Status: Active, Roman Catholic
714 Dekalb Street
Norristown, PA 19401
Original visit: November 23, 2008
Where Is It?
Dekalb Pike, in scenic Norristown.
The Project leaves the scraggly confines of Philadelphia for the...equally scraggly confines of Norristown.
We can discuss this area’s more, ahem, colorful aspects in a bit. The important thing is that, as an old historic area, it’s home to some old, historic architecture, churches included. One such church is the Roman Catholic parish of St. Patrick.
It’s worth noting that this St. Patrick, unlike Rittenhouse Square’s excellent though oddly designed version, tries much hard to embrace its namesake’s Irish roots.
To that end, we get a pretty handsome cruciform Baroque building that’s decorated with green and gold molding and green marble-like pilasters. We also get some huge, gorgeous pictorial stained-glass windows. It’s a bright, airy design that shrewdly combines old-school greatness without the overly dark, wrath-of-God type stuff.
St. Patrick, however, has a number of detracting elements: ugly green wall-to-wall carpet, no real altar back piece, and somewhat underwhelming paint and mural work (especially in the boring apse). They even removed the altar rail, which brings up unpleasant memories of Pimp My Churches past.
It also doesn’t help that St. Patrick, as a rare cruciform Baroque, feels strikingly similar to Camden’s astonishing St. Joseph. That’s not a kind comparison, and only serves to highlight the areas where Patrick falls short.
Minor quibbles aside, St. Patrick is a formidable church in its own right. It has great size and decent ornamentation, and is most certainly head and shoulders above any other suburban church we’ve seen.
How's It Doing?
Norristown is an odd area. As an old industrial town, it shares a lot in common with places like Manayunk and Conshohocken: convenient location, walkability, access to public transit, and so on.
That’s where the similarities end, because where Manayunk and Conshohocken reinvented themselves as potent social and economic forces, Norristown has kind of fallen flat on its face. Montgomery County has never treated its county seat particularly well, and the result is a place that more resembles the inner city than the shining suburban beacon it should be.
That's not to say the town is a complete dive, as there are decent qualities to it. Things just haven't come together for them in a way that would put them in elite company. Norristown’s reputation is generally more negative than positive, and it’s an area that’s known more for trouble spots and a grungy, rough-around-the-edges feel than anything else.
(It didn’t help that nearby King of Prussia opened the largest mall on the east coast, pretty much driving a stake through the heart of Norristown’s central business districts.)
All in all, then, it’s a mixed area. Some good, some bad. St. Patrick has made it work, though. They offer 5 masses: half in Spanish, half in English, and their average attendance is a healthy 1,100-plus. Their building is also in decent shape, although a good deal of the molding could use an overhaul.
Some of Norristown’s reputation is earned, but some of it is just sheer stupidity and misinformation. For example, someone I used to work with — a Norristown resident — once tried to convince me that the rough parts of Norristown were worse than North Philadelphia.
Yeah, I laughed in his face too. If anyone tries to tell you something similar, take it from me: I’ve seen North Philly, and this ain’t North Philly.
Still, there are undoubtedly some depressed sections. St. Patrick doesn’t seem to be in one of them, although it can be tough to tell. Norristown doesn’t always look like a million bucks, even when it should.
That said, it really doesn’t matter. St. Patrick has a sizeable lot, so you won’t need to worry about the surrounding area. The church, right off Dekalb pike, is easily accessible from any number of major routes.
The apse bears the following painted inscription:
“Hic Domus Dei Est Et Porta Coeli”
Sound familiar? The text is a little different, but the meaning — “This is the house of God and the Gate of Heaven” — is the same.
The Final Word
Worth the time.