St. Gabriel

Status: Active, Roman Catholic

Founded: 1895
Construction: 1909

29th & Dickinson Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19146

Visit its website

Original visit: June 30, 2007

Where Is It?

Within spitting distance of the Schuylkill Expressway— 29th & Dickinson Streets.

The Skinny

It wouldn’t be out of line to say that St. Gabriel is one of the more unique churches we’ve seen. Why? I’m glad you asked. We’ve well documented that most churches share a very angular, rectangular design. Gabriel, however, scoffs at the Lord’s demand for pointy corners. This particular church stands out because it’s rounded at the front ends, creating a unique “enveloping” effect.

Even more interesting is that the front façade, usually the most prominent and beautiful aspect of a church’s exterior, isn’t the highest point of the church. It’s the first instance I’ve ever seen where the main body of the church is higher than the façade. It works better than you might think, but it’s still strange.

Inside, Gabriel scores a lot of points for its sizeable marble altar, beautiful paintwork and smart use of warm, earthy tones like yellow and gold. There are also about a half dozen miniature shrines off to each side of the church, each dedicated to a particular saint or religious figure. And don’t miss the fantastic stations of the cross, which are done as large-scale, full-color, fully detailed, three-dimensional carvings. They’re not to be missed!

Look for it: Interesting things come in threes, I guess. The church slopes slightly downward from entrance to altar. Again, the first time I’ve seen anything like it. It’s a cool, if somewhat disconcerting, effect.

It may look a little funky from the outside, but St. Gabriel is a great addition.

How's It Doing?

St. Gabriel is a very difficult parish to get a bead on, as its Grays Ferry neighborhood is a confusing mass of streets that seem to alternate randomly between respectable rowhomes and projects. One block looks rundown, the next looks nice; one block has a party, another is deserted; one is up, one is down. I could go on, but you get the point.

More concerning is the attendance, which has fallen into the low 200s. As good as the building looks — and after an extensive mid-1990s renovation, it should— that's not going to be enough support to keep the place afloat. 

Travel Tidbits

The Project has yet to encounter a church that’s easier to see yet more difficult to get to than St. Gabriel. It’s clearly visible from I-76, yet finding it requires traversing a bedeviling maze of traffic and contradictory one-way streets. Only local residents have any hope of finding this place easily. It got so bad that I cursed numerous times. Yes, on my way to church.

If you must go, don’t take 76. It's a tempting choice, but you’d be better off chewing tinfoil. Take I-95 and cut across Snyder or Passyunk avenues. It’s still bad, but it’s really the lesser of two evils.

As for safety, well, as I mentioned above, the area is confounding in its contradictions. That said, we parked adjacent to church property and had no problems.

Interesting Note

I nicknamed this church the “Pod People Parish,” because the various shrines along the side stick out from the church in a manner than resembles a grouping of, well, pods. Tough to tell from this photo, but look at an aerial view and you'll see what I mean.

Additional Resources

Mailbag 27: An Old Favorite / October 10, 2011

The Final Word

A weird, weird parish that’s exceedingly difficult to find, but really worth your time to do so. Recommended.