St. Mark

Status: Active, Episcopal

Founded: 1847
Constructed: 1849

1625 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Visit its website

Original visit: October 22, 2011

Where Is It?

1625 Locust, in swanky Rittenhouse.

The Skinny

St. Mark’s is one church I’ve gotten more than one letter about, and for good reason. It’s a pretty swell place inside and out, and is probably my favorite Protestant building thus far.

Outside, you’re treated to something of an urban oasis, as St. Mark is set a little bit back from the street, allowing enough room for some really nice, lush landscaping. No one will confuse it with, say, Morris Arboretum or Longwood Gardens, but I’m a sucker for great shrubberies, and it helps add a welcome contrast to the steel and concrete environs.

Inside, you get something else I’m a sucker for—WRATH OF GOD CONSTRUCTION!!!! BWAAHAHAHA!!!

Whoops, sorry about that.

As I was saying, St. Mark really plays it old school. Its fairly large, columned Gothic design features dark stone, dark stone and more dark stone, which really emphasizes the ancient, ethereal qualities that all good churches should have. Seriously, the only wood seems to be on the ceiling — and since it’s so dark you can’t even see it, it’s not even a problem.

The darkness is balanced out nicely by the windows, especially the large choir loft and sanctuary backdrop pieces. All are beautifully three-dimensional and sync up nicely, adding just the right amount of Gothic height and light to the shadows.

Add in an excellent split organ bank in the loft, stone and scriptwork in and around the sanctuary, and even stations of the cross (a Protestant rarity), and you’ve got a really nice place. I like it much more than its Rittenhouse neighbor, Holy Trinity, and it probably unseats St. Martin-in-the-Fields for the top spot on the list.

Fun fact: the architect of St. Mark, John Notman, also designed Holy Trinity and St. Clement. This building is clearly his best work.

How the $#%@ do I get in here? Yeah, not exempt. It’s not hard to figure out, though, and St. Mark does compensate by having its prominent spire serve as the entry point.

Look for it: the cloister, a hallway built around the original outside of the church, that connects the sacristy with the parish house. If you’re facing the sanctuary, exit left to see it. (Through the so-called “Musician’s Door.”)

If you want to timewarp to the Middle Ages, this is your place.

How's It Doing?

I think Father Sean Mullen, in the latest newsletter, puts it best:

And as far as parishes go, at Saint Mark’s if it is true of us individually it is also true collectively: relatively speaking we are a rich parish. We have an extravagantly beautiful church on a wonderful block in a beautiful neighborhood of the best part of town. We have treasures galore and money in the bank. We have a healthy congregation, first-rate music, vibrant ministries. We are rich!

So rich that they can engage in numerous ministries, open and largely subsidize a new school at the site of the formerSt. James the Less in Allegheny West, and seamlessly undertake a repair to their Lady Chapel and roof, the latter of which, according to one parishioner, is actually the original one! (Meticulously maintained over the years, of course.)

The building, aside from the Lady Chapel repairs and some minor water scarring, is in pretty pristine shape. And should any problems arise, this parish has the drive and resources to make quick work of them all.

If only more churches were this healthy.

Travel Tidbits

In the heart of Center City, so don’t think about driving unless you’re clinically insane or have a crippling fear of mass transit.

As for safety, well — it’s one of Philly’s priciest neighborhoods. You’re fine — except in the unlikely event you run across a flash mob. But that’s pretty unlikely. Probably.

Interesting Note

The church's rather rich ornamentation is actually a relatively recent addition. In their own words:

In the latter part of the 19th century what had been the rather plain interior of the church became more highly decorated as the ritual movement within the catholic branch of the Anglican Church began to exert more influence. Much of the embellishment that you see as you look around stems from the period between about 1890 and 1923.

Better late than never. And good thing they did it while church architects still understood the meaning of the word "ornamentation."

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The Final Word

A Protestant standout.