On the corner of 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue is a building which has undergone more changes, and has a far richer history, than many of its current residents may know.
Calvary United Methodist Church was originally erected in 1906. Due to a declining Methodist congregation numbers in West Philadelphia over the next century, the building was sold in 1994 and fell into disrepair. Immediately thereafter, Rich Kirk and a group of like-minded Cedar Park residents worked toward saving the building. Now, nearly 20 years later, it stands as a pillar of the community and a hub for many of the neighborhood’s most visible organizations.
Since its new inception as the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, the church has provided space for local organizations to meet and work in a convenient central location on Baltimore Avenue. Cedar Park Neighbors, Mariposa Food Co-op, University City Historical Society, and Food Not Bombs have all called Calvary home at some point.
“The community was really underserved in terms of space for community efforts, and community meetings and activities,” Kirk said. “So if we have the space, we tell [organizations] what the community center is all about, we tell them the political gestalt of the neighborhood and make sure they feel comfortable with everything that’s going on here.”
One such group is Curio Theatre Company, managed by Guy Carducci and directed by Paul Kuhn. Curio, whose mission statement consists of “the development of exciting and memorable works of imagination, intelligence and passion from a variety of genres,” has partnered with Calvary since 2005.
Kuhn also serves on the board of trustees for Calvary, and is just as enthusiastic about community outreach as Kirk.
“Our theater school proudly boasts that we never ever turn a child away because of financial reasons,” Kuhn said. “This is something we say before every curtain speech, before every show. We always have a fund for scholarships for people in need. The outpouring of support from this community has been immense.”
Also distinguishing Calvary from other churches is the fact that it does not host only one faith. When deciding how to best revitalize the building back in the 1990s, Kirk and others arranged focus groups and found that not only did the community want a “community hub,” but it also wanted the site to remain a church.
But serving only one congregation in such a diverse neighborhood seemed counter-intuitive to the group’s mission. The building currently houses four distinct congregations: Calvary United Methodist Church, Grace Chapel Pentecostal Church, Kol Tzedek Synagogue and West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship.
As a church, Calvary United Methodist has provided valuable programs to the area. Its food referral program partners up with local food sources, such as grocery stores and restaurants, which have excess products. The church refers underserved individuals to these locations every Wednesday morning, and these individuals then go to pick up the food for themselves and their families. Along with several other churches in the city, Calvary United also gives away turkey dinners at Thanksgiving time to those in need.
The success of the Calvary Center has helped with development of neighborhood. Residents have expressed both excitement and concern about the rapid pace at which the neighborhood is developing, and this church has certainly played a major role.
“There’s a very interesting halo effect,” Kirk said. “What we started doing at Calvary started a lot of street traffic around 48th Street, and soon restaurants started popping up around Calvary and then people who belong to these congregations started buying houses in the neighborhood. New businesses opened on Baltimore Avenue. The district got very involved making Baltimore Avenue a better place.”
Calvary is not ending its mission any time soon, however, and so Baltimore Avenue may continue to grow as well. The organization has recently founded a few groups of its own. Crossroads Music Series, which puts up and promotes world music concerts, and Kol Tzedek Synagogue were both started in the church. The Jewish community in Cedar Park is rather large, Kirk noted, and yet was lacking a synagogue. Future plans include basement renovations, an elevator and the possible founding of a new mosque.
Kirk grew up in a small mountain town in southwestern Virginia. When he moved to West Philadelphia in the 1970s, he noted how different the environment was from his hometown, but also noticed a vacuum that needed to be filled.
“When I came to this community, it was very diverse but not really functioning like a community. For me, the idea was to create that sense of community in this diversity,” he said.
For more information on the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, including how to support its many programs and further the restoration of the Calvary United Methodist Church, visit its website at www.calvary-center.org.