Status: Active, Roman Catholic
B Street & Lehigh Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19125
Original visit: July 13, 2008
Subsequent visit: July 2014
Where Is It?
The greatest spot in Philly — B Street & Lehigh Avenue, in West Kensington.
Ok, perhaps I’m being somewhat facetious. But there’s no denying that poorer areas have accounted for our best churching experiences. Where would the Project be without Immaculate Conception, St. Martin de Porres, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Francis de Sales, Incarnation of Our Lord...I could go on, but you get the idea.
The Outsider's Edge is often a sign of desperation, yes, but also of warmth, passion, and fun.To that end, I present to you West Kensington’s Visitation BVM.
Visitation is an odd parish because it services some of the worst areas of North Philadelphia, including West Kensington, Fairhill and Hartranft. Yet, the church, situated right near the intersection of Lehigh & Kensington Avenues, is literally within spitting distance of the more respectable Port Richmond. Hell, St. Anne is barely two minutes from this church, and yet it might as well be on the other side of the planet.
Given that, it may be surprising that this church looks as good as it does. Visitation is a fantastic piece of old-school church architecture. It’s an ancient Gothic behemoth, notable for its brownstone construction, oddly cream-colored contrasts, and super-funky oxidized copper spires.
Inside, we get a stellar cruciform design that's reminiscent of St. John the Baptist, right down to the ribbed vaults, but Visitation opts for a cool blue-and-white color palette. It's a rarely-seen color scheme that works very well. (And the fact that they're Mary's colors makes it all the more appropriate.)
It also features huge marble stations of the cross, a grand organ, fine mural work in the apse, and expansive altars that are among the nicest you'll see.
Upper v. Lower Church: Visitation does use their upper church, thankfully, but because the Hispanic population is the most vibrant, the only masses they regularly hold up there are, you guessed it, in Spanish. So, if you want to visit you might want to start brushing up on your Telemundo.
Look for it: Lower church doors in the front of the church, a rare feature. Only St. Martin of Tours, the defunct Immaculate Conception and the defunct Transfiguration of Our Lord have the same design.
Look for it, Part 2: The stained glass windows in the nave open at both the bottom and the top. Bottom openings are common, but I’ve never, ever seen windows that have them at the top, too.
Media Matters: Did you see the 2006 movie "Rocky Balboa?" The film is of questionable value, but the Project likes it because Visitation makes a cameo appearance. There's a scene where Rocky and a friend are having a conversation outside, and the church is prominently visible behind him. It further proves that Rocky was from Kensington. Not, as many people assume, from South Philadelphia.
I love most everything about this church, even the endearingly bizarre exterior. Simply great.
How's It Doing?
Pretty well, although not necessarily by its own doing. Visitation is a parish that probably has survivor’s guilt, since, as a Magnet Parish, it’s seen pretty much all of its neighbors succumb to the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction, including St. Bonaventure, St. Edward the Confessor, Our Lady of Mercy and St. Boniface.
Hence, Visitation is doing well, although let’s face it: if you eliminate enough parishes in an area, one of them has to survive because there are no other ones left. I think that’s the case here, although their population is very passionate, particularly the Hispanics and the Vietnamese, who are helping to keep this place afloat. The parish is also one of a few that still maintains a successful school.
The 10 a.m. Hispanic mass plays to a very keen full house. It also features some great Latino worship music, complete with bongo drums, but that’s another story.
As the Love-O-Meter indicates, they’re friendly, although not quite as much as others we've seen. Maybe it’s the language barrier.
I should point out, though, that Visitation is the first church I’ve seen to feature street vendors selling food right outside of the church doors after mass. It’s an interesting touch. After sampling some strange but delicious chicken pastry, I wish more churches did this.
No, I don’t normally buy food from random people on the street. I was simply acting in the interests of research for the Project.
The church is also in decent shape, although it’s a little rough around the edges, particularly the exterior, which is pretty dingy in spots.
Still, with a sturdy building and population, this parish isn’t going anywhere.
Yes, West Kensington is an area that most try to avoid like the plague, but like St. Martin de Porres, the church is located on busy Lehigh Avenue, so it’s really not too bad. I wouldn’t recommend wandering around the side streets, but stick to Lehigh and you should be fine.
The travel isn’t bad either, as it’s easily accessible via either Broad Street or I-95. There’s no lot, but you should be able to find copious street parking in front of adjacent Episcopal Hospital.
As noted previously, this parish and St. John the Baptist have almost the exact same stations of the cross.
Also of note, Visitation's unique sidestep entrance is not original. Indeed, that was added in 1914, when the lowering of Lehigh Avenue necessitated a new entrance.
Vistation's Front Steps REDUX / 24 July 2010
Visitation BVM's Front Steps / 20 July 2010
The Never-Ending Visitation / 1 September 2009
St. Cecilia's Visition RESOLVED / 17 August 2009
St. Cecilia's Visitation / 25 July 2009
All images taken July 2014. Click to enlarge!
The Final Word
You may have to attend a Spanish mass to see the upper church, but it’s worth the language barrier.