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St. Charles Borromeo

Status: Active, Roman Catholic

Founded: 1868
Construction: 1876

20th & Christian Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19146

Visit their website.

Original visit: February 24, 2008


Where Is It?

20th & Christian Streets, in Southwest Center City.


The Skinny

Let’s talk about St. Charles Borromeo, which continues South Philly’s tradition of good, but not quite great, parishes. St. Charles is nicer than some of the duds we’ve seen. The scheme here is mostly Italian Renaissance, as evidenced by the use of a flat roof, Corinthian-style pilasters, Doric-order cornice moldings and semi-circular arches along the windows.

Unfortunately, most of the plaster is unadorned, and the mural work is solid if unimpressive. It’s certainly not in the same league as Baroque kings Thomas Aquinas or Peter the Apostle.

But you know what? It’s still very pretty. There’s tremendous marble work in and around the sanctuary, particularly the main altar itself, which is one of the more impressive we’ve seen. The red, gold and white color scheme is also nifty. And it boasts a terrific organ that — wait for it — actually has its own lighting system.

Look for it: A cleaving balcony! We’ve only seen them a couple of times, most notably in St. Michael and St. Augustine.

It’s not the biggest or the most ornate, but sometimes there’s something charming about an unassuming, understated design. This is one of those times.


How's It Doing?

Well, after many years of having only a 9:30 a.m. Sunday mass  forcing me to wake up far too early and chip a large layer of ice off my car — the parish has added a 4:30 p.m. Saturday vigil. The registered population has also risen, and is, at last count, pushing 600. Both are very good signs.

That said, the average attendance has dropped like a stone and is now in the lower 100s. That's very, very bad. No matter how passionate you are, with turnout that low it's only a matter of time until the AD pulls the plug. 

Southwest Center City is a good and continually improving neighborhood, so hopefully the attendance counts are simply a temporary hiccup. They better be, or else this place is toast.

The Fat Girl Principle: The congregation is mostly Black, although the church’s proximity to Center City adds a little more diversity. While leaving the church during our original visit, the Project was accosted by the very nice pastor, Father Joe Watson, who asked if we had met.

Come on, Father. The Project leaves an indelible mark on all who cross its path. I think you’d remember!


Travel Tidbits

This trip was much easier than my excursion to nearby Gray’s Ferry, even if the church isn’t quite as wacky. I continually shudder at the thought of driving to South Philly, but it is what it is.

Southwest Center City has seen rapid and pretty widespread improvement in recent years, and while there still seems to be some pockets of concern (mainly on a block-by-block basis), you shouldn't have too much to worry about.

There, my work is done. Time for margarita.


Interesting Note

St. Charles is notable for having its children’s choir handle the vocal duties, something they apparently do quite often. Father Joe even mentioned that they are definitely improving.

If that’s the case, I would have hated to hear them before. They’re cute enough, and I give them credit for trying, but...some of these children have no future in the musical business.


Image Gallery


The Final Word

All in all, a pretty nice church.