St. Boniface

Status: Demolished, Former Roman Catholic

Founded: 1866
Construction: 1872
Closed: 2006
Demolished: 2012 

Diamond & Hancock Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19122

Original visit: December 21, 2007

Where Was It?

Diamond & Hancock Streets, in Norris Square / West Kensington.

The Skinny

Oh, man. Where to start with this one?

One of Philadelphia's more beloved churches, St. Boniface anchored Norris Square for 150 — yes, 150 —years. It was a beautiful church speciment, albeit one that was incredibly creepy. Its Gothic brownstone construction and jagged ornamentation really gave it a dark vibe, perfectly suitable for the days when the Roman Catholic Church really put the fear of God into you. (That Hollywood never used it for a horror movie is a missed opportunity.) It was also a pretty good size, although the loss of its steeple made it seem a little squat.

And inside, well, once upon a time this was a lovely place. Witness:


The image comes from a 1950s- or 1960s-era parish postcard. Age and digital translation haven't been kind to it, but it's good enough to get the point across. Columned, non-cruciform design with all of the exceptional marble and stained glass you could ever want. 

It was timeless, and we let it slip away. Shameful.

What Happened?

Boniface is noteworthy as being a more recent victim of the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction. It closed in 2006, lasting much longer than many of its contemporaries, most of which closed in 1993.

But its longevity came at a price, as the church found itself literally crumbling from the inside out. The declining attendance meant the church fell behind on its upkeep, and things starting going south. There are accounts of how, in its last days, the church erected scaffolding to keep pieces of the building from falling off and hitting people, and how the stained glass windows were removed and replaced with Plexiglas at least a year before the official closing because the lead filling had gotten so bad that they started falling apart.

The Archdiocese, in its official letter, pinpointed the blame on the fact that the church is made of brownstone, which only “has a serviceable life of 100 years.”

Yeah, okay.

The Basilica is made of brownstone, and you don’t see that going anywhere. It likely has more to do with the fact that repairs carried a $7 million dollar price tag, and the Archdiocese had no interest in sinking that much money into a flailing parish in the middle of West Kensington. I can’t say I really blame them, although they certainly should have stepped in long before it got to that point.

Had Boniface been in better shape, it might still be open, since there was still life left. They just found themselves literally without a roof over their head.

Many of the parish's ornaments went to Blessed Theresa of Calcutta in Limerick, where they make an interesting if not altogether successful stew: 


The rest suffered a six-year Long Goodbye before the Norris Square Civic Association (NSCA) demolished it in favor of new development.


Nice work, NSCA.

Travel Tidbits

Probably not relevant, since there's little reason to come here anymore. Unless the rest of the campus buildings are of that much interest. In case they are:

The complex is not hard to find, as it’s about 10 or so blocks behind Temple’s main campus. Of course, that means it’s not an altogether carefree trip, despite your proximity to much nicer Fishtown. The area is a little sketchy. The Project didn’t encounter any real problems during a brief visit, but there definitely is an uncomfortable vibe, even during the middle of the day.

If possible, don’t go alone, and most certainly don’t go after dark.

Interesting Note

The rest of the campus buildings will survive as part of the new development complex, but really, that's not worth getting excited over.

Image Gallery

The Final Word

I need a drink.