Old St. Mary's
Status: Active, Roman Catholic
248 S. 4th Street
Philadelphia, PA 1910
Original visit: June 21, 2008
Where Is It?
Society Hill! Specifically, 4th street between Walnut & Spruce.
Old St. Mary’s is one of a select grouping of Philadelphia churches that are often honored with the adjective “Old(e)” in front of their names — a grouping that also includes Old St. Joseph’s, Old St. Augustine and Old St. Michael.
You could suppose that it’s meant to pay tribute to the important role these churches played in the early history of the city. But, frankly, the Project just thinks it’s because they are exactly what their names imply: older than dirt.
“Old” is certainly the best word to describe St. Mary’s. Its 1763 founding date makes it waaaay more ancient than almost any other church around.
Given the age factor, it’s only natural to assume that St. Mary would have some form of Old vs. Older Churches at work. And you’d be correct.
The thing was built in 1763, so we’re not going to see a towering, gilded phenomenon. It shares a similar design with St. Augustine: brick exterior, extended balcony that horizontally cleaves the church in half, two sets of stained glass windows on each side. But where Augustine had the more traditional rectangular shape, St. Mary’s is shaped almost like a perfect square. It’s odd but not particularly distracting. Plus, you get some nice elbow room.
Mary’s really excels with its stained glass, which may be some of the best you’ll find in a building this old. (And certainly better than Augustine’s.) There are two sets, as I mentioned. The top set is mostly design-oriented, but the bottom set is done in a beautiful pictorial style that’s really quite stunning.
The same detail is put into the large window behind the altar, which really acts as the focus point of the sanctuary. Yes, stained-glass backdrops have become old hat to us, but this is probably the best we’ve seen.
St. Mary’s loses some points because the altar / sanctuary was renovated in the late 1970s, according to pastor Paul DiGirolamo. The result is a section that is unfortunately very modern — and, unfortunately, neither particularly nice nor particularly in tune with the rest of the décor.
Look for it: A really neat graveyard that’s accessible from behind the church
The stained-glass is great, although the questionable sanctuary keeps St. Mary from really excelling. I still think St. Augustine is the better church, but this one has a lot to offer.
How's It Doing?
Do you want the bad news or the good news first?
Bad? Alright, the attendance numbers are in the high 300s. Yikes. And with the church being right around the corner from Old St. Joseph's, the AD may very well decide that's a concentration that no longer makes sense.
But, the good news is that the numbers are higher than during our initial visit, when they were only in the 100s. Couple that with the stellar shape of the building and the immense historical assets, and you have a situation that's probably better than it appears.
How much better? I don't think this will ever be a robust parish again, but it still has a lot going for it.
You’re just south of Old City, so parking is haphazard at best. Unfortunately there’s no quick access to public transit, so driving may be your only option.
Society Hill is great area that shouldn’t give you any problems.
Their holy water fonts bear a striking resemblance to the ones at Our Lady of Lourdes, from the angelic design to their small, low stature.
I know people were smaller in the old days, but come on.
The Final Word
A little on the plainer side, like all Older churches, but worth seeing.