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St. Bonaventure

Status: Demolished, Former Roman Catholic

Founded: 1889
Construction: 1894
Closed: 1993
Demolished: 2013 

9th & Cambria Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19133

Original visit: November 9, 2008

 

Where Was It?

Hell, or at least the closest thing Philadelphia has to it: 9th & Cambria, in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia.

 

The Skinny

There's probably never been a less-surprising church demolition than St. Bonaventure.

This handsome Gothic edifice had the misfortune to reside within Fairhill's ruined industrial infrastructure. It was closed during the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction, circa Year of Hell, and aside from a brief second life as the New Life Evangelistic Church, endured a long, lengthy, tormented Long Goodbye. When The End came, finally, mercifully in 2013, it seemed like the inevitable conclusion to a decades-long tragedy.

Or perhaps "farce" would be more appropriate, because Bonaventure was a fine example of Philadelphia's church architecture. It was a striking structure, highlighted by a prominent steeple, oxidized-copper trim and siding, and funky flower-shaped clerestory windows. And inside, a lovingly ornamented columned, cruciform masterpiece.

 

One Project reader compared it to something that’s straight out of Europe. I think that’s a bit of a stretch, although there’s no denying this was once a great, great church. It’s a shame that a younger generation of church enthusiasts, myself included, never got the chance to see it in its prime.

 

What Happened?

The real question would be, what hasn’t happened? Fairhill’s story is, on the surface, not much different than other depressed parts of Philadelphia. Industrial neighborhood thrives. After WWII, industry moves away. Factories close. Property values plummet. Families move away. What’s left starts to rot. Play it again, Sam.  

Fairhill’s experience, though, has taken on a life of its own. There’s probably no other Philly area that can best it for sheer misery. It’s been routinely ranked among the worst drug areas in the city; three of its corners, especially 3rd & Indiana, are among the city’s top 10.

Around the corner from the church, Stella Street was entirely bulldozed in the 90s because of its prevalent drug houses. (As this Philadelphia Weekly article reminds us, it still hasn’t been rebuilt.) With the drugs comes the violence. And don’t forget about the usual assortment of poverty, abandonment, and institutional decay.

It’s really no surprise, then, that St. Bonaventure was a Swath victim. If it was in a more prominent location, it might have had Magnet Parish properties that saved it from destruction, but its shady back alley location doomed it.

The bigger surprise is how it even made it to the Year of Hell. The parish still had a passionate following, but the neighborhood just got so bad that no one ever wanted to go to mass there. I can’t say I blame them. The things this church has seen would probably make you %#^$&* your pants.

(The fact that the parish was consolidated into St. Veronica speaks volumes. When Hunting Park is considered a step up, you know you’re in trouble.)

The complex stood essentially vacant for most of two decades, and suffered all the damage that came with that — smashed windows, crumbling edges, scarred siding — and then some.

And yet, as those pictures show, it was still a building that wasn't beyond salavation. Damaged, yes, but in the right hands, it could have gotten true second chance.

That is, until a 2013 city ruling declared that the steeple was hazardous and the entire thing had to be taken down. No one in the neighborhood fought or spoke for it, and it was demolished without incident. A sad wheeze of an ending for a once-great anchor of a once-great neighborhood. 

Forget about it, Jake. It’s Fairhill

 

Travel Tidbits

Unless you want to see an empty lot, there's no longer any need to come here.

 

Interesting Note

Because of geography, Bonaventure's lower church doors were actually not on 9th Street, but behind the church on Hutchinson Street. Even stranger, that switch meant that the lower church main altar was flipped and placed at the 9th Street end of the church.

Meaning, for the first and only time, you had a church whose upper and lower church altars were at opposite ends of the building. Usually in Upper v. Lower Church, the two churches have parallel constructions and layouts. The two altars are almost always right on top of one another. 

The Project has never heard or seen of anything like this.

 

Image Gallery

 

The Final Word

Damn.