St. James the Less

Status: Active, Episcopal

Founded: 1846
Construction: 1846

Clearfield Street & Hunting Park Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19132

Visit its website

Original visit: January 18, 2008

Where Is It?

Clearfield Street and Hunting Park Avenue, in the Allegheny West section of North Philadelphia.

The Skinny

Let's take a gander at St. James the Less, a very historic property with a messy legal history.

But more on that in a bit. St. James is a renowned piece of architecture, a sterling example of 19th-century American Gothic revival that’s based very closely on St. Michael’s church in Longstanton, England. That’s why it’s not only on the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s list, but also on the National Register of Historic Places. 

To be fair, St. James owes a good chunk of its appeal to the surrounding graveyard. The Project likes graveyards very much, and this one has the potential to be the right kind of creepy, from the brick driveway to the covered gate to the gothic tower to the crazy and ancient tombstones. In daylight, though, the effect is an incredibly peaceful, sun-dappled escape. It’s easy to forget that you’re standing in the middle of Allegheny West.

Look for it: The aforementioned gothic tower, which is the family tomb of one John Wanamaker.

Listen for it: The bells. Be warned that they have a tendency to go off when you least expect it, so keep them in mind or be prepared to jump out of your shoes.

Not the most impressive physical structures around, but this place has a fantastic vibe — so much so that the Project will be making return visits.

How's It Doing?

Maybe Jesus isn't the only one to successfully come back from the dead.

Politics and legal wrangling nearly put this place on ice for good. The parish apparently seceded from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania because of disagreements over doctrine, and the diocese turned around and sued them for control of property. Their argument: the parish broke their implied trust, and so despite the fact that the parish owned it for over 160 years, the Diocese deserved to be awarded control. Much courtroom drama ensued and, multiple appeals later, the PA Supreme Court sided with the Diocese and ousted the parish in 2006.

Oh, those crazy Protestants.

The church sat abandoned and shuttered for several years before being adopted in 2008 by Rittenhouse Square's St. Mark, who operates an elementary school at the site and opens up the church for one mass a week.

Travel Tidbits

Its address puts it at the corner of Clearfield and Hunting Park, but don’t bother trying to come down Hunting Park; Clearfield is one way, so you can’t turn onto it, and you’ll only end up going in circles.

The smart choice is to turn onto Clearfield from Ridge, which will bring you right to the front gates. You can try street parking, but if the gates are open, you can probably just pull in and park on the property.

The neighborhood is not the best, but you're practically within spitting distance of East Falls, so it's nothing you shouldn't be able to handle.

Interesting Note

Two things here:

During my original visit, while wandering around I was accosted by a UPS deliveryman, who was looking to deliver a package. After I explained that I was not the “new caretaker,” and that I had not seen anyone else, the deliveryman simply took his package and got back on the truck.

I guess this church’s status was so ambiguous that even mail services couldn't figure it out.

Also, this church, like St. Francis de Sales, rates its own Wikipedia page. You can find it here, as well as some interesting links that talk further about the parish and its fate.

Image Gallery

The Final Word

It’s something a little different, but Saint James the Less is a pretty cool experience nonetheless. Recommended.