans to repatriate freed slaves anywhere outside the north.

Forten’s advocacy of black rights was an inspiration to a radical New England abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who began publishing the Liberator, an influential anti-slavery newspaper, in 1831. Forten was an early supporter, helping the newspaper to stay afloat financially and contributing a series of letters under the name of “A Colored Philadelphian.”

Forten’s wife and children shared his passion for social justice for blacks. His wife Charlotte and daughters Margaretta, Sarah, and Harriet were founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the first biracial organization of women’s abolitionists in the nation. Sarah also contributed articles and poems to the Liberator. The Fortens founded and financed at least six abolitionist organizations, bought freedom for slaves, and were active in the Underground Railroad.
At age 75, James Forten fell ill and died at nine o’clock in the morning of March 4, 1841. A “vast concourse of people, of all classes and complexions, numbering from three to five thousand” accompanied his coffin to its graveyard at Saint Thomas Protestant Episcopal Churchyard, which has since been removed to Lebanon Cemetery at 18th and Wolf Streets. He left an estate of $1.6 million in current valuation. Forten’s legacy is inestimable.

Sources
Vallar, Cindy. Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Policy, 2007. http://www.cindyvallar.com/forten.html

Winch, Julie. “‘You Know I Am a Man of Business’: James Forten and the Factor of Race in Philadelphia’s Antebellum Business Community,” Business and Economic History, volume 26, number 1, pages 213-28, Fall 1997.

Winch, Julie. “‘A Person of Good Character and Considerable Property’: James Forten and the Issue of Race in Philadelphia’s Antebellum Business Community,” Business History Review, Volume 75, number 2, pages 261-96, Summer 2001.

The First Theaters in the Colonies

By Al Dorof

Theater in America owes a debt to William Plumsted (1708-1765), an early patron of the arts in the City.  He owned a large brick warehouse built in 1749 on Water Street between Pine and Lombard Streets. The house, demolished in 1849, extended through to Front Street.

A lapsed Quaker, Plumsted enjoyed the performing arts that were restricted or banned in the City. He was a founder of the first dance company and opened his warehouse to dramatic performances. On April 25, 1754, the British company of Lewis Hallam staged two plays there. The house was packed until the season ended on June 24.

The first structure in the Colonies built specifically as a playhouse was the Society Hill Theater, erected in 1759 by David Douglass, who married Hallam’s widow, on the southwest corner of South and Hancock Streets. It opened on June 15 and closed December 28 that year.

Douglass then built the grander Southwark Theater in 1766 at South and Leithgow Streets, between Fourth and Fifth Streets. It measured 50 feet on South and 90 on Leithgow, nearly to Bainbridge Street. Its first floor was made of brick, which supported the wood upper floors and cupola on the roof. The building leaked, the view to the stage was blocked by supporting columns, its brickwork and wood portions were rough, and its exterior was painted a glaring red. Yet President George Washington was a frequent visitor. The Apollo Theater was built next to the Southwark Theater by Webster, Cross & Partners. It opened June 12, 1811, and closed July 19!

The Southwark Theater burned down on May 29, 1823, leaving only the brick first floor standing. The Taylor distillery was built on this foundation. The distillery was demolished in the early 1900s.

Southwark Theater, Library Company of Philadelphia, Unknown Artist, 1766.
Southwark Theater, Library Company of Philadelphia, Unknown Artist, 1766.

Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon

By Cynthia Temple

This was not a “saloon” as you know it today, instead it provided support services to soldiers on their way to or returning from the Civil War. Located at the foot of Washington Avenue, this organization was located along with the Cooper Volunteer Refreshment Saloon just south of Washington Avenue.   When ships were spotted nearing the wharf along Front Street, a cannon shot would announce to all the volunteers that assistance was soon required.  Imagine people dropping what they were doing to run to the “saloon” to assist the new soldiers.   Food, beverage, rest, an ear, whatever was required, was provided there.  The establishment served about 900,000 soldiers.

History of Queen Village

By Steve Sitarski

Long before William Penn and the founding of Philadelphia, Swedish settlers arrived in 1638 at a place the local Lenni Lenape Indian tribe called Wiccaco, which means “pleasant place.”

The early Swedes established Fort Christina (now Wilmington, Delaware) and settled along the river as far north as present day Trenton, New Jersey. Their leader, Governor Johan Pritz, declared the area New Sweden. These early colonists maintained good relations with the Indians, showing exceptional friendliness and respect to their neighbors.

The local river front was lined with an impressive grove of large beech, elm and buttonwood trees. Nearby meadows were populated with elk, deer and beaver, providing pelts for the fur trade. The area now known as Queen Village was originally owned by the Swedish family of Sven, whose log house stood on a knoll overlooking the river at what is now the NW corner of Beck & Swanson Streets. The one and a half story wooden structure had a large garden with various fruit trees. An inlet of water from the Delaware River allowed small boats to dock in front. The British Army used the wood from the house as fuel during the Revolutionary War.

The Dutch briefly claimed control, but the land was quickly ceded to the British. The King of England granted a land charter for what is now Pennsylvania to William Penn, who founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682 (just north of present day Queen Village).

Wiccaco changed little during the 17th century. The original Swedish settlement had few homes and much of their land remained a wilderness, except for a couple of small farms. One notable exception was Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church. Completed in 1700, the impressive brick church between Christian Street and Washington Avenue is constructed in the Flemish bond style with alternating red and black header bricks. After serving as the Swedish Lutheran Church for more than 150 years, it has been a part of the Episcopal Church since 1845 and is the oldest church in Pennsylvania.

William Penn decided to change the name of “Wiccaco” to Southwark, after a similarly situated neighborhood on the south bank of the Thames in London.

In the late 1970’s, Southwark was renamed Queen Village after Queen Christina of Sweden, to recognize her role in promoting the original settlements.

The principal development of the area occurred in the 18th century and was heavily tied to commercial activity along the Delaware River. Ship builders, rope and sail makers, sailors, dock workers, carpenters, and craftsmen were among the early residents of the neighborhood.

Southwark did not officially become part of Philadelphia until 1854, when the Consolidation Act was passed.

 

18th Century Southwark – the English Rename Philadelphia’s First Suburb

William Penn renamed Wiccaco (as the American Indians and Swedes referred to it) after a neighborhood in London, England called Southwark. Penn’s new city of Philadelphia quickly grew along the Delaware River waterfront and spilled over its original southern boundary of South Street by the early 18th century. The Southwark District (now south Philadelphia) was then divided into two townships but retained their original American Indian names, Moyamensing (pigeon droppings) and Passyunk (in the valley).

By the mid-eighteenth century, a building boom transformed Southwark from a village into a residential and commercial neighborhood, especially along the waterfront. Several mid-18th century homes survive along Front Street between South and Christian Streets. Two notable examples are the Nathanial Irish House at 704 South Front Street and the George Mifflin House on the 100 block of Pemberton Street. Mifflin’s initials and the 1748 house construction date can still be seen on the brick wall facing that street. Dramatic changes in Southwark’s appearance were noted as early as 1743, when Secretary Peters wrote about then Governor Thomas Penn;

Southwark is getting greatly disfigured by erecting irregular and mean houses; thereby so marring it’s beauty that when he (Thomas Penn) shall return he will lose his usual pretty walk to Wicacco.

As the result of several large fires, Philadelphia outlawed the construction of wood frame buildings within the city limits by 1796, but they were already common throughout Southwark. Only a few wood plank front homes survive in Queen Village, and some good examples can still be seen along the blocks of 800 South Hancock Street, 200 Christian Street, and the 100 League Street. Philadelphia Quakers frowned on the performing arts and tried to ban theaters within the city limits so entertainment venues, including the famous Southwark Theater, popped up along South Street near 4th Street.

 

Southwark Becomes South Philadelphia

While the new U.S. Naval Ship Yard grew rapidly along the Delaware River just below Washington Avenue, the local skyline added a prominent new landmark with the construction of Spark’s Shot Tower in 1808. Now the oldest facility of its kind in America, the Shot Tower was originally used as a munitions plant during the War of 1812.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of mostly Irish immigrates arrived in Philadelphia and the District of Southwark. Fierce competition for low wage jobs, coupled with religious prejudice and severe overcrowding caused social upheaval. The Nativist or “anti-catholic” riots swept the region in 1844 and Saint Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church experienced three days of riots, resulting in many deaths and injuries. Local volunteer fire companies, including the impressive Wiccaco Firehouse on the 100 block of Queen Street, protected the church from destruction.

Commissioner’s Hall was the political center of the District of Southwark and once stood at the intersection of Beck & Second Streets. After Southwark was consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1856, Commissioner’s Hall became the 2nd District Police Headquarters until it was demolished in the 20th century. The 100 block of Beck Street (formally known as Beck Place) is an early example of entire block row house development, now common throughout the city. In an effort to preserve them, the Philadelphia Historical Commission designated the 1840s brick row houses as historic.

Philadelphia was a northern stronghold during the Civil War. Washington Avenue hosted tens of thousands of Union soldiers at “Welcome Centers” staffed by neighborhood volunteers who provided soldiers with a warm meal and the thanks of a grateful nation. A constant parade of blue uniforms marched through Southwark on their way to battlefields throughout the south. After the Civil War, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened an emigration depot at the Washington Avenue wharves to help process the ongoing flood of new arrivals. Once immigrants passed through U.S. Customs, they choose to either stay in the city or boarded trains on route to jobs and home elsewhere in the state.

In addition to a flood of European immigrants, African-Americans migrated here in large numbers from the war torn southern states and settled along either side of South Street, primarily west of 6th Street. By the 1890s, an influx of mostly Eastern Europeans attracted a large Jewish population along the 4th Street commercial corridor and a significant number of Poles settled along the waterfront as dockworkers. Severe overcrowding resulted in poor local housing conditions, filthy streets & alleys, rampant crime, and even more social unrest. The nineteenth century witnessed dramatic changes to the once semi-rural District of Southwark became South Philadelphia.

 

From South Philadelphia to Queen Village

By the 20th century, Philadelphia had become one of the world’s largest industrial centers but pollution, disease, and inadequate housing alarmed city officials. Local government was slow to react, so philanthropic groups like the Octavia Hill Association provided the poor with clean and affordable housing. The Association still maintains rental properties throughout Queen Village including Workman Place (Front Street between Fitzwater & Pemberton), and several homes on the 200 block of Beck Street and Queen Street. An influx of mostly Russian Jews firmly established both South Street and Fourth Street as busy commercial districts by the early 1900s.

For more than a century, historic Fabric Row (along south 4th Street) has offered a wide range of textiles for fine clothing, drapery, upholsters, and interior designers. Generations of Philadelphians purchased their new suits and wedding gowns here. After World War II, the neighborhood began a long and steady decline as the children of new immigrants left south Philadelphia for other parts of the city and nearby suburbs.

For the first time in the area’s 300 years history, the local population actually began to shrink after 1950. Two major urban development projects dramatically altered the historic fabric of the neighborhood in the 1960s. In an ambitious effort to provide the city’s growing poor population with decent housing, the government built thousands of new housing units throughout Philadelphia. Locally, several blocks between Christian Street and Washington Avenue (3rd to 5th Streets) were cleared to create the Southwark public housing project. Initially a model for urban renewal, the three large apartment towers quickly fell into disrepair and became a haven for drugs and crime. Within just 40 years, the Southwark project was demolished, rebuilt and renamed Riverview Plaza.

Meanwhile, planning for the construction of a new interstate highway along the Delaware River continued. Countless homes and businesses in the path of I-95 were condemned. Many of the city’s oldest homes, including more than 300 18th century homes, were torn down to create it. Neighborhoods that always relied on the river were now cut off from it. Fortunately, plans for the South Street cross town expressway were successfully challenged in court by local residents and never built.

The abandoned South Street commercial strip soon attracted young artist and new business including boutique shops, restaurants and bars. Despite major changes, many old buildings remained. The nationally successful restoration of the historic Society Hill neighborhood encouraged urban pioneers to buy south of South Street. Rows of restored historic homes, coupled with new residential construction along Monroe, Fitzwater and Catharine Streets, generated renewed interest in Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhood by the 1980s.

Local real estate agents renamed this part of south Philadelphia as Queen Village (Lombard Street to Washington Avenue, Columbus Boulevard to 6th Street), in honor of its original Swedish settlers and their Queen Christina. As the 20th century began, an influx of new residents transformed the old neighborhood once again.

 

Queen Village Becomes Center City in the 21st Century

In 2002, the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation redefined the official boundaries of center city to include most of Queen Village. After more than three centuries, downtown Philadelphia has expanded to include Northern Liberties, Fairmount and Bella Vista. Queen Village has experienced more rebuilding since 2000 than has occurred here for decades, and has changed from a traditional working class enclave to become one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. What does the future hold for Philadelphia’s first neighborhood? The past actually holds some important clues to the 21st century. Two unique advantages will determine the future development of Queen Village; proximity to center city and history. The golden rule of real estate certainly applies here – location, location, location!

Queen Village is ideally situated adjacent to internationally famous historic sites (Independence Hall) , the region’s business center, and sits along the Delaware River. Neighborhood development has always been tied to the river and it figures prominently in the future of Queen Village. Demand for residential riverfront development will accelerate during the 21st century as new high-rise residential towers, townhouses, boat marinas, and landscaped public walkways transform the waterfront. Local commercial districts, including South Street and historic Fabric Row, will continue to evolve into more fashionable shopping and fine dining destinations.

Queen Village showcases over three centuries of American history and architecture. The 100 block of Fitzwater Street is a wonderful example of local home building styles from the 18th – 21st centuries. Every block in Queen Village has a story to tell. Local homes, public buildings and houses of worship have witnessed dramatic chapters in our city’s long history. Unlike the carefully restored colonial character of Society Hill, Queen Village has a more diverse and eclectic architectural style. Charming 18th century homes, fancy 19th century Victorians, distinctive 20th century bay window facades, and sleek 21st century architecture are evident in the urban streetscape. With the expected designation of Queen Village as a Neighborhood Conservation District by City Council, new guidelines will help to carefully preserve past.

While the future looks bright, Queen Village has many important issues to resolve. Intense redevelopment threatens the unique historic residential character that attracts many new residents to this neighborhood. Addressing quality of life issues, including safe streets and clean parks, requires constant vigilance. Economic class and racial distinctions continue to segregate the River View public housing community from the rest of Queen Village, creating two distinct neighborhoods. The dedicated volunteers of the Queen Village Neighbors Association work tirelessly to address these and many other urban problems. Philadelphia’s first neighborhood offers us a glimpse into our history’s rich past and provides a vision for a promising future.

 

Emanuel German Evangelical Lutheran Church

By Al Dorof

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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.

 

Emanuel Lutheran Church, Nameplate (detail) QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.
Emanuel Lutheran Church, Nameplate (detail)
QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.

Founding

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.

Emanuel Lutheran Church, Cornerstone (detail) QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.
Emanuel Lutheran Church, Cornerstone (detail)
QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.

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.

 

Emanuel Lutheran Church, Interior QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.
Emanuel Lutheran Church, Interior
QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.

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 Lutheran Church, Bell QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.
Emanuel Lutheran Church, Bell
QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.

Community Service

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.

Emanuel Lutheran Church, Choir QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.
Emanuel Lutheran Church, Choir
QVNA, 2009. Photograph by Al Dorof.

Closing

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.

 

Reincarnation

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.

St. Philip Neri Church and Parish – A Brief History

By Al Dorof

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About the Church of St. Philip Neri

Founded in 1840, the Church of St. Philip Neri became the 10th Catholic church in Philadelphia and its neighboring districts, joining Old St. Joseph (1733), Old St. Mary (1763), Holy Trinity (1788), St. Augustine (1796), St. John the Evangelist (1830), St. John the Baptist (1831), St. Michael (1831), St. Francis Xavier (1839) and St. Patrick (1839).

The Church of St. Philip Neri has a historic pedigree that equals or surpasses that of other institutions in the city of Philadelphia and its parish in the Southwark district:

  • The first church in the Philadelphia Archdiocese to be founded as a free church—relying on freewill contributions instead of pew rentals and annual fees, which were customarily collected from parishioners at other Catholic and Protestant churches both in Europe and America.
  • The first commission of Eugene Napoleon LeBrun (1821-1901), a well-known Philadelphia architect who designed the church at the age of 18. He would go on to design Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Academy of Music.
  • The first free Catholic school in the Philadelphia Archdiocese—one of the seeds of what would later become the parochial school system in the United States—was opened at the Church of St. Philip Neri in 1841. Staffed originally by lay teachers, the school became one of the first in the nation to be taught by nuns, originally by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and in 1850 by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
  • The first Forty Hours Devotion in the United States was opened at the Church of St. Philip Neri on May 26, 1853. On that date, the Feast of Corpus Christi, Bishop John Neumann (1811-1860)—now St. John Neumann—introduced the devotion at the Church in honor of its patron, St. Philip Neri, who had introduced the Forty Hours Devotion in Rome three centuries before.

Lastly, the Church of St. Philip Neri is historic as the focal point of the most violent Nativist riots in Philadelphia. The Southwark riots of 1844, with the Church at its epicenter, were the first time in the City’s history that government troops raised arms against civilians to maintain public order.

 

Beginnings

The Church of St. Philip Neri Parish is situated in the oldest part of Philadelphia, settled even before the arrival of William Penn (1644-1718) on Oct. 28, 1682. The area surrounding the Church became the new home of Swedish immigrants in the early 1600s, who serviced the burgeoning shipping industry at the city’s port as shipbuilders, rope and sail makers, chandlers, outfitters and other trades. Its earliest recorded name is Wiccaco—from the Lenni Lanape tribe’s word for “peaceful place.” Its name has changed twice since then.

In 1762, this fast-growing suburb grew to become an independent municipality named Southwark, in remembrance of a London neighborhood on the south bank of the Thames. It was incorporated into the City in 1854. The district extended from South Street to Passyunk Avenue, and from Broad Street to the Delaware River.

In the mid 1970s, the community surrounding the Church was named Queen Village in memory of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), who promoted the original settlements at Wiccaco. Ironically, Queen Christina was forced to abdicate her throne in 1654 because of her conversion to Catholicism, which was outlawed in Sweden. She moved to Rome, became the friend of four consecutive popes, and was buried in a tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica.

 

Parish Roots

The need for a new parish to serve the Catholic people in Southwark was evident for years before the Church of St. Philip Neri was established in 1840. When Pope Pius VII established the Philadelphia diocese in 1808, an estimated 10,000 Catholics resided in Philadelphia—just over 20 percent of the city’s population at the time. By the mid-1850s there were about 136,000 Catholics in Philadelphia—34 percent of the city’s population.

Catholics living in Southwark attended the Churches of Old St. Joseph and Old St. Mary since their founding in 1733 and 1763, respectively, in the Old City district just to the north. But overcrowding and distance made the faithful of Southwark desire a Catholic church in their own neighborhood.

In 1836, Andrew Steel bought a site on the east side of Fifth Street, between German and Plum Streets—now Fitzwater and Monroe Streets, respectively—for the first Catholic church in Southwark. Steel had been an early benefactor of the Church of Old St. Joseph. Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick (1797-1863), the third bishop of Philadelphia, who was then Coadjutor Bishop of Philadelphia and administrator of the diocese for the ailing Bishop Henry Conwell, Philadelphia’s second bishop, decided that the time was not yet ripe for construction.

In 1840, Bishop Kenrick established the parish and named it in honor of St. Philip Neri (1515-1595), who is venerated for kindness and charity. Bishop Kenrick also appointed Rev. John Patrick Dunn (1809-1869), the assistant pastor of the Church of Old St. Mary, as the founding pastor of the new parish. The Church of St. Philip Neri became the 10th Catholic Church in Philadelphia and its neighboring districts.

 

Foundation

Shortly after Father Dunn’s appointment, the original site for the new church was sold and the current site—on the south side of Queen Street, between Second and Third Streets—was bought because it was more centrally located to the parish population.

Father Dunn engaged Eugene Napoleon LeBrun (1821-1901), a well-known Philadelphia architect, to design the church as his first commission. Though only 18 years old, LeBrun was apprenticed for four years to Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887), a celebrated architect who is best known for his design of the U.S. Capitol. LeBrun learned his profession well at a time when there were no schools of architecture. He would go on to design Philadelphia’s Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Academy of Music, and the Metropolitan Life building in New York City.

LeBrun’s first commission—St. Philip Neri Church—reflects Walter’s renowned American Greek Revivalist style. The classic lines of its exterior and interior design, its unadorned stucco façade, and its relatively unembellished interior made the Church a textbook example of the style. These characteristics were also ideally suited to the small budget and short timeline for completion. Bishop John Hughes (1797-1864) of New York, who would become the first Archbishop of New York in 1850, laid the cornerstone of the Church of St. Philip Neri on July 31, 1840. By February 1841, the walls and roof were up but still not plastered. On May 9, 1841, Bishop Kenrick dedicated the Church and celebrated its first high mass.

 

First Free Church

In his address to commemorate laying the cornerstone, Bishop Hughes made an historic announcement. The Church of St. Philip Neri would be the first free church in the Philadelphia Diocese—it would forego the pew rentals and annual fees that were customarily collected from parishioners at other Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe and America. Bishop Hughes said:

“Shall I offer you a motive to contribute generously to the erection of the church? If so, it is to be found in the principle on which it is to be erected. It is intended to be a church free of access to all—free to the rich, free to the poor. Its equally open door shall invite the passing and wearied Christian to enter and refresh his heart before the throne of Him in Whose Presence there is no distinction, unless between the sinner and the saint.”

Pew rents were a substantial source of income for churches at the time, accounting for more than half of all collections at some churches. Collected quarterly, semi-annually or annually, pew rents were commonly used to ensure a steady income that could be used, for example, to pay down debt on new buildings, undertake renovations or support general upkeep and maintenance. Pew rent payments entitled donors to sit in a specific pew reserved for them, often with their names on the pews. In some churches, reserved seat holders also had the privilege of electing wardens and other church officers. Rents varied by the desirability of the pew’s location—those closer to the altar (or to the heating source) commanded higher rent than those at the back of the church.

The practice of charging pew rents was frequently a source of contention within parishes. Pew rental created an elite caste of wealthy parish members who enjoyed privileges not available to all members, which conflicted with the Christian principle of equality. Many also felt that pew rents discouraged growth in church membership, especially among the poor in the parish. Pew rents gradually fell out of favor and were widely abandoned by the turn of the 20th century in favor of freewill offerings made at weekly mass collections.

While the Church of St. Philip Neri was the first in the Philadelphia diocese to be founded as a free church, old habits died hard. A small number of parish members still elected to make pew rent donations. The earliest financial records of the church show pew rent collections of $817 in 1897. However, this represented just five percent of total 1897 income for the church. Pew rents dwindled to just $18 in 1919, less than one-tenth of one percent of church income that year. Pew rents came back in vogue at the church in 1930, when $322 was collected (1.2 percent of total income) and lasted until 1951, when $2,078 was collected (4.2 percent of total income).

 

First Free School

Eugene Napoleon LeBrun’s original design for the Church of St. Philip Neri demonstrates that it was intended from the start to serve another unique purpose. It would house the first free Catholic school in the Philadelphia diocese—one of the seeds of what would later become the parochial school system in the United States. The church itself was intentionally set 12 feet above street level so that the ground floor could accommodate two large schoolrooms for boys and girls, as well as a chapel.

In September 1841, Father Dunn opened the St. Philip Neri Parish School. Staffed originally by lay teachers, in 1850 the school became one of the first in the nation to be taught by nuns. The Sisters of St. Joseph, who arrived in Philadelphia from France in April 1850, took responsibility for the education of girls at the parish school. To meet the quickly growing demand for enrollment, the first Girl’s Parochial School and Convent was opened in March 1852 at 778 South Front Street under the guidance of Mother Magdalen Weber, Superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

In September 1880, a new Girl’s Parochial School and Convent was opened at 408-410 Christian Street to accommodate increasing demand; the boys moved from the Church’s basement into the old girl’s school. In 1882, the boys moved again into a building on Moyamensing and Christian Streets that was once St. Ann’s Widows’ Asylum for Boys, and the Sisters of St. Joseph taught the boys there starting in 1900. By 1900 parish school enrollment stood at 688 students—368 girls and 320 boys.

In 1904, Father James F. Trainor sold the school property on Christian Street and began construction of a new and imposingly larger school building with an adjacent convent on Moyamensing Avenue, below Christian Street. The new school building and convent opened in the fall of 1905 to better serve the needs of the students and sisters. Under succeeding pastors, improvements to the school and convent were made and the school gained a reputation for excellence.

In the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, the construction of Interstate 95 severely impacted the population of the parish. To make room for the new highway, entire blocks of homes in Southwark were demolished. As a result of this demolition and other population shifts, hundreds of Catholic families moved from the parish. In 1964, the parish registry included 711 families and 2,405 individuals. By 1980, the parish population declined by 40 percent to 448 families and 1,401 individuals.

Not surprisingly, enrollment in the parish school also declined sharply. In 1964, 410 students attended the school. By 1980 enrollment had declined by 73 percent to 110 students. That year—after 130 years of continuous service—the Sisters of St. Joseph withdrew from teaching the girls and boys of the parish school. While it continued operating with Christian Brothers and lay teachers, the St. Philip Neri Parish School eventually closed in 1991 because of low enrollment.

The dedication and service of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Christian Brothers and the lay teachers who taught generations of students at the St. Philip Neri School were remarkable and commendable. Their many contributions to the St. Philip Neri Parish and their untiring efforts on behalf of its children will always be deeply appreciated.

 

Nativist Riots in Philadelphia

The new model for free Catholic education taught by nuns and brothers was spurred, to a large extent, by generally anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Catholic sentiment of the times. During the early 1800s, Philadelphia was mainly inhabited by American Protestants. Its outlying areas, including Southwark, were where new immigrant Catholics chose to settle. The waves of Irish Catholic immigrants, in particular, came to be viewed as a threat to “native” working-class people. The fact that Irish newcomers were willing to work for lower pay was seen by many as the cause of driving down wages for all.

Many Protestants and members of the American Nativist Party believed that the Pope had a plan to take over America. The Irish were singled out as the most dangerous immigrant group because of their papal loyalty over centuries of persecution. At a signal from the Pope, the Nativists claimed, the Irish might well rise in a bloody revolution or a political coup at the ballot box. In the 1820s and 1830s, native Protestants and immigrant Catholics often clashed in election riots, fights between volunteer fire companies, and ethnic and religious quarrels.

In the 1840s the use of the Protestant version of the Bible in public schools became a flash point of contention that further fanned the fires of intolerance. When Bishop Kenrick prevailed on school authorities to allow the Catholic version of the Bible as well, many Protestants were outraged.

In 1844 the American Republicans—a Protestant Nativist group—announced that they would hold a meeting in Philadelphia’s Third Ward, an Irish stronghold in the Kensington district. On May 3 and again on May 6, the Irish repelled their unwanted visitors with force. After the second incident, in which a young Protestant man was killed, the city was in an uproar. On May 7, a Protestant mob marched to the Irish section. On that day and the next, the mob burned down more than 30 homes. The Church of St. Michael was set ablaze as was the Church of St. Augustine, along with its monastery and splendid library. Firemen were kept away. When Mayor John Morin Scott (1789-1858,) pleaded for calm, he was struck on the head with a stone and knocked unconscious. At least 14 people were killed or injured.

Bishop Kenrick closed all churches on the Sunday after the attacks in an attempt to calm the riots. Stating that it was better to let all churches burn than to shed one drop of blood, he urged Catholics to offer no resistance and to trust the courts to deal with those arrested for violence. But the juries acquitted the Nativists and convicted the Irish Catholics. In its June 18 report, the grand jury convened by the city blamed the riots on imperfect law enforcement, alleged attempts by Catholics to ban the Bible from public schools, and disruption of legitimate meetings by recent immigrants.

 

St. Philip Neri Church Besieged

Emboldened by the grand jury report and public sentiment, the American Nativist Party planned a massive anti-Catholic rally on Independence Day. On July 3, Father John B. Dunn was warned in a letter from a lay teacher in the church school that Nativists might attack the church that night, and that attempts would be made to burn the church if the attack failed.

William H. Dunn, the brother of Father Dunn, requested permission of government authorities to organize volunteers to defend the church. In the meantime, William Dunn trained 100 men in the church aisles, using broomsticks as rifles. Major General Robert Patterson (1792-1881), commander of the Pennsylvania militia, placed his troops on alert, mindful of the Kensington riots fomented in May by Nativists. Patterson also permitted members of the church parish to take steps to defend themselves. Governor David Rittenhouse Porter (1788-1867) authorized the formation of a company to protect the church and to procure 25 muskets from the Frankford Arsenal, which were taken to the church basement.

Nativists at 228 Queen Street, a house adjacent to the church on the west side that would later become the church’s rectory, observed the firearms transfer. They incited a mob numbering in the thousands to besiege the church and demanded that Sheriff Morton McMichael (1807-1867) search it and remove any firearms.

At 8 p.m., the church was searched while watchmen were posted in front. Twelve muskets with bayonets were discovered and taken to Commissioner’s Hall on Front Street between Catharine and Queen Streets. By 11 p.m., most of the mob remained in force on Queen Street and a second search of the church for arms was made. The search uncovered 53 muskets, 10 pistols, a keg of powder and a box of ammunition. Sheriff McMichael decided not to remove the weapons from the church, fearing that it would likely excite the crowd. He deputized the search party and they remained in the church.

At midnight on July 6, Patterson ordered a company of volunteer City Guards to clear the street and placed sentries at Second and Third Streets. Within an hour, most of the crowd dispersed. At 2 a.m., the arms discovered at the church were taken to Commissioner’s Hall. The City Guard remained in possession of the church all morning. By noon, a crowd numbering about 1,000 gathered in the streets around the church.

At 2:30 p.m., Major General George B. Cadwalader rode into Queen Street on horseback. At 7 p.m., Sheriff McMichael arrived with a posse of some 150 men. They cleared Queen Street from Second to Third Streets, and constables were stationed on both sides of Queen Street.

Later that evening, the military presence was reinforced by additional troops. The crowd also increased. At 11 p.m., the troops stationed three cannons at Second, Third and Queen Streets. Cadwalader and a platoon of men then charged the crowds at Second Street, driving them down to Christian Street. They then cleared Second Street in the opposite direction, and Queen Street above Third Street and below Second Street. At Third Street, Cadwalader threatened to fire a cannon on the crowd after stones were thrown, injuring the militia and constables. The mob gradually dispersed.

On the morning of July 7, most of the crowd had gone and the militia departed, except for three units left in charge of the church. When it was discovered that one of the units was Irish Catholic—the Hibernia Greens—mobs choked the streets again, now reinforced with four-pound and 16-pound cannons commandeered from the nearby docks. One of cannons, loaded with large pieces of iron, was discharged at the rear wall of the church with little effect. However, the missiles flew 100 yards through the neighborhood to the fright and dismay of residents and pedestrians.

An agreement was worked out with the Nativists and the soldiers defending the church to let the militia leave unharmed, provided that a group chosen by the Nativists would take charge of the church. However, when the militia left, the mob broke the agreement. They severely beat some of the militiamen, ransacked the Church of St. Philip Neri and tried to set fire to it. Cadwalader, with the backing of the governor, returned with a strong force and evicted the Nativist-approved group from the church in the early evening.

Cadwalader had authority from the governor to treat any who opposed him as “open enemies of the state.” The general announced that his men would fire if the mob did not disperse immediately. Bloodshed began when elements of the mob attacked one of his men. Cadwalader’s unit fired on them and a battle ensued, which continued on and off through the night with musket and cannon fire, bricks, stones, pikes and knives.

By 2:30 a.m. on July 8, the streets were cleared. At 2:30 p.m., Sheriff McMichael issued an order to authorize the Southwark Board of Commissioners to organize a police force to relieve the military at 5 p.m., with the understanding that the district will be responsible for the preservation of the Church of St. Philip Neri. That afternoon, Gov. Porter arrived in Philadelphia and issued a proclamation for citizens to cooperate with the military in restoring peace.

On July 9, troops continued to arrive and the combined forces of the military and volunteer troops numbered 4,000. With peace restored, Patterson began to withdraw troops from the city the following day.

In the evening of July 11, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick took possession of the Church.

On July 14, mass was held without incident.

 

Aftermath

The Nativist riots in Southwark resulted in more than 20 dead and scores more wounded. A grand jury again blamed Catholics for providing the flash point for the riots, but also fully supported the military suppression of the riot and the arming of parishioners of the Church of St. Philip Neri.

Following the riots, Bishop Kenrick abandoned his efforts to influence the public schools and instead laid the groundwork for the Catholic school system. Public school systems gradually became less mainstream Protestant in orientation. After the riots, pressure increased to consolidate Philadelphia City and County, which was accomplished a decade later. It included a unified police force and a paid fire department better able to respond to emergencies.

Father Dunn, the first pastor of the St. Philip Neri Parish whose arming of parish members was lawful but perhaps unwise, was sent out of town by a displeased Bishop Kenrick until things settled down. After his return, Dunn took an extended vacation to his native Ireland, and then was transferred to Charleston, S.C. In 1853 he returned to the Philadelphia diocese. He died as pastor of St. John’s Parish in 1869.

Father Nicholas Cantwell, Father Dunn’s assistant, became the second pastor of the St. Philip Neri Parish. Appointed in 1845, he continued as pastor until his death 54 years later. During his tenure, the church building was thoroughly renovated and redecorated. While the boys continued to attend classes taught by lay teachers in the church basement, a new convent and school building was built for the girls at 778 South Front Street. The Sisters of St. Joseph came to teach in this first girl’s parochial school in 1850, replacing the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who had taught there for a brief period.

 

Forty Hours Devotion

Bishop John Neumann (1811-1860) introduced the practice of the Forty Hours Devotion at the Fourth Diocesan Synod, April 20-21,1853. It initially met with significant opposition. Some priests thought the time was inadvisable, that the rage of Know-Nothing Nativism of the 1840s and 1850s would expose the Blessed Sacrament to profanation. However, the misgivings of some priests did not deter Bishop Neumann, who decided to go forward after a telling incident.

One night, as he was working late and fell asleep at his desk, a candle burned down and charred some papers, but they were still readable. When Bishop Neumann awoke, he knelt to give thanks to God for His protection that a fire had not ignited, and then heard His voice:

“As the flames are burning here without consuming or injuring the writing, so shall I pour out my grace in the Blessed Sacrament without prejudice to My honor. Fear no profanation, therefore; hesitate no longer to carry out your design for My glory.”

Fittingly, the Eucharistic Devotion was solemnly opened for the first time in the United States on the Feast of Corpus Christi, May 26, 1853, at the Church St. Philip Neri, which was named in honor of the saint who had introduced the Forty Hours Devotion in Rome three centuries before.

Bishop John Neumann (now Saint John Neumann) opened and directed the solemnity, lending how own monstrance and vestments. He stayed at the parish during the devotion. It has been recorded that Bishop Neumann scarcely left the church during the three days. The clergy and laity were deeply edified by this saintly bishop’s example and his love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

Bishop Neumann then introduced the devotion to all parishes in the Philadelphia diocese and obtained special indulgences for the faithful attending them. The Forty Hours Devotion was so successful that other dioceses nationwide adopted it. At the Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866, the Forty Hours Devotion was approved for all dioceses of the United States.

 

Growth, Fire and Rebirth

Due to old age and increasing infirmity, Father Cantwell resigned from active work in the parish in March 1892 and his assistant, the Reverend James F. Trainor, was appointed the acting rector. Father Trainor, with the full cooperation of the parishioners, began to bring new life to the parish.

However, on October 14, 1897, a calamity rocked the parish. A fire nearly destroyed the Church of St. Philip Neri. The fire started in a livery stable to the east of the church, on the site of the present rectory. The east wall, roof and ceiling of the church were damaged, and the interior utterly ruined. The painting of the Immaculate Conception on the ceiling was destroyed, and the organ was crushed by debris. What was not burned by fire was damaged by water.

Father Trainor immediately drew up plans and specifications, and work was begun on rebuilding the church. Frank Rushmore Watson (1859-1940) was commissioned as the architect. In just 15 months the church was rebuilt and was solemnly dedicated on January 29, 1899, by Archbishop Patrick John Ryan, the Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Much of the church’s current interior, with its beautiful stained glass windows, immaculate marble sanctuary, marble altars and handsome stations of the cross, date from this period. The Institute of Christian Artworks, now Franz Mayer of Munich, a German firm that specializes in fine art, architecture, sculpture, painting and stained glass, designed and constructed the stained glass windows.

The original order of March 1898 included 12 windows depicting the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Espousal, Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation of Our Lord, Our Lord in the Temple with Doctors, Baptism, Our Lord Blessing the Children, Pieta, Agony in the Garden, Angel at the Tomb and Ascension. Four additional windows depicting St. Agnes, St. Aloysius, St. Philip Neri and St. Rose of Lima were also crafted.

At Monsignor Cantwell’s death in November 1899, Father Trainor was appointed pastor. In 1990 Father Trainor purchased the site of the fourth and present rectory at 218 Queen Street. The rectory was ready for occupancy in the spring of 1903.

The parish and its school prospered for many decades. But with the construction of Interstate 95 in the 1960s and 1970s, the population of the parish was drastically altered. The parish and its school began to experience serious decline in the 1980s due to continuing population shifts.

 

Present and Future

Starting in the 1980s, the fortunes of the Southwark and Queen Village communities have continued to improve. The St. Philip Neri Parish is benefiting from an influx of single, young professionals as well as couples with young children who are attracted to the area’s history, diversity and affordable housing. Existing homes—some dating back to the 1740s—are being renovated and expanded, and there is a construction boom in new houses and apartment buildings.

In this rising tide, the Church of St. Philip Neri continues to be uplifted. All of the parishioners—from the “Two Streeters” of Southwark with their deep roots in the parish to the new young professionals of Queen Village—are committed to working and growing together to build an ever more vibrant Catholic community in the oldest of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

In 2006, St. Philip Neri Church embraced St. Stanlislaus Church, its neighbor on Fitzwater Street, which has served Polish Catholics in Southwark since 1891, as a worship site. Secure in its historic past, the people of the St. Philip Neri Parish go forward as a Catholic community dedicated and committed to speaking and acting in Christ’s name through fervent prayer and service.