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Church of the Gesú

Status: Worship site, Roman Catholic

Founded: 1868
Construction: 1888
Closed: 1993 

18th & Stiles Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19121

Original visit: February 25, 2014

Subsequent visits: March 18, 2014 

Where Is It?

18th & Stiles Streets — or, depending on who you ask, 18th & Girard.

The Skinny

The North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction is one of our most enduring theorems for a reason. Few phenomena have had such a stark impact on Philadelphia’s church landscape. It was the ultimate hit job: quick, unexpected, brutally efficient. In the blink of an eye, an entire section of the city lost almost all of its churches. Virtually nothing made it out alive.

The story of Church of the Gesú, however, ends a little differently.

A stately red and white presence overlooking Girard Avenue, Gesú — like most of its neighbors — was closed during the Year of Hell, but had the enormous good fortune to be adopted by neighboring St. Joseph’s Prep, who turned it into their own school church. An unorthodox arrangement, surely, but a supremely beneficial one. The Prep’s foresight is our good fortune, keeping alive perhaps Philly’s best church.

Yes, you heard that right. You can quibble all you want, but honestly, out of all the Swath churches to save, this is probably the right one. While E.F. Durang designed a lot of buildings in this fair city, this right here is his masterwork.

The brainchild of its Jesuit founder, Burchard Villiger, S.J., Gesú was inspired by the Roman church of the same name, and was intended to be the epicenter of a religious community that encompassed not only the parish, but St. Joseph’s Prep, St. Joseph’s College / University and the Gesú School.

The resulting Baroque triumph is something I can best describe as Basilica-esque. As in, the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. And, heebie-jeebies aside, that’s a pretty good comparison for any church. Gesú more than lives up to it, successfully evoking the former’s expansive cruciform Baroque design. It even eschews stained glass in much the same way, opting instead for detailed side shrines.

(For the record, there are two pieces of detailed glass flanking the organ, as well as plainer models in the upper arcades.)

Sure, where Gesú lacks the excessive side arcades and expanded sanctuary, it bests the Basilica with four elevated upper arcades (two over the nave and two over the side sanctuary altars), as well as a peerless 72-foot high marble altar. The side altar arcades are especially puzzling, since they were never fully furnished and not even generally accessible, so it’s a mystery as to what use they were intended to serve. In any case, though, they drive home the notion that this was not a church that structurally cut corners in any way.

Also of note, there are two balconies in the rear, which we’ve only seen once before — in St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, of all places.

Look for it: There are two separate organs — one in the top choir loft, one down in the left transept — each with different piping and control systems.

Look for it, Part 2: The pews are set up in a box style (think St. Peter’s Church, only forward-facing), with actual doors that close. It’s a nice throwback to an era when parishioners had to literally buy their seats.

Bottom line, this is a remarkable place. And to me, it’s made even more remarkable because it was not built as a cathedral. It was never intended to be a basilica of anything. It was just another parish church. I give all the credit in the world to those ordinary parishes that just said, “You know what? !%@$ it. Let’s just built the biggest, baddest mother around.” Parishes like Gesú and St. Francis de Sales and Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Hope. Parishes that reached for the stars and actually succeeded.

Gesú succeeds and then some. The Project no longer ranks and grades churches the way it used to, but man, when it comes to Philly’s best, this building is at the top of a very short list.

How’s It Doing?

Believe it or not, both good and bad.

On some levels, adoption by a prestigious, prosperous preparatory school is the ideal outcome. The Prep’s ownership shields it from almost all of the troubles that affect most parishes. And they’ve done an ok job of stewardship, too, as, aside from some long-standing spots of damage and some vandalism (see below), the church is in pretty good shape.

That said, the current arrangement is not without its drawbacks. The church gets used for special events and such, but it’s not the type of regular work a building of this caliber deserves. Furthermore, it plays a role in an unfortunate upperclass tradition, where students sneak into the bell towers and mark their names in chalk — or, in some cases, more permanent forms like spray paint.

Perhaps more vexing is the fact that this church is essentially out of sight, out of mind. Because it operates at the Prep’s discretion and is no longer really open to the public, a whole generation of Philadelphians have kind of forgotten about this place. That’s a shame, because a treasure like this one deserves to be shared and enjoyed, not locked away for the pleasure of a select few.

There are no easy answers here. And don’t get me wrong, I would choose this sort of adoption model over the alternative any day of the week. It’s just a shame that there isn’t more public awareness around what may be the nicest church still standing in the city.

Travel Tidbits

Well, you can’t really visit unless you go to the Prep, make friends on the inside, or write the school a large check. So make sure you do at least one of the three. Or just be really charming, like me. :-)

At 18th & Girard, Gesú is at the fringe of the improving Fairmount / Francisville / Brewerytown neighborhoods. That means you’re better off than in a lot of areas, especially since the Prep does keep an eye on things, security-wise — but you should still assume your usual amounts of urban caution.

There is visitor parking, but there also looks to be street parking as well, which would probably work just fine if you don’t wander too far. For you public transit types, the 15 trolley runs up and down Girard, and you’re also only a few blocks from the Broad & Girard BSL stop. The Project took the latter, and it works much better than you might think.

Interesting Note

There's more than I can adequately cover here. Fortunately, the Prep's own guidebook (see below) does a fine job.

Additional Resources

The Villiger Society of St. Joseph's Prepatory School's Guide to the Church of the Gesu [PDF | 4.2 MB]. Copyright 2012, Leo Vaccaro and St. Joseph's Prep. 

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The Final Word

Oh yeah!