Churches for sale tell tale of a secular shift

Hallowed grounds in many Philadelphia neighborhoods are not what they used to be — like vacant Catholic churches up for sale and synagogues that have been converted into condominiums.

More secular than perhaps ever before, the city’s population is now witness to a sell-off of places of worship by many denominations, most notably the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which, according to one real estate consultant recently, has about 20 buildings up for sale.

One observer of the city’s churn toward fewer religious sites said the fabric of certain neighborhoods is torn loose by such sell-offs.

“These buildings aren’t just a building,” said Patrick Hildebrandt, facilitator of the Philadelphia Church Project, a website on religious architecture in decline. “They are a living history of a person, of a family, of a neighborhood. To take away one of these buildings is to take away from the fabric of the community.”

The Church of the Assumption on the city’s Spring Garden Street is the most prominent example. The city Historical Commission has voted to permit demolition of the twin-steeple building which Cardinal John Neumann helped consecrate in 1854. The Archdiocese declined to comment for this story.

“Every denomination in the city is suffering the same issue,” said Bob Jaeger of Partners for Sacred Spaces, a national nonprofit that helps maintain historic religious properties.

End for churches

North Philadelphia, one of the city’s most economically challenged sections, has been hit hard by closings, especially Catholic churches. Lux Rivera, who with her husband owns and operates a laundromat, attended St. Boniface for eight years before it was shut down. When it closed, items from the interior were sold or given away.

Rivera said her daughter’s godfather purchased the church’s Stations of the Cross for $100 at a parish sidewalk sale and Rivera had a new door to her home crafted from its wooden pews.
“It’s very sad that the church closed,” said Rivera who now attends Mass at other Catholic sites like a Spanish chapel at 19th and Spring Garden streets.


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