What Was the Best Decade for Church Construction?

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We all know that when it comes to church architecture, in Philly — as in most other East Coast cities — the sweet spot encompasses the latter half of the 19th century and the pre-Great Depression era of the 20th century.

But a conversation on our Facebook page got me thinking. Which specific decade could be called the best?

The 1920s were lauded, and rightfully so, given that they gave us all-world gems Holy Child / Our Lady of Hope, Immaculate Conception, Transfiguration of Our Lord and Most Blessed Sacrament. But there are — or have been — a lot of all-world gems in this city. Do the Roaring 20s really reign supreme?

To find out, I took all 100 of our church visits (along with a few we haven’t seen) and sorted them by construction date. Yes, I have no life — but more on that another time.

And what did I find? The 20s have a lot of competition.

Let’s start with our most prolific decade, the 1890s, during which a staggering 20 churches were constructed. Here, we got a stunning string of hits: St. Laurentius, Nativity BVM, St. John the Baptist, St. Francis Xavier, St. Bonaventure, Our Lady of Mercy, Church of the Advocate and Our Lady Help of Christians, among others. Advocate alone is worth a whole lot of points, to say nothing of Bonaventure, Manayunk’s pride and joy, and 2/3 of Church Alley.

The 19-aughts? St. Columba / St. Martin de Porres, St. Francis de Sales, St. Edward the Confessor, St. Rita and St. Adalbert. Sweet baby Jesus. The first three are all iconic in their own rights, and the other two ain’t shabby, either. There are also some solid mid-carders like St. Monica, St. Gabriel and St. Veronica.

And lest the 1910s feel left out, they gave us Rittenhouse’s St. Patrick, Camden’s exceptional St. Joseph, Ascension of Our Lord and the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Whew. St. Joseph is world-class, and Bryn Athyn, despite its flaws, is a pretty remarkable achievement.

A few other thoughts:

The dark-horse decade? The 1870s, which birthed St. Bridget, St. Anne (amazing pre-fire version), St. Boniface, Shrine of the Miraculous Medal and Visitation BVM. I needn’t remind you how beloved Boniface was, and Visitation remains the funkiest Gothic adventure in the city.

Most surprising decade? The 1840s, definitely. To heck with Old vs. Older Churches; this decade gave us St. Peter the Apostle, Assumption BVM and Rittenhouse’s St. Mark.

So what is one to make of all of this?

Well, “best” is a subjective term even in the best of times, and everyone has their own favorites — yes, even the Project.

So how about we leave it open to debate and popular vote? Let us know what you think. There are no right or wrong answers.

(No *wrong* answers unless you try to claim, like, the 1990s or some ridiculous decade. In that case, please go find yourself another church architecture website to frequent.)

APPENDIX: The full chart appears below, in case you're interested. There were a handful I couldn't find reliable dates for, but they wouldn't have changed the outcome much anyway. Also, keep in mind these dates are what the best available resources tell me, so don't blame me if any are incorrect. (Though do, kindly, let me know.)

    St. Peter's Church

1761

    Old St. Mary's

1763

    Holy Trinity

1789

    St. Stephen

1823

    St. John the Evangelist

1832

    Old St. Joseph's

1839

    St. Philip Neri

1841

    St. James the Less

1846

    St. Michael

1847

    St. Peter the Apostle

1847

    St. Augustine

1848

    Assumption BVM

1849

    St. Mark Rittenhouse

1849

    St. Vincent de Paul

1851

    St. Malachy

1851

    Our Mother of Consolation

1855

    St. Clement

1858

    Church of the Holy Trinity

1859

    St. Timothy Roxborough

1862

    Annunciation BVM

1863

    Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

1864

    Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul

1864

    St. Paul Bella Vista

1865

    Our Mother of Sorrows

1867

    St. Bridget

1870

    St. Anne

1870

    St. Boniface

1872

    Shrine of the Miraculous Medal

1875

    Immaculate Conception Northern Liberties

1875

    St. Charles Borromeo

1876

    Sacred Heart of Jesus

1876

    Visitation BVM

1879

    Universal Church

1884

    Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament

1887

    St. Thomas of Villanova

1887

    St. Agatha - St. James

1887

    St. Thomas Aquinas

1889

    St. Laurentius

1890

    Nativity BVM

1890

    St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi

1891

    St. Stanislaus

1891

    Epiphany of Our Lord

1892

    St. John the Baptist

1894

    St. Francis Xavier

1894

    St. Bonaventure

1894

    All Saints

1895

    Our Lady of Lourdes

1895

    St. Martin-in-the-Fields

1895

    St. Dominic

1896

    First United Methodist Church of Germantown

1896

    Our Lady of Mercy

1896

    Our Mother of Good Counsel

1897

    Church of the Advocate

1897

    Our Lady Help of Christians

1898

    St. John Cantius

1898

    Holy Nativity

1898

    Holy Family

1898

    St. Philomena

1898

    St. Monica

1901

    St. Martin de Porres

1904

    St. Edward the Confessor

1906

    St. Francis de Sales

1907

    St. Rita

1907

    St. Patrick Norristown

1907

    Holy Cross

1907

    St. Mark Frankford

1907

    St. Adalbert

1908

    St. Matthias

1908

    St. Gabriel

1909

    St. Veronica

1909

    St. Patrick Rittenhouse

1910

    St. Joseph

1913

    Ascension of Our Lord

1914

    St. Nicholas of Tolentine

1916

    St. Elizabeth

1916

    Bryn Athyn Cathedral

1919

    St. Matthew

1919

    St. Donato

1921

    Our Lady of Mount Carmel

1922

    Our Lady of the Holy Souls

1922

    Holy Name of Jesus

1923

    St. Cyprian

1924

    St. Francis of Assisi

1924

    Most Blessed Sacrament

1924

    Immaculate Conception

1927

    Our Lady of Hope

1928

    Immaculate Conception BVM

1928

    Transfiguration of Our Lord

1928

    St. Paul Chestnut hill

1928

    Incarnation of Our Lord

1930

    Blessed Virgin Mary

1930

    St Martin of Tours

1949

    St. Timothy

1949

    Mother of Divine Grace

1949

    St. Mary Conshohocken

1950

    St. Helena

1950

    Ss. Cosmas and Damian

1952

    St. Athanasius

1953

    St. Bartholomew

1955

    St. William

1963

    Ukranian Catholic Cathedral

1966

    St. Andrew

?

    Most Precious Blood

?

    St. Edmond

?