Status: Closed, Former Catholic
Diamond & Hancock Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19122
Original visit: December 21, 2007
Where Was It?
Diamond & Hancock Streets, in Norris Square / West Kensington.
I've realized that, in the interest of presenting you the best in Philly's religious architecture, I shouldn’t only limit my excursions to open, active churches.
After all, as we’ve seen, churches close all the time. Why should a closed church be any less worthy? Sometimes they’re more worthy. The Philly landscape is dotted with abandoned churches that, in many ways, were more inherently beautiful than any we’ve seen so far.
Of course, judging them is going to be difficult, since they’re often horrible shells of their former selves. Luckily, the Project enjoys a good challenge.
In the case of St. Boniface, I present to you a church that was empty when I was first saw it and was later knocked off the face of the planet. But first things first:
Church Project Theorem #19: The Long Goodbye
The far nastier flip side to Caveat Emptor, this theorem references any church that does not change hands and does not find itself at the business end of a bulldozer. The Long Goodbye is just that — a church that sits idle, slowly rotting away until the end of time. Or until it finally caves in on itself. Either way, it’s a terrible, undignified reward for years of noble service.
And unlike Caveat Emptor, which is the ultimate representation of urban renewal, The Long Goodbye is quite the opposite: a visible, prominent example of blight that mars a landscape and signals to all who see it that its particular area has seen much better days.
It’s quite a shame, really. Boniface was a pretty fine church specimen, albeit one that’s incredibly creepy. There’s a reason I once termed it the Church of My Nightmares.
The Gothic brownstone construction and jagged ornamentation really gave it a dark vibe, perfectly suitable for the days when the Roman Catholic Church really put the fear of God into you. (That Hollywood never used it for a horror movie is a missed opportunity.) It was also a pretty good size, although the loss of its steeple made it seem a little squat.
Once upon a time, this was a lovely place. Witness:
The image comes from a 1950s- or 1960s-era parish postcard. Age and digital translation haven't been kind to it, but it's good enough to get the point across.
It was timeless, and we let it slip away. Shameful.
The reasons for The Long Goodbye can be varied, but it usually comes about because a building or property is unsellable. This might be because the area is so bad that no one, not even fringe groups, will touch it. But it’s more likely because the buildings are in such poor shape that the cost of buying and restoring them is prohibitive.
That’s certainly the case with Boniface. I’ve referenced this church a couple of times, most notably during our visit to Our Lady of Hope, as the poster child for the necessity of church upkeep — and the dangers of ignoring it.
Boniface is noteworthy as being, thus far, the last victim of the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction. It closed in 2006, lasting much longer than many of its contemporaries, most of which closed in 1993.
But its longevity came at a price, as the church found itself literally crumbling from the inside out. Its numbers weren’t bad, especially since its West Kensington location, within spitting distance of Temple University, isn’t particularly great.
But the declining attendance meant the church fell behind on its upkeep, and things starting going south. There are accounts of how, in its last days, the church erected scaffolding to keep pieces of the building from falling off and hitting people, and how the stained glass windows were removed and replaced with Plexiglas at least a year before the official closing because the lead filling had gotten so bad that they started falling apart.
The Archdiocese, in its official letter, pinpointed the blame on the fact that the church is made of brownstone, which only “has a serviceable life of 100 years.”
The Basilica is made of brownstone, and you don’t see that going anywhere. It likely has more to do with the fact that repairs carried a $7 million dollar price tag, and the Archdiocese had no interest in sinking that much money into a flailing parish in the middle of West Kensington. I can’t say I really blame them, although they certainly should have stepped in long before it got to that point.
Had Boniface been in better shape, it might still be open, since there was still life left. They just found themselves literally without a roof over their head.
And as of spring 2012, the roof that was left was demolished by the Norris Square Civic Association (NSCA), in favor of new development.
There's only one way to do this:
Church Project Theorem #20: The End
The End refers to the whole destruction of a church and its parochial property, usually after suffering through The Closer and The Long Goodbye, and being so unappealing that it can't be Caveat Emptor'd into something else.
The Long Goodbye is criminal in and of itself, so anything that ends it has to be good, right? Well, not really. It's sad to see a church rotting before your eyes, but the fact that it's still standing means there's still hope that it will eventually find new life, that it will be renovated and repurposed into something useful.
The End, though, destroys those hopes with a cruel finality. While it's bad to see an empty church crumbling, it's somehow even worse to see a property and never know that it even existed.
Nice work, NSCA.
Probably not relevant, since there's little reason to come here anymore. Unless the rest of the campus buildings are of that much interest. In case they are:
The complex is not hard to find, as it’s about 10 or so blocks behind Temple’s main campus. Of course, that means it’s not an altogether carefree trip, despite your proximity to much nicer Fishtown. The area is a little sketchy. The Project didn’t encounter any real problems during a brief visit, but there definitely is an uncomfortable vibe, even during the middle of the day.
If possible, don’t go alone, and most certainly don’t go after dark.
The rest of the campus buildings will survive as part of the new development complex, but really, that's not worth getting excited over.
The Final Word
I need a drink.