New year, old churches

The sanc­tu­ary of First Pres­by­teri­an Church of Kens­ing­ton, 418 E. Gir­ard Ave., one of the six churches fea­tured on last week­end’s His­tor­ic Hol­i­day Church Tour. SAM NE­W­HOUSE / STAR PHOTO

River Wards loc­als were all set to ex­plore the his­tory of some co­lossal cathed­rals over the week­end. Un­for­tu­nately, some of the land­marks are in danger of clos­ing forever.

Sandy Salzman said she likes to think of the River Wards as neigh­bor­hoods of churches.

Houses of wor­ship, agreed Ken Mil­ano, are the back­bones of their com­munit­ies.

Salzman, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of NK­CDC, and Mil­ano, a Kens­ing­ton nat­ive and gene­a­lo­gist and his­tor­i­an, were eager to let loc­als in on the back­ground of these sac­rosanct land­marks just be­fore New Year’s Eve — think of it as a look in­to his­tory just be­fore the city wel­comes the fu­ture.

The His­tor­ic Hol­i­day Church Tour, sponsored by the New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion (NK­CDC) and the non-profit group Part­ners for Sac­red Spaces, is the first such tour offered in more than 10 years, Salzman said.

“Today, a lot of the churches have gone away, a lot of the Cath­ol­ic churches are clos­ing down,” she said. “We’re in danger of los­ing even more be­cause a lot of people aren’t go­ing to them.”

“We’ve lost some of the big­ger churches,” Salzman con­tin­ued, “And very frankly, some of them have very few pa­rish­ion­ers today.”

Salzman planned to lead the tour on Sunday, Dec. 30. Six churches were to be fea­tured: Kens­ing­ton United Meth­od­ist Church (known as “Old Brick”), First Pres­by­teri­an Church of Kens­ing­ton, St. Lauren­ti­us Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church, Atone­ment Luther­an Church, Siloam Sum­mer­field Meth­od­ist Church and St. Mi­chael’s Luther­an Church.

Mil­ano and Salzman said they were ex­cited to share neigh­bor­hood stor­ies with guests.

Many of these churches were the “back­bone of the com­munity” in the early days of Phil­adelphia, Mil­ano said.

Each of the churches on the tour is still act­ive, and each has its own fas­cin­at­ing his­tory.

Old Brick, for ex­ample, was the first church in Kens­ing­ton, built in 1804, and at­trac­ted so many pa­rish­ion­ers that it had to be ex­pan­ded. The build­ing was re­built in 1853, us­ing the ‘old brick’ from the ori­gin­al struc­ture — you can guess how it got its nick­name.

But Old Brick lost most of its mem­bers when I-95 was built ad­ja­cent to the church.

“The fact that it’s even hold­ing on is amaz­ing,” Salzman said. “In my mind, it’s one of the most fra­gile churches in the neigh­bor­hood.”

Mil­ano said the churches rep­res­ent the chan­ging com­munit­ies of the River Wards.

St. Mi­chael’s Luther­an Church, at Cum­ber­land and Trenton streets, was burned down in 1844 by an angry mob of mem­bers of the polit­ic­al group, the Amer­ic­an Nat­iv­ist Party (also known as the “Know-Noth­ings”).  And Fishtown has the first Pol­ish church built in Phil­adelphia, the St. Lauren­ti­us Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church.

“At the end of the day, that’s what im­port­ant, that we shine a bright light on the neigh­bor­hood, and people say, ‘Wow, that’s such a cool place to live,’” Salzman said.

“For most people, the churches have been the so­cial fab­ric of the com­munity. Just listen to what’s go­ing in Con­necti­c­ut,” she con­tin­ued. “Where is every­body go­ing? They’re go­ing to the churches.”

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

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