St. Monica

Status: Active, Roman Catholic

Founded: 1895
Construction: 1901

17th & Ritner Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19145

Visit its website

Original visit: June 10, 2007
Subsequent visits: June 2014 

Where Is It?

17th & Ritner Streets, in New Italy — known to some as South Philadelphia.

The Skinny

South Philadelphia! Grab your canoli and take a look at one of Philly's hidden treasures, St. Monica.

Outside, it maintains a beautiful stone façade flanked by two towers, the right one holding a clock face. Inside it goes for a cruciform Italian-Renaissance design, complete with an intricate altar and ceiling murals.

I also have to give bonus points for the organ, which has its pipes split into three sections: two traditional, lengthy vertical style sections connected by a crazy, geometric, artsy-shaped section in the middle. And unlike a lot of parishes, they actually use it. With all of the attention paid to the physical details of a church, it’s nice to see one that remembers to put the same effort into the sound. Go ahead, rattle those windows!

What's even more impressive is that this decor is not original. The church was gutted by a fire on January 8, 1971 — but in a rare bit of chutzpah, the parish rebuilt the place as close to the original design and ornamentation as possible.

Admittedly, it's not perfect, since there are modern touches all over the place. But still, it's damn impressive. Lots of parishes suffer from fires, and virtually none of them ever recover. St. Monica did. Take that, Tabula Rasa!

How's It Doing?

South Philly is almost uniformly portrayed as a hard-working, Italian haven. In this case the stereotype holds true, as St. Monica is a very Italian parish. I know this because the priest spoke at great length in his sermon about the finer points of “gravy vs. sauce.” Not to mention that every pew has a plaque naming a different benefactor, and almost every single name is Italian.

So yes, it’s an Italian parish. It’s also a parish that boasts incredibly strong support. They offer a ton of masses, and the church is in absolutely pristine shape. And with the July 1, 2014 absorption of neighboring St. Edmond, it looks like they're going to be here a while. 

Travel Tidbits

It’s in South Philly, so be prepared for a barrage of one-way streets, tiny avenues and difficult parking. If you can stomach that, it seems to be in a respectable-enough area. Given the clientele and the shape of the church, you should have no worries.

Interesting Note

Understandably, most of the stained glass windows are of the more modern variety, although a beautiful section of an original window survives on the righthand side of the sanctuary. And while that later-model stained glass may not be particularly impressive, the transcept windows are actually pictoral histories of the parish, fire included. How cool is that?

Additional Resources

Mailbag 8 / September 9, 2009

Mailbag 26: King of the Kooks / July 19, 2011

The Final Word

St. Monica is a worthy addition to the Project. Recommended.