Status: Active, Episcopal
4442 Frankford Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19124
Original visit: February 20, 2011
Where Is It?
The King's Highway, currently known as Frankford Avenue, in Frankford.
Take a ride on the El! That's right, we're once again traversing the gruesome underbelly of Philadelphia's elevated subway. This time it's St. Mark's Episcopal Church, in good 'ole Frankford.
St. Mark, much like Northern Liberties' Immaculate Conception, sits right smack on Frankford Avenue, so it literally fronts the El. Much like Immaculate you still hear every train rattling by, although St. Mark's larger size and sturdier construction means that the windows don't rattle. A good thing, because they're probably pretty precarious. More on that later.
What to say about St. Mark? Well, I like the place. If you can survive a somewhat bland exterior (aside from a really neat angel-flanked inscription on the front), you're treated to a great medieval interior. Gothic, columned and non-cruciform, it's stone through and through except for the ceiling, and it's kept nice and dark so it's a great throwback to the wrath-of-God era. Probably the dysentery era, too, but the less we say about that, the better.
Like most Protestant architecture it's not dripping with ornamentation, but it's got a great sanctuary, highlighted by a reredos altar reminiscent of Holy Cross, and the stone triumphal arch that separates it from the nave is quite nice.
Also, special mention should go to the windows, which are probably the best Protestant models we've seen. They should be, too — they were designed by D'Ascenzo Studios, which has a wide range of projects all over the place. In this area alone they're linked to Our Lady of Hope, Incarnation of Our Lord, Immaculate Conception and Church of the Gesu, among others.
Their work here is brilliant, colorful and three-dimensional. Plus, because there's a common designer, there's absolutely none of the synchronization issues that afflict so many Protestant buildings. The windows fit really well together and do wonders for the unity and cohesion of the decor. Top-notch stuff, fellas.
Fun Fact: The nave windows tell the story of the old testament, the clerestories the new testament, and the large window over the main entrance depicts the ancestry of Jesus. Very nice attention to detail.
It's not the biggest or the fanciest, but there's always something to be said for churches that can succeed on mood and style alone. St. Mark is certainly one, and you have to admire their moxie.
Oh, and lest I forget:
How the $#%@ do I get in here? The front is really the back, the back the front, and...oh, whatever, my head hurts. You can find your own damn way in. You're not new at this anymore.
How's It Doing?
If the state of the church is any indication, not well. The church's limestone interior is intimidating, and not because of the spooky mood — it's bleeding pretty profusely in a lot of places, most notably the left arcade wall, which is almost completely covered in water damage. That tells me that those stained glass windows need an overhaul, and that they might need to be removed lest the frames rot out completely.
Neither option is good for a struggling parish in a struggling area. There was actually a decent turnout — 30 or so, more than I expected — and they put on a good enough show of pomp and circumstance and so on.
So good, in fact, that I need to dust off the old Love-O-Meter:
No hugs and kisses, but there's a lot of movement and a lot of emphasis on shaking hands. As in, they don't like to take no for an answer. And for someone just getting over a serious infection, that means a lot of explaining.
Still, if they're going to claw their way back, that's how they need to do it. I'd like to think the parish has enough people, passion and resources to pull off some repairs. Their website alone shows that there's some spark here. It'll be a tough task to do in a place like this, but hey, Protestant churches do more with less than just about anybody, so who knows.
Frankford is one of Philly's more historic neighborhoods, but time and non-profits haven't been kind to it in recent history. Frankford Avenue is a hodgepodge of empty storefronts, low-rent shops and human jetsam. The residential sections usually fare little better, looking, much like its populace, tired and worn-out.
It's a pity, because this is a place with all of the ingredients to be really special again. Solid commercial design, impeccable transit access (they don't call it the Frankford Transportation Center for nothing), and some really good housing stock.
For now, though, it adds up to very little, and that means you should be careful. Fortunately, Sunday morning is a low-traffic time and St. Mark has a lot, so parking is pretty hassle-free. As one of the better-connected neighborhoods, Frankford's not too difficult to get to, either.
One parishioner was so intent on fulfilling the sign of peace with me, germs or no, that she compromised on a fist bump instead of a handshake.
Sign of peace fist bump?
That's a new one, but why not? I'll take it.
The Final Word