St. Francis Xavier
Status: Active, Roman Catholic
Also Known As: St. Frannie's, The Oratory
24th & Green Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Original visit: May 10, 2008
Where Is It?
Right on the Art Museum’s doorstep — 24th & Green Streets, in the Spring Garden section of North Philadelphia.
I'm still working diligently to find our what mystical powers this triangle has. But perhaps the real power is that all three St. Francis parishes are really, really good. There’s not a stinker in the bunch! Francis Xavier holds up its end of the bargain nicely, although, curiously, it manages in many ways to be both my favorite and least favorite church.
Confused? Read on.
First, the good stuff. Frannie’s boasts one of the prettiest exteriors of any church in the area. No lie. It has a stunning white and red color scheme, highlighted by a very prominent steeple. In terms of looks, this sucker has them. It’s easily one of the most picaresque churches we’ve seen. And if you don’t believe me, look at this shot, produced by a professional photographer. It seriously makes the Project weak in the knees.
It’s not like the Romanesque interior is a slouch, either. Inside we get a very lovely pink, white and yellow color scheme, highlighted by soaring barrel vaults and arches. There are also three — count ‘em! — three gorgeous rose windows, a beautiful altar and a nifty stained-glass altar backdrop. (Odd how we didn’t see any of those up until about a month ago, and now that’s all we see!)
So what’s the problem? Well, it's really one of design, not ornamentation. Frannie’s, you see, is asymmetrical. Facing front, the right side of the church is wider than the left side. During construction, instead of keeping the church separate from the other parish buildings, they instead extended the right side to connect with them. Thus, the right side of the nave and the right side of the transept are wider than their left-hand counterparts.
This asymmetry throws the whole design off, and gives it an odd vibe. It also throws off the ornamentation. Since the right side connects to a building, there are no stained glass windows there; instead, the stations of the cross are adjusted and moved to the center to compensate. It’s boring and not very attractive, and it also doesn’t sync up with the beautiful row of windows that adorn the left side.
Did You Know: This is actually Francis Xavier's second church building. The first was built in 1839 at 25th & Biddle, approximately where the art museum sits right now. In 1894, however, construction near the church damaged the foundation and led to repeated flooding. The church had to be demolished, and this one was constructed in its place.
How's It Doing?
This looks to be a parish on the downturn, with attendance dropping like a rock into the 300s. They still have a school, but how long can a struggling parish keep that up?
The building has some damage but otherwise should be structurally sound, and its prestigious locationright off the Parkway makes it a showcase parish of sorts. That hopefully buys it a lot of leeway, especially given the ministry that it offers to young adults through the Secular Oratory of St. Philip Neri.
Finding St. Francis Xavier isn’t as hard you might think. Sure, navigating Kelly Drive or the Parkway might seem intimidating, but it’s really fairly painless. The real trouble comes from finding a place to park.
As mentioned above, Spring Garden is a very good area, so you have nothing to fear.
I spoke to one of the priests, and he told me some interesting tidbits about the church. The major revelation is that the front of the church was actually destroyed by a fire in the early 1900s, but they managed to completely rebuild it.
There were also some other minor tidbits. Many parts of this church are actually not what they seem:
The Altar: Only the bottom part of the impressive altar is actually made of marble. The top part is wood that was painted to look like marble. (Could have fooled me!).
The Columns: Speaking of subterfuge, the columns are actually steel girders that have been dressed up to look like marble.
The Right Exterior: The right side of the building, the one that connects to the other buildings, was faced with red brick, instead of the white stone, to save money. No one can see it, so, hey, why not?
The Final Word
Despite its flaws it’s still very much worth seeing.