St. Stephen

Status: Active, Episcopal

Founded: 1823
Construction: 1823

19 S. 10th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19105

Visit its website

Original visit: August 2, 2009

Where Is It?

19 S. 10th Street, between Market and Chestnut, in Center City.

The Skinny

St. Stephen is an old, old parish. Founded in 1823, it’s purported to be the first Gothic church in Philadelphia, and the first to have stained glass windows. There’s a lot of history here, and, featuring work by Tiffany, Frank Furness and others, a lot of architectural value.

Maybe it used to, anyway. Not so much. Let’s break it down like this:

The Good: A nice sanctuary, highlighted by a cool stained-glass window / stone-frame reredos, and a neat tile rendering of the last supper. There’s also an assortment of cool little standalone decorations, such as the baptismal font in the back right-hand corner of the church and an ornate marble angle statue in one of the side alcoves.

The Weird: A cleaving balcony and flat roof, which you never see in Gothic architecture. Oh, and the church isn’t completely non-cruciform, since there’s a transept on the left-hand side. Huh?

The Just Plain Bad: Paging Dr. Pimp My Church. Whatever architectural value St. Stephen’s once had, its caretakers have gunked it up by embracing new-age nonsense. The pews have been removed, and a motley assortment of chairs, stands and tables now lay haphazardly around the nave. Oh, and there’s a reflecting pool, too. Pardon my language, but seriously, WTF?

The following two pictures give an idea of what the interior looked like once upon a time. The first is from 1860, the second from 1917.


I don’t have current interior shots (more on that below), but trust me, it looks little like this now. In fact, the 1860 shot showcases a completely different sanctuary than the one they currently have. Pimp My Church, indeed, and no doubt the worst case I've ever seen.

The Project hates new-age trends more than anything, and to see a piece of architectural history ruined by it, well, let’s just say it gets our blood a-boiling. Not that St. Stephen was necessarily the prettiest church in the world — the exterior is proof of that — but there’s great value in respecting what your forbearers built. Running a parish is like accepting a covenant to respect and protect what has been entrusted to you. Doing crap like this doesn’t do them, or you, for that matter, any credit.

Oh, and because of the redesign, the best part that still remains, the sanctuary, isn’t even used. Sigh.

Some neat stuff, but it doesn’t amount to much anymore. Thanks, guys.

How's It Doing?

Pitiful. At least it seems that way — only 10 people attended mass, and one of them was the cantor, who strangely sits among the audience, rather than up front leading. Curiouser and curiouser.

One parishioner told me that the crowd is usually larger. She didn’t specify exactly how much larger, but it would have to be significantly so to make think this parish is the epitome of health. Given that only fifty chairs are set up, I doubt that’s the case.

What the place lacks in power it makes up for in friendliness. Not Love-O-Meter worthy, but everyone walks around and makes sure to greet everyone else.

What isn’t commendable, though, is their attitude toward photography. The Project was admonished to not take pictures after the mass, as is our customary practice. It seems that St. Stephen some years ago instituted a policy of not allowing photography before or after services, since tourists would apparently intrude in the middle of mass and start snapping photos.

I see their point of view, but there are reasonable exceptions to be made. And at a time when you have less than a dozen people attending mass, you might want to be a little more welcoming toward visitors.

Regardless, it’s a rarity, since we’ve never, ever been rebuked for photography. Granted, they didn’t take my camera and step on it, but it’s still disconcerting, and it made all of their other attempts at friendship incredibly irksome. And telling me to make an appointment during the week? Get over yourselves.

Like most people I actually work during the week, so no, I won’t be making an appointment. You get a big black mark in the Project’s gradebook.

Travel Tidbits

It’s smack dab in the middle of town, and is only two blocks or so from Market East Station, so SEPTA is your best bet. Drive and park at your own peril. As for the neighborhood, Market East is a weird confluence of the cheap and crass, and the social services that call it home ensure that some derelicts will be wondering around. They’re pretty much harmless, but don’t be surprised if you spy a bunch of druggies talking to themselves.

Oh, and remember: if you want to take pictures, don’t. They’ll give you a slap on the wrist. Honestly, just look at the two pictures above. They’re better than what’s there now, anyway.

Interesting Note

St. Stephen’s is also home to the Lantern Theater Company, who perform in one of the parish’s adjacent buildings.

Back before the Project existed, I attended a rather unique and enjoyable variation of the “Night Before Christmas” there. I should have just stopped there and gone out on a high note. Ba-zing!

Image Gallery

The Final Word

The Project spits on your shoes.