Church of the Advocate
Status: Active, Episcopal
1801 W. Diamond Street
Philadelphia, PA 19121
Original visit: May 17, 2009
Where Is It?
Get ready — 18th & Diamond, in North Central Philadelphia. Yippee!
The Project dusts itself off and heads back into the fray—this time, to the tune of Philadelphia’s cringe-inducing North Central area. No more creampuffs like Bala Cynwyd and Chestnut Hill! Back to the gritty, cutting-edge reporting we built our name on.
The task at hand: North Central's Church of the Advocate.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. But more on that later. First, the church, which ranks as the most structurally impressive Protestant buildings in the city. And, perhaps, one of the most impressive overall. Church of the Advocate is a stunning columned, cruciform Gothic behemoth that looms large over Diamond Street.
Gothic designs are often a dime a dozen, but what sets Advocate apart is the opulence of said design. Inside, you get expansive, ribbed vaults and ornate stone carvings at the bases of those vaults. There’s even an actual arcade, which is an incredibly rare feature in these parts.
Outside, you get impressive ornamental stone trimmings, gargoyles and even, most remarkably, flying buttresses. You know, the kind of things you see routinely in Europe, like the Sainte-Chapelle in Riom, France. (Picture courtesy the internet.)
Said buttresses are a defining feature of Gothic architecture, but Philly’s churches haven’t been structurally demanding enough to require them. Advocate has the only set around, and the Project doesn’t have the words to convey how impressive that is.
Ornamentally, though, things aren’t as impressive. The building is in atrocious shape, so much of the natural beauty of the place is hidden behind layers of damage. They’ve even erected a type of mesh screen between the ceiling and the clerestory windows, perhaps to protect it while they make their improvement plans. Or perhaps, more gruesomely, to keep debris from hitting the parishioners.
Pimp My Church: Yuck. The more traditional arrangement of this church (see the 1900s postcard below) has been erased. Chairs are now arranged haphazardly around the nave, a makeshift altar placed between them. Most of the interior space is now seemingly devoted to miscellaneous storage.
Also, the Advocate serves as a sort of repository for a variety of African and African-American artwork, which now adorns all of the walls. It's a nice callback to the age-old ideal of a church serving as a cultural and artistic center, but it doesn't help that not all of the pieces go well with the decor.
(Also, some of them are freaky enough to give me nightmares.)
How the $#%@ do I get in here? Advocate does have a classic shape, and a prominent, Roman Catholic-like façade. But like its Protestant brethren, there are still a couple of entrances too many. The real one is off of Gratz Street; don’t be fooled by the others. (They don’t work anyway.)
How's It Doing?
Eh. It’s a national historic landmark, so it’s probably not going anywhere. But...
The church, as mentioned above, is in terrible disrepair. There’s a lot of water damage to the Indiana limestone interior; it’s so bad in places that some of the stone vaults have been completely stripped away. And then there’s that strange mesh screen.
Advocate is in the midst of a capital campaign for renovations, and they’ve accomplished some of their goals. But, as one parishioner told me before mass, raising money is difficult for them, and they still have a long way to go. Considering the condition of the church, that’s not at all surprising.
The other real problem is that attendance is shamefully low. There is only one Sunday mass — 10 a.m. — and the one I attended had a turnout of about 10-12 people. That’s nowhere near enough to build a healthy parish on, and even though Church of the Advocate has a lot of community involvement, it doesn’t seem like the community is holding up its end.
The low attendance seems to be a chronic problem, because they’ve taken to arranging the chairs in a bizarre circle in the middle of the nave, making for an informal and conversational service. And an awkward one, since I was left with no place to hide.
The Outsider's Edge: Naturally, I was noticed and accosted as soon as I walked in the place, and I even had to do the dreaded “introduce yourself” toward the end of mass. Yuck. The parishioners were friendly enough, and they even gave me a detailed pamphlet on the church’s architecture. Hooray! It’s a neat piece; I wish more churches made this information available.
Neither the church nor the parish seems to be in good health these days, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.
The Project had heard some chatter in recent years that Diamond Street was starting to gentrify. If you hear the same thing, don’t believe it. Sure, its proximity to Temple bodes well for the future (although Temple, unlike Penn, hasn’t yet managed to radically improve any of its surrounding territory), and you may even see some Temple students sprinkled here and there.
Don’t be fooled, though. Right here, right now, this is still one depressed area. Be smart, come in the morning, and don’t wander too far. Street parking is readily available next to the church, so you should have no reason to.
In 1974, Church of the Advocate was the site of the first ordinations of women priests in the Episcopal Church.
The Final Word
Not close to being the beauty it was once upon, but its inherent quality still shines through. A must-see for any enthusiast.