A long weekend in the City of Brotherly Love took me to some of the United States’ most recognizable icons: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, a replica of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Rocky Balboa ascended in his gray sweats 44 years ago. It also took me to some excellent dinners, at Alma de Cuba and Devon Seafood Grill. And it took me to some of the oldest and most fascinating churches in the country. These are my favorites.
#1 Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul
Just a short walk from Philadelphia’s iconic City Hall, the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul ranks as the largest brownstone structure in the city and the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania. Standing in the park across the street from it and admiring its beauty, I could easily understand why recent popes chose to celebrate mass here: John Paul II in 1979 and Francis in 2015. Begun in 1846 and completed at the height of the Civil War in 1864, the church operates as the head church of the Roman Catholic Arch Diocese of Philadelphia. At the façade, fluted Corinthian columns soar up 60’ and support a pointed pediment with a plain tympanum but a highly decorated frieze. Four bronze statues of St. Peter, St. Paul, Jesus, and Mary that were added in 1915 stand in niches. An 11’ gold cross tops the massive aqua oxidized-copper dome behind it.
Through the cast bronze doors, I entered the huge cathedral that can hold 2,000 worshippers, with more than half of them seated in the permanent walnut pews. As I proceeded down the 236’-long nave on its white and dark-green marble floor, I experienced a sense of timelessness. Although the cathedral is relatively new, the Neo-classical style, the abundance of marble and walnut, the gilded surfaces, and the detailed sculptural elements suggest a much earlier existence.
From under the great dome, more than 156’ above me, I was in the perfect position to take all that in, starting with the dome itself. Its interior is a true work of art, starting at the top with a painting of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Below it, paintings of a dozen groups of angels portray each group with an emblem of Christ’s passion, such as the chalice, crown of thorns, Veronica’s veil, nails, and a sponge on a reed. Below them, stained-glass windows are given over mostly to such Doctors of the Church as saints Basil, Gregory, and Jerome. Medallions with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fill in the pendentives.
The marble high altar before me stands under a baldachin supported by marble Corinthian columns with bronze capitals, topped by 10’-tall white marble angels with tall, slender wings. A marble mosaic with a dove as the central figure decorate the underside of the baldachin’s dome. Marble columns embellish the wall of the apse curving around the altar, separating the stained-glass windows, each showing a trio of depictions for each of three themes: the Eucharist, the life of St. Peter, and the life of St. Paul. The two marble mosaics between the windows depict the cathedral’s two eponymous saints standing before their namesake basilicas in the Vatican City and Rome, respectively.
The two side altars are home to a couple of striking Venetian glass mosaics, one depicting Mary’s Assumption, the other showing Christ’s apparition to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. An elegant marble octagonal ambo with a walnut canopy, a baptismal font with a frieze that echoes that of the façade, sculptural Stations of the Cross, fluted pilasters, and one of Philadelphia’s largest organs all contribute to the cathedral’s beauty. Eight side chapels and altars are dedicated to the likes of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Joseph, St. John Neumann (who was also Philadelphia’s fourth bishop), and the Blessed Sacrament. The altar to Patrick John Ryan, the second archbishop of Philadelphia who served for 27 years, features a gorgeous nine-foot sculptured Celtic cross, flanked by statues of St. Patrick and St. John the Evangelist.
Save for those stained-glass windows behind the High Altar, all the windows are high up in the clerestory at the base of the impressive coffered barrel ceiling — a deliberate design choice: Construction was occurring during the height of the city’s anti-Catholic riots, and higher windows would hopefully inhibit vandalism. Hard to believe in a city that is 26 percent Catholic.
#2 Christ Church
The birthplace of the American Episcopal Church, Christ Church was founded in 1695 as a parish of the Church of England. The church itself was completed in 1744; when its 196’ tower and steeple were added a decade later, Christ Church became the tallest building in the future United States, a title it held until 1810. Sumptuous in its time, it seems austere now, especially when compared to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul. But that restraint, and its awesome history, make it so appealing today.
With a lawn on one side and a lovely garden and graveyard on the other, and the cobblestone streets around it, it’s almost easy to imagine Philadelphia 250 years ago. The colonial craftsmanship that made this a fine example of Georgian architecture is still evident. The square brick tower features a louvre window on each side. Above it, a spire of cedar roof shingles painted white flies up from the steeple base. The whole thing is capped by one of the church’s most notable features. Originally, it was a gilded globe topped with a crown of King George III. But after the redcoats got the boot, George’s crown was replaced by a gilded copper bishop’s mitre in 1787. There’s also a copper trident-shaped scepter that functions as a lightning rod, a gilded movable weather vane, and four ball-shaped directionals.
A double row of arched windows and a sectional balustrade along the roofline line the symmetrical façade. Unlike Catholics’ affinity for stained glass, all the windows here are plain glass. Inside, the simple, starkly white interior features fluted columns supporting the arches, a very elegant organ, and some very well-worn wood floors. And if those floors could talk, they would tell you about the who’s-who of Revolutionary War–era personalities who trod them, some of whom are buried in the church and the adjacent churchyard, including several signers of the Declaration of Independence and William Penn’s grandson. As I made a loop around the church, I hunted for the brass plaques that mark the pew boxes where George Washington, Benjamin and Deborah Franklin, John Adams, Betsy Ross, Robert Morris (the “Financier of the Revolution”), Benjamin Rush (founder of Dickinson College), and Francis Hopkinson (who designed Continental paper money, the first U.S. coin, and early versions of the U.S. flag) sat. The baptismal font in which Pennsylvania founder William Penn was baptized is still in use.
With such pure architecture and such a deep history, it’s no wonder that this National Historic Landmark attracts about a quarter of a million tourists every year.
#3 St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church
In the heart of Center City, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church is a survivor. Ravaged by fires, threatened with collapse by an underground river, and endangered with destruction by anti-Catholic riots, this church has seen more than its share of upheavals and resurrections. And it’s still thriving, despite the reduction of homes registered in its parish as the area morphed from residential to commercial over the decades. St. John’s offers nearly a dozen Masses per week, including multiple daily Masses during the week for workers and shoppers in the heart of Philadelphia’s central business district (although it has discontinued its dead-of-the-night Mass at 2:45 a.m. for those leaving their shifts in the newspaper printing plants that used to be located nearby, sometimes up to 300 worshippers). Consecrated in 1832, the church quickly eliminated its debt from the construction thanks largely to donations from local — and wealthy — Mexican merchants. The Mexican connection doesn’t stop there. When Santa Ana executed Mexican Emperor Augustin de Iturbide, the emperor’s family moved to Philadelphia; his widow, Ana Maria Huarte de Iturbide, is buried in the churchyard cemetery.
Four years after suffering its first fire (which did not destroy it), in 1834, the church was designated the city’s proto-cathedral and survived the 1844 anti-Catholic riots, thanks to cannons placed nearby to protect it. In the 1850s, two future saints established ties with the church, when Katherine Drexel received the sacraments of the Eucharist and confirmation here, and John Neumann lived in the rectory while serving as bishop. When the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul opened in 1864, it was named the diocesan cathedral, and St. John’s reverted back to its status as an ordinary parish. A massive fire in 1899 destroyed much of the church; a statue of Mary miraculously survived unscathed amid all the rubble. After it was rebuilt in 1902, an underground river diverted into the church’s foundation during construction of a nearby hotel threatened the building with collapse. By 1932, everything was running smoothly, and the church was receiving tens of thousands of visitors per week. After major redecorations in 1963, the church received its present appearance.
The church today does and does not look like its original version, thanks to all those catastrophes and subsequent renovations and updates, but it’s still quite beautiful. The wonderful rough-granite façade features twin square towers with lancet windows and windows in the shape of a cross on all four sides. Statues of the four evangelists stand below the trio of arches at the main entrance, under a porch with fine tracery on the windows.
Inside, I had enough time to explore before the next Mass started. The altar features a wonderful reredos, with frilly but not overwrought pinnacles. Green columns support the arches, and lovely stained-glass windows line the side aisle and the clerestory. Monochromatic sculptural groups against gold backdrops create uniformity to the Stations the Cross.
Back outside, I made sure to check out the churchyard to admire the newest addition: a tableau added in 1986. Each of the first five sculpted murals presents a different Bible scene: the creation of the world, Adam and Eve fleeing Eden, Isaiah, King David, and the three magi. The final three illustrate the passage from Matthew 25 (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”) and how believers can do God’s work in a very contemporary manner: a white doctor and black nurse assist a young man relying on a crutch, with a caduceus in the background; a person donates a bag of groceries to a family in need; and a man underneath the scales of justice visits a prisoner, sitting handcuffed on a bench beneath his barred prison window while the hand of God emerges from clouds. They’re beautifully rendered and were a perfect way for me to end my visit here at a church that presents the core missions of its belief system to everyone passing by.
#4 St. Clement’s Church
I came across St. Clement’s Church by accident, while strolling around Philadelphia. Its eye-catching exterior made me want to know more. Completed in 1859 after three years of construction, this Anglo-Catholic church lost its spire 10 years later, when it was determined to be too heavy for the foundation. It also lost its original location, when the church building, including the rectory and parish house and weighing 5,000 tons, was lifted onto steel rollers and moved 40’ away over the course of five days in 1929 to allow for a street widening. In 1970, it earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. With a Romanesque Revival style, this brownstone beauty features a bell tower, buttresses, and a bold, magnificent semicircular apse with two levels of blind arcades with columns and arches. Along one side, a brick-paved garden of trees and flowering plants invites you in for a calming stroll.
The church’s gradual blending of its Anglican origins with an infusion of Catholic tradition made it one of the city’s first churches to develop into such a hybrid. And that becomes more evident inside, in both look and purpose. Unlike in many Anglican churches, the decorative elements in St. Clement’s reflect the more elaborate bent of Catholicism, none of which were original to the church. In the first decade of the 1900s, the roof of the apse was raised 15’ to include a clerestory but undertaken solely to accommodate the installation of the church’s most elaborate addition — the high altar and the reredos and triptych behind it. The English red stone altar was consecrated in 1908 along with the carved oak triptych with its central panel filled in by a large painting of Christ dressed in priestly vestments, surrounded by Mary, St. John, and a couple of angels holding tapers.
The baptismal font of English red stone and gilded wood was added in 1917, the colorful pulpit with sculptures in 1921, and the vibrant stained-glass windows in 1941. If you should visit during a Mass, you’ll experience the more lavish service associated with Catholicism, including incense, bells, processions, and the talents of a professional choir.
#5 Arch Street United Methodist Church
I was staying at the Aloft Philadelphia Downtown (housed in the old 1925 Liberty Title Building) in the city’s core, just a couple of blocks from City Hall and the Masonic Temple, with one of the most beautiful entryways in the world. Across the street from the hotel stands one of its lovely neighbors, the Arch Street United Methodist Church. The church received national attention in 1865, a few years before the current building was completed in 1870, when its resident bishop delivered the eulogy for the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. It also scored historical significance as only the second U.S. Methodist church constructed in the Gothic style. The white marble building is well reputed for its soaring spire, a key element in the city’s downtown skyline, rising from a tower topped with bands of lancet windows and trefoils. Inside, the sanctuary can accommodate more than 900 worshippers, seated under a vaulted ceiling and listening to the music emanating from the impressive organ, built in 1870. Admire the curved altar rail, the Gothic arches, and the stained-glass windows, especially the one with abstract and floral designs between the organ cases. The baptismal font was crafted from a section of a column of the high altar in London’s City Road Chapel, and the Celtic cross over the altar made a fine addition in 1928. At the forefront of progressive issues, Arch Street retains its relevance today as well as its friendliness — the staff will turn the lights on for you when you visit.
- St. Augustine Church (1847)
- St. Mark’s Church (1849)
- St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (1823)
- The Church of the Holy Trinity (1859)
- Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion (1880)
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