Since I consider myself more spiritual than religious, it is perhaps strange that I chose a church as the recipient of my love note. But, the Episcopal Church of St Luke and The Epiphany is a special place to me and many others who lived through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic in Philadelphia. This church is a haven, a sanctuary, and a place for restorations and occasional epiphanies. Hundreds of activists have been energized and inspired within its walls, and hundreds of men and women who died of AIDS were eulogized and given a proper funeral within its lofty sanctuary.
I fell in love with St. Luke and the Epiphany when I attended my first ACT UP Philadelphia meeting in 1990. ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is an activist group that has fought to bring an end to the AIDS crisis since 1987. ACT UP has met in the basement of this church at 330 S. 13th Street each Monday for almost the organization’s entire history. To return to that space brings back the ghosts and memories of those weekly meetings and a very satisfying feeling of having been woven into the fabric of an activist community that taught me how to make a difference.
Until recently, I thought that the name of the church must refer to an epiphany that had struck Saint Luke, who is, by the way, the patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons, students, and butchers. In fact, The Church of St Luke and The Epiphany is the merger of two formerly independent churches: St. Luke’s has been located at its current site on 13th between Spruce and Pine since 1839, and merged in 1898 with The Epiphany, which used to have a grand church at the northwest corner of 15th and Chestnut.
The inspiring sanctuary entrance sits upon a pedestal of granite, but we activists entered the church through the “Furness Addition,” the southernmost part of the church designed by one of my favorite architects, Frank Heyling Furness. Entering there, we descend via a grand marble stairway into a meeting space and kitchen, where we sit in concentric semicircles to plan strategies to reduce the price of AIDS drugs, bring condoms into the schools, improve the situation for prisoners living with AIDS, and help our friends who were living with AIDS get the latest information so that they can survive. And some of us did survive.
The Episcopal Church of St Luke and The Epiphany welcomed ACT UP in the late 1980s because the Rector, Rodger C. Broadley, a gay man who himself was to lose dozens of friends and parishioners during the AIDS epidemic. He started as rector in 1984, only a year after AIDS had come upon the scene in urban gay communities in the United States. He wanted St. Luke and The Epiphany to take leadership in supporting its local community, which was deeply impacted by these AIDS deaths. During the worst plague years of AIDS, Reverend Broadley sometimes had to preside over two funerals each weekend. St. Luke and The Epiphany conducted funerals for people of any religion because in the early days many churches, synagogues and mosques ostracized their gay members. Rodger continues to welcome ACT UP and many other organizations into the basement meeting rooms of St. Luke and The Epiphany.
The Episcopal Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany, perhaps more than any other building I have known well, symbolizes how a successful church (or really any successful building) embodies the community that it shelters and nurtures. The marble bones of this old church vibrate with the energies of so many who have been committed to strengthening the lovely neighborhood and communities in its vicinity. Next time you walk down 13th Street past its Corinthian columns, see if you can feel that energy.
This essay was first published on the blog Philly Love Notes.