The image is all too familiar of Industrial Era edifices – crumbling walls, blown-out windows, a palpable eeriness from the abandonment.
But this isn’t a description of the typical forsaken warehouse that has come to define North Philadelphia’s landscape.
The blighted building in question is the remains of St. Bonaventure, a once-looming Gothic church that was an impressive example of Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic architecture.
Back in 1993, however, the archdiocese sold it to a neighborhood Baptist minister. The church then fell into a state of decay due to vandalism and water damage.
“The people of the neighborhood were complaining about the church,” said John Sirianni, superintendent of the church’s demolition. “The city put a couple liens against the minister trying to get him to tear it down. It was dangerous to everybody else.”
The Department of Licenses and Inspections officially slated St. Bonaventure for demolition last November, but the parish itself closed back in 1993.
“I guess around the neighborhood the parish was going down, there weren’t too many people coming around to the church,” Sirianni said.
The closure came as part of a series of archdiocese-ordered shutdowns and mergers that affected 12 parishes in the North Philadelphia region, including Our Lady of the Holy Souls in the Nicetown section and most recently St. Boniface in West Kensington.
The massive restructuring initiative has gained the unfavorable title of “North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction” by church advocacy groups, like the Philadelphia Church Project.
Some Philadelphia Catholics feel resentment toward the archdiocese’s parish restructuring because they feel excluded from the decision-making process.
“I personally feel that the mergers, while some being necessary, were poorly thought out, leaving some neighborhoods without a local church,” said 17-year-old Chris Daniels, of West Philadelphia. “This is now my second merger in seven years.”
In recent years, the closures have become part of a larger trend of archdiocese-ordered consolidations across the Philadelphia metro area.
Back in September, the archdiocese announced 46 new parishes were up for review as part of its Pastoral Planning Initiative. Just five months prior, however, it released the names of 27 upcoming mergers and closures.
A combination of factors contributed to these decisions, including demographic shifts in Catholic populations and increased economic challenges, the archdiocese stated in a press release.
Despite these issues, many Catholics still feel slighted by the archdiocese’s actions.
“Although the [archdiocese] is struggling, we need these parishes,” Daniels said. “They not only hold my neighborhood together, but also lifelong friendships.”
– Text, images and video by Charles Brown