Status: Active, Roman Catholic
E. Lehigh Avenue and Memphis Street
Philadelphia, PA 19125
Original visit: May 4, 2008
Where Is It?
Somewhere in Kensington. Lehigh Ave. & Memphis Street, if that makes any difference.
Back to Kensington! Or is it? I don’t know. The Project is tired of nebulous borders and varying neighborhood designations. Pick a name, pick a boundary and stick to it!
This particular stretch of Lehigh, by Memphis Street, is often included under the auspices of Kensington. But, once again, ask 10 different people, get nine different answers. Some folks even call this area “St. Anne’s” — as in, the parish. Cute, but not particularly worthwhile to folks of the non-Catholic persuasion.
I’m in the church business, not the geography business, so I’ll just let the Philadelphia Planning Commission worry about this one.
As for the church, St. Anne is a mostly unspectacular entry, but that may actually be by design. The first church was built in 1846, during the era of the anti-Catholic Nativist riots, etc. Those were the same riots that burned both St. Michael and St. Augustine to the ground, and influenced the designers of the Cathedral Basilica to essentially omit stained glass windows.
(And, also, to incorporate walkways on the roof, in case the building needed to be defended. Or so I’ve heard.)
St. Anne’s built the current church in 1870, and it’s been suggested that it was built bigger and stronger — a so-called “fortress of faith” — in order to make it better suited to withstand any future assaults.
The story’s veracity is unknown, but the building’s design certainly lends credence to it. St. Anne is designed like a squat bunker, certainly a fortress in almost every sense of the word. There’s not much to distinguish it, although there is a pretty nifty little graveyard adjacent to it. There just aren’t enough of those around!
Inside, you fare little better. It’s mostly a flat-roofed, unadorned white plaster fiasco. It’s big, but not very ornate. And the stained glass windows, while huge, look to have been redone in the 1960s, since, like most design choices of the time, they’re mod, hip and hopelessly ugly. (Of course, if you’re building a fortress, it would probably help to not have huge rows of glass windows. They’re not known for being sturdy.)
The fault here lies with the old enemy of many churches: fire. A 1947 fire gutted St. Anne and necessitated an almost complete renovation. And by that time, they had little interest or financial ability to recreate the old decor.
Talk about Tabula Rasa. Witness this 1908 postcard....
...and the 1947 aftermath:
A shame, since the first image shows a church that was among the most ornate in the Archdiocese. Now, not so much.
The remaining draw here is the sanctuary, which somehow survived intact. It boasts perhaps the best set of altars we've seen: Italian-Renaissance forces of nature that make the surrounding mediocrity worth the price of admission.
How's It Doing?
St. Anne is a historic parish, but recent history hasn't been as kind to it. The attendance has dropped into the 300s, and it recently lost its parish school.
The mass I attended had a pretty strong turnout and the building is in good shape, so there's that. But I have to think that this is a parish on the bubble, especially given its proximity to both Church Alley and the healthier Visitation BVM a few blocks away.
St. Anne has the good fortune to be located on the one stretch of Lehigh Ave. that isn’t a complete disaster. In many ways it echoes neighboring Port Richmond — mostly white, working class folks. The area is by no means akin to the Main Line, but for once, the mere mention of Lehigh Avenue doesn’t carry quite as big a stigma.
That said, once you cross Aramingo and head a couple of blocks over to Kensington proper, things go downhill in a hurry. Port Richmonders also regard Aramingo as a border of sorts, and the same holds true here. Stay to the east and you shouldn’t worry. Head west and…well, Godspeed.
Of course, one of the priests was recently mugged on the steps of the church, so you never really know.
Upper v. Lower Church: St. Anne is a slacker when it comes to holding masses upstairs. In a unique twist, though, they only use the upper church in the winter, and move everything downstairs in the summer. It seems things get a little too hot upstairs, so they retreat to the comfort of lower church air-conditioning.
Too hot, too cold…man, upper churches just can’t catch a break.
The Ultimate Tabula Rasa? / 15 July 2009
The Final Word
The sanctuary is cool.