Two South Philly Roman Catholic churches, St. Gabriel in Grays Ferry and Epiphany of Our Lord in Lower Moyamensing, made their way onto the city’s list of historically designated places Friday morning by way of a unanimous vote from the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s board. A building’s designation to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places means that the structure cannot be demolished, save for rare circumstances. In both cases, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia opposed the nominations, citing economic hardship. The archdiocese hinted that a historical designation would hinder attempts to sell off assets such as St. Gabe’s 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.
“I think that St. Gabriel’s is a tremendous institution in the Grays Ferry community,” said Carmine Zulli, president of Grays Ferry Community Council. “They’ve had a positive impact on families and children in Grays Ferry for many years.”
South Philly-based historian Celeste Morello nominated both properties to the register. She 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. 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 in a December interview with SPR. “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.”
The adjacent school building was not included in the nomination.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Carl Braschoss, did not return emails and calls requesting comment in time for the SPR’s deadline.
The Lower Moyamensing Civic Association criticized the Historical Commission’s decision to designate Epiphany in a statement to SPR. While the civic is pleased Epiphany was recognized for its historical significance, it wrote, it was “disappointed to hear that the church and the congregation had little to say in the process” and “that their concerns over added costs have been ignored.”
“Epiphany Church is stunning for its physical appearance but more so for its beauty as a lighthouse to neighbors and families for generations,” read the Lower Moyamensing Civic Association’s statement on the designation. “So how is it that a structure has more value than the people who use the structure? A church is really the people not a building. Along with this designation, we hope that the Philadelphia Historical Commission and those who nominated this beautiful structure will assist the church in finding resources and providing more flexibility in the building and upkeep requirements of the designation.”
In Morello’s December interview with SPR, she disagreed over the concern regarding financial hardship.
“When I was there a couple of months ago,” she said, “it was very well-maintained, better than most of the churches I have seen in the archdiocese in the city.”
Epiphany’s pastor, the Rev. James Casey, called the designation “a wonderful thing to be acknowledged as a historical property in the city of Philadelphia,” but added that “there are good parts and bad parts to it.”
“There is the financial aspect that we’re not as free to make repairs to the church as we would be otherwise,” he said. But on the other hand, “it protects anybody who’s a pastor of the parish against not keeping it beautiful, which it should be.”
Still, Casey called the nomination “generally a positive thing.”
“Celeste had our best intentions at heart,” he said. “It’s a proud moment for the parish.”