Prayers for the waterfront

By Steven Ujifusa
For PlanPhilly

“There is only one institution left in Old City, in its original condition at the same location, still serving the same purpose as it did in 1776, and that is Christ Church. We bring true authenticity to this neighborhood.”
Reverend Timothy Safford
Rector, Christ Church Episcopal Church

On July 25, clergy from five historic Philadelphia congregations assembled at Gloria Dei Old Swedes Church in Queen Village to talk about their histories, neighborhood change and the impact of waterfront redevelopment. The congregations — located in Society Hill, Old City, and Queen Village — are members of a consortium known as Old Philadelphia Congregations. Participating were Reverend Joy Segal of Gloria Dei (Episcopal), Father Jim Von Dreele of the Seamen’s Church Institute (Interdenominational), Parish Associate Chuck Andrews of Old Pine Street (Presbyterian), and Brian Sullivan of Arch Street Friends (Quaker). Several other congregations that could not attend provided written responses to the questions asked (see attached Q&As below).

Arch Street Friends
Christ Church
Mother Bethel
Old Pine
Old St. Joseph’s
Seamen’s Church Institute
St. Peter’s
Old First Reformed

The two-hour roundtable discussion was moderated by Steven Ujifusa and Matt Golas of PlanPhilly. The purpose was to gain the knowledge and perspective of institutions that, because of their mission and long histories, understand the physical and spiritual needs of their waterfront communities perhaps better than any other neighborhood group. Many of the members of Old Philadelphia Congregations can trace their origins all the way back to Philadelphia’s colonial era.

In 1701, William Penn issued an edict known as the Charter of Privileges that guaranteed freedom of worship to all residents of the Commonwealth, the sole condition being that they professed faith in One Almighty God:

That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One Almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.(i)

Such language was revolutionary at the time, considering the integral role the Church of England played in British government, as well as the intense, bloody religious wars that had wracked Europe during the previous century. Because of Penn’s edict, hundreds of thousands of European immigrants flooded into Philadelphia seeking freedom from persecution and economic opportunity. During the 18th century, immigrants included Quakers from England and Wales, Presbyterians from Scotland, Roman Catholics from Ireland, Anabaptists and Schwenkfelders from Germany, and Sephardic Jews from Portugal. During the 19th century, the arrival of Italians, Irish, Eastern European Jews, and African-Americans swelled the ranks of existing congregations or created new ones throughout the city.

The physical reminders of William Penn’s so-called Holy Experiment are scattered throughout the old colonial neighborhoods of Philadelphia. The number of historic churches and synagogues in Old City, Society Hill, and Queen Village is staggering. The fifteen houses of worship that belong to today’s Old Philadelphia Congregations consortium represent the religious and ethnic diversity that characterized Philadelphia from its earliest days: Quaker, Episcopal, German Reform, Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, and African Methodist Episcopal. The ties that hold many of them together date back before Old Philadelphia Congregations was officially organized — many of the congregations have relied on each other for financial and other forms of support. In addition to serving as houses of worship and bases for community operation, they have founded schools, universities, orphanages, and hospitals, many of which continue to flourish in our own time.

Conflict and Cooperation

Although revolutionary in its time, William Penn’s Charter of Privileges did not ensure complete peace and concord between denominations and faiths. The Quaker-dominated government of colonial Philadelphia enacted strong anti-vice laws that put a damper on the public merriment enjoyed by the citizens of cities such as New York. The German population, which settled both Philadelphia proper and the surrounding towns, was a kaleidoscope of Calvinists, Mennonites, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. Many of them continued to speak German well into the 19th century, arousing the suspicion of Anglo-American Philadelphians.

Simmering resentments sometimes exploded into violence. Roman Catholics, as they were elsewhere in the United States, were a popular target during the anti-Catholic fervor of the mid- 19th century. In 1844, a mob of anti-Irish rioters burned St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church to the ground, destroying one of the finest theological libraries in the country. The Augustinian Brothers successfully sued for damages, citing both the First Amendment to the Constitution and Penn’s Charter of Privileges.(ii)

Despite the lapses, what is remarkable is the overwhelming spirit of cooperation that existed between denominations during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although a lifelong Anglican, President Washington personally contributed to the building fund for the ill-fated St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. Mikveh Israel, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation, was founded in 1740 by Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain, and boasted such esteemed 18th century leaders as Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas.(iii) Prominent Sephardic families held important positions in Philadelphia’s business and social life. In 1788, when Mikveh Israel was threatened with eviction, members of nearby Christ Church, including Benjamin Franklin, helped raise the funds needed to save the synagogue.

This spirit of toleration and religious diversity impressed visitors from other regions. In 1774, while serving as a Massachusetts delegate to the First Continental Congress, John Adams attended a service at Old St. Joseph’s Church. The church had been founded in 1733 by the Jesuits and was one of the few places in the British Empire where Roman Catholics could legally and openly celebrate Mass. The usually acid-tongued New England Unitarian noted: “The Scenery and Musick is so calculated to take in mankind that I wonder the Reformation ever succeeded.” (iv)

Others visitors were not so impressed. When the British occupied Philadelphia during the Revolution, the officers attended Christ Church and stabled their horses in Old Pine Street Presbyterian, using its pews for firewood and destroying all of its interior appointments. When they left, the church and graveyard were completely desecrated and had to be rebuilt.

According to present-day Parish Associate Chuck Andrews, one of the reasons for this wanton destruction of Old Pine was that its minister had left for Valley Forge to serve George Washington as a chaplain during that same bitter winter of 1777 and 1778.

Today, all of these congregations are deeply involved in the social and community life of their neighborhoods, and are also trying to redefine themselves in order to adjust to the shifting urban climate, particularly to development pressures along the waterfront.

Connections to the Working Waterfront
Two congregations have very strong connections to the working life of the Delaware waterfront. In its heyday, commercial life here encompassed freight and passenger traffic, shipbuilding, and the Navy Yard. Father Jim Von Dreele, an Episcopal priest, is the head chaplain of the Seamen’s Church Institute, an interdenominational ministry established in 1843 under the auspices of the Episcopal Church. From 1849 to 1859, its base of operation was the Church of the Redeemer, a floating neo-Gothic chapel moored on the Delaware River, a place of spiritual guidance and counsel to the sailors who streamed through the port during the age of sail. Now located at 5th and Spring Garden, the Seamen’s Church Institute offers a “caring haven and to be an advocate in port for the world’s seafarers, through its one-to-one, ecumenical, cross-cultural ministry.” (v)
Its ministry spans 125 miles of Delaware River riverfront, stretching between the Delaware border and Fairless Hills on the Pennsylvania side, and Bordentown and Paulsboro on the New Jersey side.

A casual glance at the Delaware waterfront today would lead the observer to think that the port is dead. This is far from true. According to Father Von Dreele, the total volume of cargo that arrives in the port today is many times greater than it was a century ago due to containerization and the enormous size of modern vessels. The difference is that the shipping industry is much less visible to the public. The freight terminal occupies a small, fenced-off area in South Philadelphia. Each year, the Philadelphia Seamen’s Church Institute provides ministry to approximately 60,000 seafarers from all over the world, largely from third world countries such as the Philippines. Father Von Dreele calls these sailors Philadelphia’s “hidden workforce.” Few of the sailors are able to get ashore nowadays, as post-9/11 regulations have made it very difficult for foreign sailors to leave their vessels. In addition, the turnaround times of ships are getting shorter and shorter, usually less than 24 hours. Unlike their counterparts during the age of sail, most of these sailors remain onboard ship, cut off from the life of the outside world even as the lights of the big city beckon.

According to Father Von Dreele, seafarers today suffer from tremendous psychological and spiritual strain. They are isolated from families anywhere from 9 to 10 months at a time, with no phone or email access. They are also deprived of human contact on board ship. They work in twelve hour shifts, and because container ship crews today consist of only 20 souls, they might only see three or four of their fellow seafarers each day before turning in.

“Our job,” Von Dreele said, “is bring a moment of grace to their lives by boarding the ship and talking to them about their families and working conditions.”

The second congregation with especially strong ties to the working waterfront is Gloria Dei Old Swedes, built in 1700 by the Lutheran Swedish settlers of Wicaco, later known as Southwark.

Now affiliated with the Episcopal Church, it is the oldest surviving church in Philadelphia. During the first half of the 19th century, the first Philadelphia Navy Yard sat directly across present-day Columbus Boulevard from its sanctuary windows. Because of its proximity to the piers, rooming houses, and factories of South Philadelphia, Gloria Dei performed joint-ministry work with the Seamen’s Church Institute for many years. However, its ties to the working waterfront largely dissolved with the collapse of surrounding industry and shipping and the construction of I-95.

Neighborhood Change
Over the years, these congregations have witnessed sweeping changes in neighborhood demographics. They have experienced cycles of prosperity, decline, and rebirth. They have also endured sweeping urban infrastructure change, most notably the construction of I-95 and the Ben Franklin Bridge. But these institutions and their ministries have endured against improbable odds. Some, such as Old First Reformed and Mikveh Israel, left their original locations during the 19th century to be closer to where their members had moved, usually farther west. In the spirit of the urban redevelopment of the 1950s and ’60s, both congregations returned to their original sites. Mikveh Israel continued to maintain its cemetery at 8th and Spruce, even after it had moved to the Rittenhouse Square area.

Arch Street Friends, the largest Quaker meeting house in the United States and the congregation of William Penn, was surrounded by a largely residential neighborhood when the fifth and current building was erected in 1811. By 1900, the surrounding blocks of Old City had become almost completely industrialized, with few full-time residents. “During the 19th century, many Quaker meeting houses had been torn down throughout the city,” said Brian Sullivan of Arch Street Friends. “Our meeting house endured even though many of our members continue to commute in from elsewhere. This was the meeting not just of William Penn, but also of civically prominent Philadelphians such as the abolitionist Lucretia Mott and educational reformer Robert Vaux.”

The resurgence of Center City’s economy and housing market during the second half of the 19th century provided a great influx of people and wealth into Society Hill, greatly benefiting congregations such as Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. During the roundtable discussion, Father Mark Horak, S.J., who worked as a city planner before joining the priesthood, expressed mixed feelings about the prosperity that has come to Society Hill. In the 1960s, Edmund Bacon’s redevelopment initiative transformed the neighborhood from a slum to one of the city’s most fashionable districts. “We are thriving and growing by every standard,” he said about Old St. Joe’s. “We have a congregation of 1,300 members, made up of 700 family units, with half of these families being single people. We are now very much a well-educated, middle- to upper-middle class parish.”

Despite great neighborhood improvements, Father Horak was deeply concerned about the lack of socio-economic diversity at Old St. Joe’s, which in previous decades was very much a working- and lower-middle class parish. “The absence of a significant number of working class and poor people from this congregation is a cause of some sadness for me,” Father Horak stated. “We do attract people from all over the city, but not a lot of low-income members. Our outreach programs serve a lot of low income people, but we are not very diverse in terms of socio-economic background.” In order to connect with less-fortunate Philadelphians, Old St. Joe’s has maintained active community service projects, such as a relationship with the Church of the Gesu Roman Catholic School in North Philadelphia, whose students are largely African-American.

Old Pine Street Presbyterian, located a few blocks south of Old St. Joe’s, has experienced a similar shift in its congregational make-up. “The community was truly deteriorating in the 1950s,” said Chuck Andrews, “and this was reflected in Old Pine. We have been directly influenced by developments in transportation. The community is now middle-class, and we are once again an active congregation.”

Some congregations find it hard to attract new members even as their surrounding neighborhoods improve. Down in Queen Village, Gloria Dei has been trying to reach out to the increasingly diverse community beyond the I-95 barrier. When Gloria Dei switched from the Lutheran to the Episcopal denomination in 1845, the congregation was growing so quickly that a loft had to be added to the existing nave to accommodate the influx of new congregants. Today, its nave pews are a relatively sparsely filled, the loft level largely empty.

In recent years, abandoned factories and warehouses around Gloria Dei have been torn down and are being replaced by townhouses starting at $500,000. Old row houses are being renovated by affluent, largely white families. Beyond the area of gentrification lies a vast stretch of South Philadelphia composed of immigrants and other working class residents.

“We are only two blocks from a very diverse part of the city that we would like to involve in our community,” Reverend Segal noted, “communities of blacks, Asians, Hispanics.” We have a strong desire to tap into that diversity.”

When the National Park Service declared Gloria Dei a National Historic Site in 1942, a large brick wall was constructed around the church and cemetery. Segal feels that this is both a blessing and a curse. The National Park Service wall created a green urban sanctuary that guarded the church, grounds and historic cemetery against vandalism. The downside was that it creates the impression that Gloria Dei is a museum, not an active Episcopal congregation. Segal hopes to change that by raising local awareness: “We are hoping to tie in with Councilman (Frank) DiCicco, the Swedish Colonial Society, and the National Park Service to raise awareness in the community of what is here.”

The Construction of I-95
Many believe that the construction of I-95 was a physically devastating blow to the Philadelphia waterfront. However, the roundtable participants said that the highway’s effect on many of the area’s historic congregations was not completely negative.

Old St. Joe’s and Old Pine Presbyterian noted that since many members of their congregation commute in from outside of Society Hill, the interstate has been extremely beneficial to their membership. “We attract parishioners from all over the place,” said Father Horak, “from as far afield as Bucks and Chester Counties, as well as New Jersey. It has hurt a lot of the neighborhoods, but it has helped Old St. Joseph’s on Sunday.

Father Von Dreele of the Seamen’s Church Institute agreed that I-95 had been very beneficial, mainly because its stretches along the section of Pennsylvania waterfront assigned to his ministry. “A blessing,” according to Father Von Dreele, the highway allows the Seamen’s Church Institute chaplains and staff to quickly travel between shipping terminals to visit sailors onboard their vessels.

One congregation that suffered disastrous effects from I-95 was Gloria Dei Old Swedes. “Gloria Dei was drastically affected by the construction of I-95,” Reverend Segal stated. In addition to being physically cut off from the rest of Queen Village, “three quarters of our congregation’s houses were destroyed.” Many members of the congregation, who had attended the church generation after generation, decamped to South Jersey, Delaware and Chester Counties. Despite hosting a popular daycare program and Holy Family University’s accelerated MBA program, Gloria Dei still faces an uphill battle in winning greater community presence. “Gloria Dei survives now largely because of its endowment,” Segal stated.

All five of the congregations represented at the roundtable were against the development of casinos on the waterfront. Along with fear of increased crime, urban blight and other physical detriments, the religious leaders saw deep reaching economic and spiritual effects on their congregations and the city as a whole.

Arch Street Friends, the meeting house of William Penn, sees the casino issue as a battle to protect the city’s Quaker heritage and values. Located at 3rd and Arch in Old City, the meeting house will not be physically affected by any of the proposed casino development, because it is located far from the proposed SugarHouse and Foxwoods sites. Nonetheless, Brian Sullivan linked his congregation’s anti-casino stance to Philadelphia’s deep-rooted Quaker value system dating back to the city’s founding in 1682. Citing the anti-drinking, anti-gambling, and anti-vice laws enacted by the city’s Quaker-controlled colonial government, Sullivan said casinos “go against Quaker values of simplicity, and block direct experience with divinity. They are just as wrong as they would have been 325 years ago.”

Father Von Dreele of the Seamen’s Church Institute framed his stance against casinos in economic terms. Additional traffic on Columbus Boulevard, which is already congested during most hours of the day, is “going to have a major impact on terminals. Trucks carrying containers will not be able to get out … it will be absolutely impossible.” In Von Dreele’s opinion, land slated for casino development, especially the Foxwoods plot near the South Philadelphia Marine Terminal, would be better used as expansion space for port facilities. “Once port areas are taken for other development uses,” Von Dreele, asserted, “they never go back to being working maritime areas again.”

Thanks to saturated West Coast ports and a congested Panama Canal, large numbers of ships from Asia are slated to be rerouted through the Suez Canal to East Coast ports. Von Dreele feels that Philadelphia cannot afford to lose out on the opportunity. If shipping traffic is expected to “double in the next ten years,” Philadelphia will not be able to compete with other eastern ports such as Baltimore, Newport News, and Port Elizabeth if it does not update and expand its port facilities. This would mean further evisceration of moderate-paying waterfront-related jobs, one of the few surviving remnants of Philadelphia’s old industrial economy.

For Reverend Segal at Gloria Dei Old Swedes, the construction of the Foxwoods Casino at its current proposed site in South Philadelphia would do more than exacerbate traffic on Columbus Boulevard, which lies just east of the church’s sanctuary windows. The casino and its bright lights will be located only a few hundred yards south of the oldest surviving house of worship in Philadelphia. “We will see the lights of Foxwoods from our grounds and sanctuary 24/7,” Segal emphatically stated. “We can’t have Easter Vigil starting at 5 a.m. in the garden. Lights from casinos will be pouring in through the big glass windows. There will be no such thing as darkness to light at Gloria Dei.”

The Future of the Waterfront
Compared to their condition a few decades ago, there is no doubt that the historic neighborhoods along the waterfront are much healthier socially and economically today. Major questions still remain. How sustainable are these reviving neighborhoods? What should be the future of the undeveloped areas on the river itself? What composes responsible development?

In the beauty and vibrancy of Old St. Joe’s Society Hill neighborhood, Father Mark Horak of Old St. Joe’s sees both signs of inspiration and caution. “Center City and Society Hill are extremely healthy and vibrant neighborhoods by many standards,” Father Horak said. “There’s good housing stock, and people on the streets at all hours of the day and night. These areas offer a lot of lessons for our local officials on how to build interesting, appealing, attractive, human environments. Let’s be careful not to ruin that, but try to enhance that.”

Regarding future development and construction, Horak returned to the theme of social justice and equity. Both Segal and Horak were concerned about the lack of affordable housing being constructed in their neighborhoods. “We must be mindful of the effects of development on the poor,” Horak said. “Those who have money can deal with these changes very well. Private, for-profit developers will not build affordable housing.”

Father Horak and others also noted that their houses of worship are becoming filled with a growing number of families with young children. “Our congregation has grown dramatically in terms of that cohort: young families with very young kids,” Father Horak said, “It remains to be seen if young people moving into the city with pre-school kids now will stay in the city when their kids get older.”

To Brian Sullivan of Arch Street Friends, the key to keeping these young families in the city rather than fleeing to the suburbs is not just providing pleasant environments, but bolstering the city’s educational system. “If the schools are good the families will stay,” he stated. “We feel a little bit of comfort because we have an affiliation with a Quaker School, namely Friends Select School. The first step for young urban children is socialization, and next is education.”

Sullivan was very optimistic about the future of Arch Street’s membership: “There is going to be growth in the meeting, as this particular building and congregation has tremendous importance to Quakers throughout the region.”

Mainline Protestant churches all over the nation, particularly those in older urban areas, have been faced with declining attendance and theological conflicts within their denominations. As an Episcopal congregation, Gloria Dei Old Swedes, has not been immune to the issues. Reverend Segal described the conflict within mainline Protestant denominations as a “paradigm and sociological shift. It feels like we are standing in the Reformation again 500 years later.” Nonetheless, she has found that a growing number of younger people, who had grown up without any background in organized religion, have been exploring life in the Episcopal Church and coming to Gloria Dei. These young people are “seeking deeper community relationships. We don’t speak their language. They weren’t church people before.” She noted that those who do join the congregation are often wonderful volunteers and givers.

“Part of it feels like death knells and it scares us,” Segal mused about the recent conflicts and upheavals, “but we also need to be reminded of the Resurrection.”

Father Von Dreele of the Seamen’s Church Institute sees the Delaware waterfront not just as a tabula rasa for residential and commercial development, but a place that can be transformed back into the vibrant economic engine it was during Philadelphia’s industrial glory days. Rather than hurting Philadelphia’s economy as it has in decades past, globalization in Father Van Dreele’s opinion can actually reintroduce a large number of well-paying industrial jobs that were Philadelphia’s lifeblood fifty years ago. In his view, the diversion of additional Asian shipping traffic from the West to the East Coast could have a “staggering impact” on the city’s economy, particularly if a new shipping terminal was built in the Navy Yard to help handle the estimated 3.5 million redirected containers per year.

“Philadelphia is one of the best ports on the East Coast,” Von Dreele said, also noting that that expanded facilities could add up to 175,000 well-paying blue-collar jobs to the region’s economy. “There are three Class A1 railroads in the Navy Yard: CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian Pacific, which all could route their traffic to points west. Our road system is superior to many other ports. We have eight major carriers and investors hoping to invest approximately $1 billion in a new terminal. Every single port on the East Coast is dredging to accommodate larger ships.”

Regarding the once-proposed produce terminal that was slated to take land away from expanding port facilities, Von Dreele noted with amusement the cause of a major construction delay that pre-dated Gov. Rendell’s call for a site change for the food center: “Thank God for the eagle’s nest … Maybe God’s sending a message!”

Steven B. Ujifusa can be contacted at

Old Philadelphia Congregations
Member Congregation Websites
Arch Street Friends
Gloria Dei Old Swedes Church
Mikveh Israel
Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church
Old First Reformed United Church of Christ
Old Pine Street Presbyterian
Old St. George’s United Methodist Church
Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
Seamen’s Church Institute
Society Hill Synagogue

(i) The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: The Charter of Privileges Granted by William Penn, Esq. to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania and Territories, October 28, 1701.
Accessed August 10, 2007
(ii) St. Augustine’s
Accessed August 10, 2007
(iii)Mikveh Israel: History
Accessed August 10, 2007
(iv)As quoted from: Robert R. Grimes, “John Aitken and Catholic Music in Federal Philadelphia, “ American Music, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 289-310.
(v) Seamen’s Church Institute
Accessed August 8, 2007.

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