Our Mother of Sorrows
Status: Worship site, Roman Catholic
48th & Lancaster Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 1913
Original visit: October 5, 2008
Where Is It?
48th & Lancaster Avenues, in the Mill Creek section of West Philadelphia.
The Project returns to West Philadelphia! And we do so in grand fashion, tackling Mill Creek's Our Mother of Sorrows. I’ve had this church on my list forever, but I was continually hamstrung by their mass schedule. One service, Sunday morning, 9 a.m. For someone who lives nowhere near West Philadelphia, a 9 a.m. start time is like a swift kick in the groin.
So was the impressive-looking Our Mother of Sorrows worth the wait? To fully answer that, I’ll need a time machine. OMS, you see, is a small, beleaguered, long-suffering Dead Parish Walking (more on that later). As a result, we not only have some elements of Tabula Rasa going on, but also the dreaded Pimp My Church.
In theory, OMS is a columned, non-cruciform, Romanesque design highlighted by soaring circular arches and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. In practice, I can’t tell what the hell is actually going on. The design has been altered and re-altered so many times as to render this place an architectural quagmire.
Earlier in the 20th century this place was pretty nice, as evidenced by this vintage photo. Not the greatest quality or angle, but you get the point:
Now? Well, there are still traces of the original decor: the marble steps, the large and decent stained glass windows, and the impressive organ.
But those traces are drowned out by a persistently plain blue and white paint job that did away with the murals and the scriptwork. The altar rail and impressive altar itself have disappeared entirely.
And functionally, they installed a lot of new agey-crap: slanted pews (which I don’t even think are the original ones), ugly blue carpet, a large wooden altar table in the middle of the nave, an intrusive chandelier with weirdly circular bulbs, and an invasive handicap ramp on the left side.
(Not that handicapped people shouldn’t have access to churches. They should. Just not at the cost of the original décor.)
Not that it matters much here; whatever original design this place had lis long gone. It’s a shame, because it’s structurally well-designed. We even get a stained-glass skylight in the apse, which we haven’t seen since St. Peter the Apostle.
Paintwork aside, the rest of the changes are pointless and pretty much unforgiveable. It's really one of the worst cases of Pimp My Church I've ever seen, which is really saying something. And it's even doubly bad because the past and present meet in such a slapdash, muddled way.
You want to create something new? Fine. Put the effort into making a new, cohesive design.
That didn’t happen here. The old and new elements were thrown together, without any thought to how they work together. (They don’t.) And sometimes the new elements come completely at the expense of what's left of the old. For example, the new altar table means that the old sanctuary isn’t even used. And the newly slanted pews shamefully cover up the intricate tile work in the side aisles.
Of course, I understand the difficulties and financial hardships OMS has had. No one is more mindful of that than I. And I don't begrudge a parish for Tabula Rasa changes that happen because of that.
However, simply being poor is no excuse for taking a hatchet to your interior. There's no justification for that. Absolutely none.
Not that it matters now; the damage is done. And today, OMS is a long, long way from 1867.
How's It Doing?
Poorly, since as of January 2013 it was consolidated with neighboring St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Not necessarily a surprising development, since the parish hadn't been particularly prosperous for a long time. It’s been twinned with St. Ignatius of Loyola for the past 10 years or so, and its attendance numbers had fluctuated between 100 and 200 during that time frame.
Combine that with its less-than-prime location, decades of neglect, and a ton of physical wear and tear, and you had a pretty scuffling parish.
At the very least, the building will remain for a time as a worship site for St. Ignatius. Not that there's really much left to see, architecturally, but the people are pretty friendly and passionate:
This parish couldn’t have had a more apt name.
48th & Lancaster isn’t as bad as some areas we’ve seen. (It’s certainly got nothing on Camden.) It’s still very rundown, so proceed with your usual amounts of urban caution. That said, there’s plenty of parking in front of the church, so you shouldn’t have to walk anywhere.
Even better, OMS sits in front of a giant cemetery and faces a park, so you’re insulated somewhat from the surrounding neighborhood.
As far as getting there, it’s one of the easier trips. Early Sunday is a great time to travel, and I encountered no problems on my Expressway – City Ave. – Belmont Ave. route.
As mentioned briefly above, OMS sits in front of a gigantic cemetery — aptly titled Cathedral Cemetery. Not surprising, I guess, since a lot of older-than-dirt parishes have them. None are this big, however, or as ornamental. It’s like a poor man’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.
(If you’ve been there, you know that’s the highest compliment I can pay. And if you haven’t been there, why the hell not?)
A grumbling post-mass stomach kept the Project from doing too much exploring, but what I saw was really nice. Take that into account if you decide to visit.
The Final Word
There’s really no reason to go inside; the impressive exterior and cemetery are really all you need to see. Damn you, St. Cyprian Effect!