St. Thomas Aquinas Church approved for city’s historical designation

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia does not support or oppose the designation. 

Grace Maiorano/SPR

The city’s Committee on Historic Designation approved the nomination of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Rectory, 1616 S. 17th St., to be included on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, an inventory encompassing more than 22,000 properties and 15 historic districts across the city.

The decision was voted unanimously in favor of designation by the committee last Friday. 

Located between 17th and 18th on Morris Street, the Edwin Forrest Durang-designed Catholic church, which is still active, was nominated in April by Philadelphia-based historian and criminologist Celeste A. Morello in front of the committee.

Through Morello’s argument, the nomination, which proposed to designate the church, rectory and surrounding green space, specifically satisfied two of the city’s criteria for designation, including being designed by a historically influential architect and having sparked some form of cultural impact on the community.

The nomination was reviewed and then approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

“It’s just such a wonderful church,” Morello said after the meeting. “It’s a beautiful church and you have to have a very cold heart not to appreciate and feel God when you’re there…looking at the church and understand that people did this work – whether it’s the construction work or any kind of artisan or artistic work – they did it for the glory of God. It was heart and soul that went into the execution.”

Durang is renowned for influencing 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 verified Morello’s criteria argument, including that the space “exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social or historical heritage of the community.”

In the late 1800s, 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.

“I give a lot, a lot of cause and I don’t really leave any room for dispute or for anyone to deny that anything is untrue,” Morello said. “And as a practicing Catholic, too, I know how to integrate and I have that feel for people and how it was.”

Morello says she notices a lack of effort to nominate churches outside of Center City for historical designation. 

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia says it has taken no formal position “to support or oppose” the St. Thomas Aquinas petition, according to a statement. 

However, earlier this year, the Archdiocese attributed financial concerns to the historic designation of its churches.  

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 last 10 years, collectively $63 million was spent caring for Archdiocese properties, including $5.5 million on facade repairs alone, as reported by SPR.

Looking ahead, Morello asks the Archdiocese to execute financial plans to upkeep these recently established historic properties.

“What I really hope now, because I do have more churches that are forthcoming, I hope that the Archdiocese can devise a plan,” Morello said. “Archbishop Chaput is very good at this. He’s very good at organizing plans, and I hope that a lot of these churches that are historically designated now can set up different accounts or at least have one plan to maintain the churches properly. But, that has to come from the Archdiocese.” 

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