St. Martin de Porres
Status: Active, Roman Catholic
Formerly Known As: St. Columba
24th Street & Lehigh Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19132
Original visit: December 30, 2007
Subsequent visit: September 27, 2009 / August 2014 / February 2015
Where Is It?
Oh, you’ll love this one. Strawberry Mansion — specifically, 24th & Lehigh Avenue.
St. Martin de Porres is noteworthy because it is still a viable North Philadelphia Catholic parish. Like St. Veronica it survived the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction, but unlike Veronica, it didn’t do it completely intact. This church used to be St. Columba, but the Year of Hell finished it off, as well as neighbors St. Elizabeth and Most Precious Blood of Our Lord.
All three were then consolidated into Columba’s building as St. Martin de Porres. This parish also holds the spiritual records of neighboring Corpus Christi, which didn’t even make it to the Year of Hell. It closed in 1987 and seems to have been Caveat Emptor'd into the Evangelistic Gospel Crusade Ministries, although not before undergoing its own awful version of The Long Goodbye.
(You know, one of these days I should try to write a recap by simply stringing Church Project Theorems together. It would either be unimaginably brilliant or the worst review ever.)
Anyhow, the Project is overjoyed that the Archdiocese saw fit to keep this building operational, because it’s one of the best churches we’ve seen, and certainly among the top 10 still standing. This remarkable cruciform Gothic edifice was constructed as the ultimate ode to Irishness. Columba was an Irish saint, so not only does his statue grace the front (along with two other Irish saints, Brigid and Patrick), but Celtic crosses adorn both the center steeple and the rectory courtyard.
Inside, the Irish fest continues with a stunning brick and tile interior that’s outlined in gold and — wait for it — green, with a healthy dose of green ornamental trim throughout. We’ve seen a lot of churches, but few that use a predominantly green scheme. It’s a stunning design choice, and one that works really well, especially in contrast to the darker brick surrounding it.
Indeed, the tiling here is so unique, and so well done, that it instantly puts St. Martin in a class by itself. Add in the large, ornate windows; the curved altar rail; and a multi-armed main altar that is unlike anything else we've ever seen, and you have a building that sets the standard in a lot of ways.
This is a great space, inside and out.
How's It Doing?
It's no secret that the area once known as "Swampoodle" took more than its share of lumps in the back half of last century. Is there a neighborhood with more of a disconnect between name and reality than Strawberry Mansion? Probably not, which is both a tragedy and a travesty, because this is an area with the bones to be special again.
That day, sadly, is a ways off. While some of its borders have shown stirrings of gentrification, fed by Brewerytown, Temple, and other hot properties beyond, there is still a strong legacy of crime and urban blight. Just walk up to someone and say “Lehigh Avenue.”
Yep, that reaction won’t go away anytime soon.
Any parish, even post-consolidation, is going to have its work cut out for it in this area. That said, Martin de Porres seems to be doing as well as could be expected. The parish has a strong and committed following, their school is still working urban miracles, and the structures themselves are in good shape.
Their attendance numbers are pretty low, but there is a vibrant core here, and mass seems more like a family reunion than a simple service. We saw the two-handed handshake back in Immaculate Conception, but here it’s supplemented with hugs and kisses as everybody — and I do mean everybody — greets each during the lengthy sign of peace.
The downside is that the school needs constant fundraising to stay afloat, and the parish is offering only one Sunday mass.
Still, this being something of a Magnet Parish, I have a pretty strong feeling it will stick around, regardless of what the bean counters say. And that's good, because it's a lovely parish whose energy and determination would put most to shame.
Sure, Strawberry Mansion isn’t high on anyone’s list these days. But St. Martin's prominent location on Lehigh Avenue, a pretty major artery, should alleviate a lot of your concerns. Plus, Sunday mornings aren't generally high-crime times anyway.
That said, it’s still traditionally one of the Philly’s worst areas, and it still has a multitude of problems.
Be sure to park in sight of the building and don’t wander too far. Oh, and like St. Veronica, don’t even dream of trying to come here after the sun goes down.
St. Martin features some great worship music, thanks to a dedicated gospel choir. We’ve heard good music in other, places too — St. John the Evangelist comes to mind — but what sets St. Martin apart is that their musical instrumentation includes a drum kit. Yeah. A drummer and a drum kit. In church.
The Project has only ever seen a drum kit used during the student masses out at St. Thomas of Villanova. But never, ever in an “adult” church. It’s a pity, too. There’s really nothing that can’t be improved with a funky drum beat.
Most images taken on return trips in 2014 and 2015.
The Final Word
St. Martin de Porres is a great experience on all fronts. Highly recommended.