Historical plans advance for St. Gabe’s, Epiphany

Epiphany of Our Lord church on Jackson Street. Photo by Google Maps

Despite some opposition, plans are moving forward to add two South Philadelphia churches to the city’s Register of Historic Places.

The city’s Committee on Historical Designation agreed to recommend the Roman Catholic churches of St. Gabriel at 2917 Dickinson St. and Epiphany of Our Lord at 1121 Jackson St. for historical certifications from the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

The two institutions were unanimously approved by the advisory committee on Dec. 3 during a virtual hearing, after agreeing that the nominations met criteria to move forward. The two churches, which are owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, will be reviewed by the city’s Historical Commission at an upcoming hearing. The commission, which will consider additional factors such as economical hardship, will then vote on the nomination. If approved, the property will be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which includes more than 22,000 properties and 15 historic districts across the city.

Both nominations were made by local historian and criminologist Celeste Morello and were presented separately to the advisory committee. Morello first recommended St. Gabriel’s church and rectory citing the Romanesque architecture and features holding similarity to French pilgrimage of the religious institution that was built in the Grays Ferry neighborhood in 1895. The adjacent school building is not included in the nomination. Designed by architect Edwin F. Durang, the building is seen as being possibly a sole example of a French Romanesque Pilgrimage church from the 11th century.

“I think this church pretty much sells itself and qualifies itself,” Morello said. “It’s the workmanship of the stone masons at the time who really did a wonderful job. I know the staff understands how Roman Catholic this design really is.”

Roman Catholic churches of St. Gabriel in Grays Ferry. Photo by Google Maps

The Archdiocese opposes the nomination, citing two technical disagreements and a very large financial one.

“Even though the members of the parish and the congregation love the church and think it’s beautiful, we don’t think that it embodies the characteristics,” said Henry Clinton, representing St. Gabriel’s Parish. “Secondly, in terms of the architecture, if you read through the petition, there is a contest to whether the father (Durang) or his son actually designed the structure.”

The Archdiocese also cited economic hardship and hinted that a historical designation would hinder attempts to sell off assets such as the rectory, which is part of the nomination. The parish recently sold off the adjacent convent, which will be converted into 20 apartment units. Declining enrollment and fewer priests living in the rectory has opened up potential discussion of selling the rectory.

“The real challenge in the school is there and having the ability to be flexible on that building were it to be sold, would really be a blessing to us for sure,” said the Rev. Carl Braschoss, pastor at St. Gabriel’s. “Just like in any corporation, there has to be an ability to rightsize given the times. It’s important for us to be able to carry out our mission as well as minimally restricted as possible as well.”

Morello has previously obtained historical designations for the Vare-Washington public school, Saks Playground, Moyamensing Prison’s walls, St. Rita’s, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul’s Rectory, the Banca Calabrese, Columbus Hall, Annunciation BVM Church and the Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza. She was happy to receive unanimous approval from the advisory committee for the  Epiphany of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church on Jackson Street.

Completed in 1905, the church embodies distinguished characteristics of High Gothic architecture. Morello argues that the church and rectory are the work of Frank R. Watson, who was one of the most important architects of Philadelphia churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Christian Matozzo, a parishioner of Epiphany, said he believed the parish was unaware of the nomination and asked for a delay.

“My family has been here for three generations and there has been no notice at Mass,” Matozzo said. “We’re not sure if our own pastor is aware of this historical nomination. Our parish is stable in some respects, we do have a lot of deferred maintenance.”

Morello disagreed.

“This is a beautiful church,” Morello said. “When I was there a couple of months ago, it was very well-maintained, better than most of the churches I have seen in the archdiocese in the city. All of the criteria have been met. Frank Watson, a pupil of Edwin Durang, really outdid himself here and that’s all I’m going to say.”

Neither property was listed on the Historical Commission’s Dec. 11 agenda but will likely be heard at the next meeting on Jan. 8. According to the Committee of Historic Destinations’ minutes from the Dec. 3 meeting, “some matters from the Committee on Historic Designation’s meeting of 3 December 2020 have been scheduled for the Historical Commission’s meeting on 11 December 2020, while other matters have been scheduled for the Historical Commission’s meeting on 8 January 2021.”