The Philadelphia Historical Commission voted Friday morning to add a series of religious paintings inside St. Augustine Catholic Church at 4th and New streets in Old City to the local register of historic places—against the wishes of the Archdiocese of Greater Philadelphia.
Filippo Costaggini, an Italian painter whose work is also found in the U.S. Capitol, completed the paintings, “St. Joseph, Patron of the Augustinian Order “and” Our Mother of Consecration, in the 1880s. Celeste Morello, a South Philly resident who has been on a steady campaign to place Catholic buildings and art objects on the historic register, nominated them for historic protection. The church itself was established in the 1790s. Its structure was rebuilt in the 1840s and added to the historic register in 1978.
In her nomination, Morello argued that the altarpieces are significant in terms of the history of the Catholic Church as well as the history of art. But Michael Phillips, an attorney for the Archdiocese, argued that the objects’ primary significance is “sacred, not secular.” He acknowledged that the exterior of the building has an identifiable secular purpose, but said that the art hanging inside was designed for the purposes of church services. For the Commission to designate the paintings would be a violation of the separation of church and state, Phillips said.
Several Commissioners, including Anuj Gupta and David Schaaf, pushed back. Couldn’t an art historian assess the value of those paintings separate from their value in the course of a Catholic mass? Don’t they have a clear social and cultural significance?
Whatever secular value they have is secondary to their primary religious value, Phillips argued. A building can be repurposed, he said, but a painting can’t be repurposed as anything other than a painting.
Phillips alluded to some major looming litigation over the constitutionality of designating interior religious objects in churches, but he didn’t have the winning argument on Friday. The Commission voted unanimously to designate the two paintings. In 2014, The Commission also accepted Morello’s nomination of another Costaggini painting inside Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Old City.
The local parish supported that nomination, but The Archdiocese has recently been taking a harder stand against historic preservation. In January, the Archdiocese sent out a memo asking churches not to cooperate with independent preservation efforts like Celeste Morello’s. But the Historical Commission continues to see the value in designating these structures. Last year, it protected St. Laurentius in Fishtown against the Archdiocese’s wishes.
On Friday, the Commission also voted to designate St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church at 20th and Christian streets.