Ascension of Our Lord
Status: Closed, Former Roman Catholic
F & Westmoreland Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19134
Original visit: April 26, 2008
Subsequent visits: July 14, 2011
Where Is It?
F & Westmoreland Streets, in the Harrowgate / Kensington section of North Philadelphia.
Welcome to the poster child for dilapidated churches.
I once held beleaguered Our Lady of Hope to be the epitome of parish suffering. Their glorious building is beset by damage that is, after all, the worst we’ve seen.
That is, until I saw this place.
Ascension of Our Lord's problem dwarfed any other building I've ever seen — or will probably ever see. The first time I visited here, I couldn't even get inside the place. Then-pastor Michael Chapmann described the upper church as "a disaster," and it was said to be totally off-limits, even to visitors.
When the venerable Fat Girl Principle fails, you know it's bad.
Fortunately, the Project has made some friends along the way, and a few years later I was able to secure a look inside.
Hoo boy. Where to begin?
In short, you would never have known you were inside what was, at the time, technically an active parish. The building itself seemed to be falling apart at the seams. The main sections were sloppy, with glaring paint damage, plaster flakes covering most surfaces, missing pews (presumably carried over to the rectory for services there), and a general sense of abandon.
The auxiliary spaces were where the real fun began. They were so derelict as to almost defy imagination. They were impossibly dirty, littered with debris, and featuring shaky supports and floors that had even rotted away in places.
It's a shame, because by design this place was gorgeous, with an expansive interior, stunning sanctuary fixtures, and masterful Paula Himmelsbach Balano windows. And outside, you had a notable red-tile roof, Greco-Roman-style colonnade, and elaborate stone banisters and staircases. Some of those design elements, particularly the banisters, are not seen anywhere else in the city.
Unfortunately, it was a long hard fall to the bottom.
The tragic thing about the death of a church is the slow nature of it. No parish goes under overnight.
Instead, it's death by a thousand paper cuts. The changing of the modern world took Ascension one day, one pound of flesh at a time. The neighborhood changed. The numbers declined. A botched roof repair left them open to slowly spreading damage.
From there, it's a surprisingly short jaunt to deficit and decay, collapse, and condemnation. At the end, the parish quite literally found themselves without a roof over their heads. This is probably the easiest decision the Archdiocese has ever made, since no one in their right mind would sink the necessary $14 million dollars into this place.
The building will inevitably be demolished outright, and, depending on when you read this, it may be already. And when it goes, a big piece of Kensington's soul will go along with it.
If you want to come see its rotting corpse before The End, I have just one question: Do you feel lucky?
F & Westmoreland is sketchy, there’s no doubt about it. And the fact that it’s not a major intersection means that it’s more uncomfortable than most would probably care for. In terms of location, it’s more St. Veronica than St. Martin de Porres.
At least I wasn’t the victim of native surveillance, as I was with St. Veronica. The area is a little interesting, but the locals seemed more concerned with their own business than with me. It’s still not entirely comfortable, and the abandoned church will give it an even creepier vibe, but you shouldn’t worry too much.
Of course, be smart, be safe, and confine your visits to daylight hours.
My initial visit set the new record for the shortest mass: 26 minutes. It bests, by two scant minutes, the previous record-holder, All Saints. I guess when you're crammed into a rectory chapel, you have no reason to dally.
Interior images taken July 2011. Click to enlarge!
The Final Word
An abject lesson in the costs of our own short-sightedness.