St. Agatha - St. James
Status: Active, Roman Catholic
Founded: 1976 (St. James 1850, St. Agatha 1865)
Original visit: December 23, 2012
Where Is It?
38th & Chestnut Streets, on Philadelphia’s campus — University City.
Get out your party favors, folks, because today’s a big day:
That’s right! This recap, right here, marks the 100th church we’ve covered in our nearly six years of existence. To be honest, I never thought I’d make it to 100 churches, but lo and behold, here we are, and what a long, strange journey it’s been.
To celebrate the occasion, we venture across the Schuylkill to tackle St. Agatha – St. James (St. AJ's), a church I’ve been saving for a special occasion.
St. AJ’s is one of those pesky consolidated parishes. This particular building originally housed the parish of St. James; it absorbed the neighboring parish of St. Agatha, at 38th & Spring Garden, way back in 1976. In one of the more unwieldy naming conventions we’ve seen, the newly consolidated parish was simply given a combined name. Good for keeping each parish’s respective legacy alive, but not much else. I’m glad this tactic wasn’t used very often.
Naming aside, I’m glad we kept this building, because it works really, really well. What you get is a columned, cruciform Gothic design highlighted by an ornate grey limestone exterior and twin flanking spires. Inside, a richly detailed red, white and blue (Patriotic much?) paint job that’s notable for its extreme brightness — helped along by plain clerestory windows, which let in a lot of natural light.
That brightness is interesting, because it’s a complete about-face from the church’s old décor — a much darker design that persisted up until just a few years ago, when everything was repainted. I’ve made no secret of my love of dark, Wrath-of-God-type designs, so I really wish I could have seen everything pre-renovation. That said, it’s hard to find much fault with the sunny feel here. “Light” is, after all, one of the requirements of Gothic.
Also of note, and highly unusual: the dome-like ceiling design where the transept meets the nave. Unusual because St. AJ’s doesn’t have a dome, and also because it’s not seen much in Gothic architecture.
LOOK FOR IT: The history room in the back left corner, with pictures and other materials from both parish’s pasts. One of my biggest complaints is that so many parishes don’t seem to understand or appreciate their legacies, so it’s refreshing to see one that does. Note to other parishes: Please, please do this.
DON'T LOOK FOR IT: The aforementioned twin flanking spires, as lovely as they are, aren't exactly original. It turns out that the original design featured the most ridiculously mismatched set since Sacred Heart of Jesus, as shown below:
Weird, huh? From what I can gather, that Northeast tower was removed around 1900, and the current one was built out to match around 1930 or so. I don't know why they weren't just built to match in the first place, but I'm not about to go dig up Edwin F. Durang to find out.
All told, it’s a lovely building — if, admittedly, not a particularly earth-shattering one. It doesn’t do much to distinguish itself architecturally among the city’s elite churches. And having seen a slew of columned, cruciform Gothic structures, you may get the feeling like you’ve been here before.
But even if it doesn’t truly reach the heavens, it’s still very deserving of your time and attention.
How's It Doing?
According to Pastor James McGuinn, St. AJ’s is one of only a handful of churches in existence that has three hospitals (Penn, Children’s Hospital and Penn Presbyterian) and three colleges (Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences) within its service boundaries.
That makes it a wholly unique church in terms of its ministries and its ecclesiastical leanings, if a slightly transient one. I happened to attend after the students had already gone home for the semester, and to say the place was a ghost town would be putting it mildly. The numbers back that up, too, with a low registered population but a generally high average attendance.
I suspect the uniqueness of its mission gives this parish a lot of leeway, and will keep it around for a long time. Or at least I hope so — if not for the architecture, for the much-needed social agenda.
Well, it’s smack in the middle of University City, so I’ll repeat my message for all Center City-area churches: don’t drive if you don’t have to. The church is fairly accessible via the El and other surface lines, as well as 30th Street and University City stations. If you do need to drive, there are some lots scattered around, so you won’t be completely out of luck.
Safety-wise, this is a weird area. You’re on the border of University City, so you’re oddly surrounded by both respectable and not-so-respectable environs. I wouldn’t worry about it, but do keep it in the back of your head.
Don't feel too bad for the Gothic St. Agatha in all of this. While closed, the church does live on. It was repurposed into an apartment complex called the Cloisters. It stands as a wholly creative way to reuse an old church structure, and one that I wish we’d see more often.
St. James the Greater Roman Catholic Church – the Mother Parish of West Philadelphia (1850-1950), courtesy Philadelphia Studies
The Final Word