St. Rita’s Church and remnants Moyamensing Prison walls added to Philadelphia’s historic register

Later in the meeting, the church’s rectory, located next door at 1163 S. Broad St., was also designated.

The National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

At the most recent public meeting of the Philadelphia Historic Commission, board members voted to add The National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia — better known as St. Rita’s Church — and remnants of the Moyamensing Prison Walls to the city’s list of historic places. Both locations were nominated by historian Celeste Morello.

“It’s one of so very few properties throughout South Philadelphia that are neglected by preservation efforts,” Morello said about St. Rita’s Church at the meeting. “The property speaks for itself. I really don’t have to say too much more.”

The board unanimously approved the decision to designate the property.

The only voice in opposition of St. Rita’s was the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s layer, Michael Phillips. Phillips said the designation of St. Rita’s was opposed by the Archdiocese for two reasons. The first reason was because it found the designation “unnecessary.”

“Approximately 25 percent of the active parishes in Philadelphia are on the register already,” Phillips said. “They have spent over the past 10 years collectively $63 million caring for their properties, including five-and-a-half million on facade repairs alone. These houses of worship are well-maintained and very much cared for. The additional oversight and costs associated with it are not necessary.”

According to Phillips, the second reason was because the building was “inherently religious,” which he believed was potentially in violation of the church’s First Amendment rights.

“I believe that there’s significant First Amendment issues with the City of Philadelphia vesting control over items of worship,” he said. “If the parish or the archdiocese — I’m not saying this would ever happen, but it would be in the realm of hypotheticals — wanted to change one of the statues. [For instance,] change St. Patrick for St. Rita herself. They would then have to go before the commission to ask if they can change an item of their faith. And that, I believe, is antithetical to the separation of church and state and the powers that should be vested upon the municipal government.”

Historian George Boudreau shot down Phillips’ argument at the meeting, calling it “specious.”

“I don’t think anyone’s arguing that Catholics will be under attack on South Broad Street and that Catholicism will be subject to the riots of the 1840s again if this building is designated,” he said, “I don’t think anyone is arguing, ‘Should the church in its wisdom remove St. Patrick,’ which isn’t going to happen. [What] we’re arguing is, imagine a CVS on this site. Imagine the doorframes are the only things left and there’s a Chuck E. Cheese in the footprint of the building. That’s what this argument is about. As a birthright Catholic, what strikes me is that it’s not an argument for the practice of religion; it’s an argument for the practice of a wrecking ball.”

Philadelphia Preservation Alliance Advocacy Director Patrick Rossi, who also was present at the meeting, spoke in favor of the church’s designation as well. He called it “inarguably one of the most notable and recognizable physical expressions of the Catholic church in Philadelphia.”

According to the nomination document completed by Morello, the church was designed by architect George I. Lovatt and built in 1907–1908.

Later in the meeting, the church’s rectory, located next door at 1163 S. Broad St., was also designated.

Historical commission board member James Mattioni was the sole person to vote against the designation of the remnants left of Moyamensing Prison’s walls, which are located at 1400 and 1430 Passyunk Ave. Mattioni objected to the designation because “there’s hardly anything left” of the prison.

“I could understand why we could preserve if it still existed, but it doesn’t,” he said.

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance, disagreed with Mattioni.

“I think the very fact that these are the sole remaining artifacts of a great historic structure make them important to preserve for that reason especially,” he said. “I say that because when I first encountered these ruins or remnants about 30 years ago while shopping at the Acme, I was filled with a sense of delight that something remained of Moyamensing Prison, that something was kept.”

An Acme supermarket is located where the prison used to be. The prison was initially constructed between the years of 1832 and 1835, and was designed by architect Thomas Ustick Walter. Walter is famous for also designing the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.