St. Peter the Apostle
Status: Active, Roman Catholic
5th Street & Girard Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Original visit: January 6, 2008
Where Is It?
5th & Girard, in Northern Liberties.
This week the Project stays in North Philadelphia. No, we’re not trying to get a second straight week of love. We’re actually here because we have a golden opportunity to visit one of Philadelphia's oldest and most historic churches, St. Peter the Apostle.
But Project, you ask, why this week?
I’m glad you asked. It’s time to cue up one of our old favorites:
Upper v. Lower Church: I’ve actually had St. Peter on my list for some time, but I was bedeviled by their practice of holding most masses in the lower church. The only thing the Project hates more than lower churches are parishes that use them for everything.
After a couple of disastrous early occurrences, I swore off attending lower church masses, no matter the cost. I refuse to be a party to any parish that dooms its congregations (and visitors, wink wink) to eternal basement church drudgery.
It’s not as if St. Peter doesn’t have a reason, besides the usual, “we’re poor, blah blah blah.” Their explanation is far more saintly. St. Peter, you see, is also home to the shrine of Philadelphia’s own St. John Neumann. The good saint is literally entombed in the lower church shrine, so the parish just feels content to hold the majority of their masses down there.
It’s not a bad argument. After all, why not use a dead saint as your altar? The problem is that he’s in the lower church. The Project doesn’t care if Jesus himself is buried downstairs — HOLD MASS UPSTAIRS!
Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this. As it so happens, this parish had a moment of clarity when they announced that on January 6, in celebration of Neumann’s feast day, they would hold mass upstairs.
It’s a good thing, too, because this is one fine church. It’s heavily ornamented, Baroque-style, with grey, red and gold trim, beautiful mural work, a ceramic-painted organ, a stained glass skylight in the apse, a hand-carved wood pulpit and an incredible marble altar that, while not as intricate as others we’ve seen, is nonetheless magnificent, and has a sense of grandeur that most others lack. The exterior is also quite nice, imposing gray granite and black trim with an impressive, centrally-placed steeple.
St. Peter loses points for having some of the ugliest stained glass windows the Project has seen yet. Also, despite a pretty good size, it holds a surprisingly small number of people.
This church still has a lot going for it, and the design and ornamentation really reminds me of the now-defunct Most Blessed Sacrament. Of course, MBS was larger and had amazing stained glass, so they win that battle. Even so, it’s hard to find things to dislike here.
Memo to St. Peter: Hold mass upstairs more often.
How's It Doing?
Pretty well. As I've noted before, St. Peter’s status as the shrine of St. John Neumann probably helped to save it from the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction. I still think that’s true.
But I also think the resurrection of Fishtown and Northern Liberties has helped the parish hold up its end of the bargain. Its attendance numbers ae in the 900-1,000 range, which is really good for an urban parish these days.
Even more impressively, the mass I attended was diverse, populated by every conceivable ethnicity, all worshipping together. If the Archdiocese is looking for a true representation of the “universal church,” look no further. I haven't seen the likes of it before.
Speaking of things the Project hasn’t seen: standing-room only. That’s right. The feast day mass was packed and then some, leaving me and many others to stand along the sides and in the back. We’ve seen crowded masses, but incredibly, none that were standing-room only.
(Also incredibly, no one offered to give me their seat. Don’t they know who they’re dealing with?)
It's a special occasion, so that attendance probably isn’t normal. Even so, this looks to be a parish that’s on the up and up.
One more thing — props to the Archdiocesan boys choir and their orchestral accompaniment, who created a powerful, moving, classically-infused treat for the ears. We just keep getting spoiled with our music.
Northern Liberties is easy to find, and the church’s central location makes it even easier to pinpoint. Parking is a bit haphazard, especially during busy times of day, so be ready to circle a couple of times if need be.
As noted before, despite bordering rougher West Poplar and southern Kensington, this area is pretty good.
As I mentioned above, the church has a gray stone and black trim façade. The interesting thing is that it was originally constructed using red brick and, in the late 19th century, was refaced with the granite we see today.
Also, the shrine, like the one to St. Rita, is thoroughly modern. Older pictures found in the side areas show that it once was done in a much older, more classic style.
The Final Word
Not the true home run I was expecting, but this is still quite nice. Highly recommended.