The city’s Committee on Historic Designation approved recommendation for the St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Rectory, 1616 S. 17th St., to be potentially included on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, an inventory encompassing more than 22,000 properties and 15 historic districts across the city.
Located between 16th and 17th on Morris Street, the Edwin Forrest Durang-designed Catholic church, which is still active, was nominated for historical designation by Philadelphia-based historian and criminologist Celeste A. Morello on Wednesday in front of the committee.
The site will then be reviewed by the Philadelphia Historical Commission for final consideration at a public meeting in May.
Under Morello’s examination, the nomination, which proposes to designate the church, rectory and surrounding green space, specifically satisfies two criteria for designation, including being designed by a historically-influential architect and having sparked some form of cultural impact on the community.
“The last years of (Durang’s) life and he still does not fail to impress or create a sense of awe,” Morello said. “And, when you walk around any of these Durang-designed churches, they just take your breath away.”
Durang is credited with contributing toward the “Golden Age” of the boom of Philadelphia Catholic churches in the late 19th century, including St. Agatha – St. James Church in West Philadelphia and Roman Catholic High School in Center City. Constructed with gray ashlar stone, St. Thomas Aquinas, a Romanesque-Baroque structure, was built in the early 1890s to serve a Catholic congregation that had been growing in South Philly since 1885.
Consequently, the committee also verified Morello’s second criteria argument that the space “exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social or historical heritage of the community.”
“The Catholic churches were built purposefully for a reason,” Morello said after the hearing. “They served the community. They were the catalyst or the focal point. In the 19th century, all a person really had was work, home and the church to guide them, and that was the direction of people’s lives then, so it was an important historical point for that purpose. Within the community, churches helped to develop communities.”
In the late 19th century, the church served as the focal point of Roman Catholic activity, as its establishment was the result of mainly Catholic Irish immigrants moving into Philadelphia in the later part of the 19th century. During this time, St. Thomas Aquinas Church was the parish for many working-class Roman Catholics living in the area between Wharton Street and the Navy Yard and Broad Street to the Schuylkill River, according to Morello’s research.
The church also was at the epicenter of the national Oxford Movement. Members from the High Churches of the Church of England gradually established Anglo-Catholicism.
According to Morello’s research, St. Thomas of Aquinas collided with ministers at St. Elizabeth’s, a local Episcopal church, before its congregation eventually dissolved.
“You really are strong on the kind of competition between the different dominations down there as a conditioning factor of the whole thing,” said Jeffrey Cohen, an architectural historian on the Committee on Historic Designation.
To this day, St. Thomas Aquinas continues to serve as a safe haven for immigrating populations in South Philly, as the church currently hosts liturgies in four languages and suspends flags from 16 different nations in the sanctuary.
St. Thomas Aquinas is one of a few Catholic churches currently owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that serve as candidates for historical designation in May.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, a representative of the Archdiocese did not testify at the hearing, but Morello suggested the citywide Catholic organization will oppose her nomination, referencing its opposition to the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia’s consideration on the city register of historic places.
“That’s the main question, because the Archdiocese really doesn’t put up a defense or a sound reason why they would oppose having any of these buildings, any of these churches, historically designated,” Morello said.
In a statement to SPR, the Archdiocese says it has yet to take a position on the pending historic nomination. The proposed parish also has yet to take a position.
However, the Archdiocese does note financial concerns to the historic designation of its churches.
“The Archdiocese and its parishes are deeply concerned with (the) number of historic nominations of its churches throughout the city and the effect designation has on the financial resources of the individual parishes,” reads the statement.
The organization and its parishes are the stewards and owners of more than 100 buildings in Philadelphia that are more than 100 years old, and approximately 25 percent of the active parishes within the city have buildings already listed on the Philadelphia Register, according to the Archdiocese.
During a public hearing regarding the St. Rita of Cascia’s shrine in January, Archdiocese of Philadelphia lawyer Michael Phillips said that, over the past 10 years, collectively $63 million was spent caring for Archdiocese properties, including $5.5 million on facade repairs alone, as reported by SPR.
Morello, who describes herself as a “practicing, observing Catholic,” says, if parishioners of these churches were aware of their historical designation considerations, they’d be willing to contribute monetary means.
“This is one of the best-kept secrets in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, because the Archdiocese does not want parishioners to know about this process that is going on and having churches to become historically designated,” she said. “And, I think they’re acting in a covert way on purpose, because they know that parishioners would support this. Parishioners would support having their church historically certified, and if the church is historical officially, then they would dig into their pockets and preserve as much as possible through the maintenance of the church and make sure it is well kept and consistent to the architect’s design.”