Buddhist monks cash out with ‘secret’ sale of historic South Philly church

Emanuel Lutheran Church, more recently Phat Quang Buddhist Temple, on 4th Street in Queen Village. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Emanuel Lutheran Church, more recently Phat Quang Buddhist Temple, on 4th Street in Queen Village. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

A 150-year-old Queen Village church turned Buddhist temple is on a path toward residential reincarnation.

The pending metamorphosis is no shocker from a real estate perspective — sacred spaces across the city are undergoing similar transformations.

But for neighbors and former congregants, the $1.6 million January sale of the clocktower-topped Fourth Street landmark came as a surprise. And not a happy one.

Tan Minh Nguyen and Anh Minh Nguyen, both monks, and nun Ha Kim Mlo authorized the sale.  Soon after forging the deal, the three left town without notifying the community of Vietnamese Buddhists they served. They did not respond to phone calls from a reporter either.

“They have a right to sell,” said Anh Ly, a South Philadelphia dentist who helped Phat Quang Buddhist Congregation of the USA settle in the 1001 S. Fourth St. building. But “the way they abandoned the temple was very irresponsible on their part as religious leaders.”

Ly and other volunteers removed large Buddha statues and other religious objects. She said they moved the sacred items to ensure they weren’t disposed of or damaged as the new owner, Elliot Kopel, moved forward with interior demolition.

City records show the former owners received a permit to change the use of the building from religious assembly to residential for 40 dwelling units in November, about two months before it sold. Kopel declined to comment on what’s in store for the temple, but he plans to turn another church building, Kensington United Methodist Church, into residences.

Niem Tran of the Chua Bo De Buddhist Temple — blocks away near 13th and Washington — said he knew the clergy of Phat Quang, but he disagreed with their practice of the religion.

Tran transferred Phat Quang’s memorial for the dead, about 90 pictures, to his temple after he learned of the sale. He said the abrupt transfer of the building and the clergy’s disappearance bring “damage to the reputation of Buddhism.”

“A real monk would never do that,” said Tran. “They have to respect the Buddha, they have to respect the congregation. They have the responsibility to the people to not secretly sell it and run away.”

Emanuel Lutheran Church, more recently Phat Quang Buddhist Temple, on 4th Street in Queen Village. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

‘Abandoned’ landmark

The Kensington church and the Queen Village building, the former Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, are listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

“The Historical Commission is hopeful that the sale will lead to the rehabilitation and preservation of the building,” said Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

With its tall clock tower, the 19th-century Emanuel Evangelical was once a beacon for ships sailing the Delaware River. After years of sitting empty and falling into disrepair, exacerbated by vandalism, Phat Quang bought it in 2010.

The old church, aided by the small Buddhist congregation, was then transformed into a temple intended to serve Vietnamese Buddhists in the community and from the surrounding suburbs, New York, and Maryland.

After helping the founders become acclimated in the neighborhood, Ly soon distanced herself from the temple due to friction with the clergy, especially the nun Ha Kim Mlo. But Ly said she and others in the community contributed thousands to the temple in donations and loans.

“Right now, there’s a lot of people out there that she borrowed money from, and then she left,” Ly said. “Never returned the money.”

Ly also notified City Councilman Mark Squilla about the sale. Squilla said in an email that his office asked the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections “to look into the permits for the building and support an investigation into the sale.”

Kopel, a rabbi at Aish Philadelphia synagogue in Bala Cynwyd, plans to keep some space for worship at the Kensington United Methodist Church building on Richmond Street he bought.  The congregation of the massive brick church, known as “Old Brick,” sold the church due to financial struggles, according to reports.

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