St. John the Baptist
Status: Active, Roman Catholic
119 Rector Street
Philadelphia, PA 19127
Original visit: March 23, 2007
Subsequent visits: October 10, 2007; May 17, 2008; December 24, 2011
Where Is It?
119 Rector Street, perched precariously on one of those patented Manayunk hills.
Hoo boy. If you're looking for ornamentation, the Gothic St. John the Baptist is going to be hard to beat.
It doesn’t dominate on pure size, although it is rather large in its own right. Instead, it just goes to town on the décor. It’s as if the designer gave his kid Pixie Sticks and let him have free reign.
Now, yes, never mind the fact that Pixie Sticks didn’t exist in the late 1800s. But that’s really the best explanation, since St. John the Baptist has ornamentation on top of ornamentation. Brilliant (and big) stained glass, high-set statues overlooking the congregation, gilded pillars with intricate carvings, paintings above said pillars, with a variety of flags even above that, and just an incredible, amazing assortment of crazy, ridiculous and absolutely gorgeous stuff. There is not one plain or blank space in the whole church.
On some levels you’d think it’d be nauseating, as only a sugar-induced fever could provide, but it somehow works beautifully, and more often than not leaves you speechless.
Oh, and to just add to everything, it also features a graveyard surrounded by a high, impregnable stone wall. You know the kind of graveyard I’m talking about — the creepy, impossibly old kind, with huge, sometimes grotesque and elaborate tombstones. Add some darkness and fog, and it could be something out of a nightmare. Afternoon sunlight doesn’t hold the same effect, though.
Of course, no church is ever perfect, and St. John pulls a stunning Pimp My Church by having removed most of their altar rail. Tsk, Tsk. That small flaw aside, this is a most remarkable structure.
Look for it: Unlike most churches, St. John the Baptist still uses real intention candles. No push buttons here! It's delightfully old school.
How's It Doing?
Well, the good news is that Manayunk / Roxborough is a pretty solid area, bolstered by the post-college set and older yuppies brave enough to, err, brave their shenanigans.
The bad news is that the fraternity and sorority crowd aren't known as big church goers. And the building itself needs some substantial structural repairs.
St. John caught something of a break in 2012, when a rash of closings devastated the area's large concentration of churches. It, and neighboring Holy Family, are the last Roman Catholic churches standing in this vicinity. That's good news for the parish, as its size, architectural legacy, and prominence make it likely to outlast Holy Family, Magnet Parish-style.
That doesn't mean it will have an easy time of things, especially if renovations pile up, and Holy Family steps up its game.
You really can't miss this place. The church itself is highly visible, iconically overlooking the town and even the nearby Schuylkill Expressway.
As to actually getting there, Manayunk is known for two things: hills and bad parking, both of which are on display here. Neither is life-threatening, though, so don’t fret and cross your fingers for a parking space. The area itself is quite safe, unless you have some deep-seated phobias about frat boys.
Aside from some slight color differences, the gigantic stations of the cross are virtual carbon copies of the ones at Visitation BVM. Visitation itself has a good 15 years on St. John, so it's possible that Patrick Charles Keely, St. John's architect, found some inspiration over there on Lehigh Avenue.
Of course, given the painstaking, often lengthy process of filling out a church's ornamentation, it's tough to say who came first or who copied what. But the similiarities mean there was definitely a common designer, or at least a common muse.
The Bells of St. John the Baptist / September 10, 2010
Images taken 2007-2008. Click to enlarge!
The Final Word
There are a lot of terrific Gothic, cruciform churches in this city, but St. John is clearly one of Philly's best.