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 firstname.lastname@example.org.