Status: Active, Roman Catholic
Belgrade Street & Allegheny Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19134
Original visit: March 23, 2008
Where Is It?
Belgrade Street and Allegheny Avenue, or thereabouts.
Easter Sunday! Where would the Project go on this, the holiest day of the Christian calendar?
Church Alley: You bet! What better place than Church Alley, my favorite churching grounds? This time, Nativity BVM.
The occasion isn’t without some sadness, however. Nativity BVM is the third and, gulp, final piece of the Church Alley puzzle. That’s right, we’re done here. No more visits.
I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but unfortunately, I was a slave to one of our oldest conundrums...
Upper v. Lower Church: I’ve never been kind to lower churches, and I’ve been even less kind to parishes that use them for everything. I’ve given Nativity several potshots for being one of those parishes. They are so staunchly lower church that you can count on one hand the number of times a year they hold an upper church mass.
Not surprisingly, Easter is one of them. And the ultra-rare opportunity to attend an upper church mass forced me to insert Nativity into the Easter slot, spelling a premature end for our times in Church Alley. Sad, yes, but it beats having to wait nine months for another opportunity.
And let me tell you — I’m very glad I did. Nativity is a really fantastic church. It’s mostly Baroque, inside and out, although the brown stone exterior is largely unassuming, aside from an interesting bulbous steeple, gold doors, and oxidized-copper trim and pediments.
It’s not bad, but I certainly didn’t expect the rather stunning surprise inside — a richly-decorated pink and white masterpiece, with gorgeous stained glass and some very nice mural work. I was so fooled by the exterior that I had no idea the interior would be this nice; certainly, the St. Athanasius Effect at work.
Special mention needs to go the sanctuary, which is truly stellar. It differs in that the central portion is shaped like a trapezoid, so the altar is framed by two outward-slanting walls, and the two side altars are set farther back. It’s really neat, dramatic effect, and one that sets Nativity apart from the other Baroque masterpieces we’ve seen, like St. Peter the Apostle and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Did You Know? This church was built entirely by the men of the parish. Yep, no outside help here. Now that’s dedication! (Oh, and they were pretty talented, too.)
How's It Doing
Here's where things get rough. Nativity's attendance has dropped like a rock in the past couple of years, and is now only in the 400s. Furthermore, they only use the upper church a handful of times a year, citing heating costs as the reason why everything is held in the lower church.
Perhaps most troubling, the parish has been twinned with neighboring Our Lady Help of Christians. That's right, it's a Dead Parish Walking.
Put all three together, and you have a parish with a very ominous-looking future.
Church Alley. Couldn’t be better.
That same parishioner told me an interesting story about a recent summer wedding: the bride paid to have the upper church air-conditioned. That’s right, she arranged for generators to be placed outside and piped into the building...at a cost of only $16,000.
I’m sorry, but no amount of AC comfort is worth $16,000.
The Final Word
A Nativity upper church mass is almost impossible to get, but make every attempt to do so. It’s well worth it.