Manayunk’s St. John the Baptist looks to secure future of church buildings

Harriet Tubman

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pa. (Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

The mood was tense in the social hall at St. John the Baptist Church in Manayunk, where as many as 200 parishioners, neighbors, and community members and leaders gathered to discuss the fate of the Roman Catholic church that has served the neighborhood for more than a century.

With rumors of a possible closing of the parish and animosity building over the purported lack of details about the condition of the church, most said they came to the Tuesday evening meeting expecting to have the rumors and their greatest fear confirmed.

Structural flaws

Instead, attendees at the meeting learned that a recent review of the church’s foundation and its buildings’ structures found flaws that may cost as much as $3.5 million to repair.

“Look, we came here expecting to hear that St. John’s was closing. What we hear is that it’s gonna cost $1.2 million the first year and another few million over the next few years,” parishioner Bob Cannon said. “As long as we know the plans are to save the place and not to close it, we’re fine. Now it’s just a matter of we gotta raise the money.”

Dedicated in 1894, St. John the Baptist Church is one of the oldest churches in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The church has five buildings: The main church, the upper and lower schools, the rectory and a convent that sit on a sizeable piece of land near Cresson and Rector streets in the heart of Manayunk.

In addition to cracks and shifting in the building’s foundation that surfaced during last year’s harsh winter season, the church has experienced structural wear that has worsened over time.

While the church has not received any citations from the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, a recent study of the church’s structure conducted to comply with newly implemented city ordinances found problems that led the church to put scaffolding beneath the bell tower last year.

A building survey

In January, local architecture and engineering firms O’Donnell & Naccarato and Vitteta and Maclntosh Engineering were hired to conduct additional studies of the exterior and interior masonry walls, the wood roof structure, and interior plaster walls in the main church and the rectory to provide recommendations and estimate costs for repairs.

Project manager Nan Gutterman of Vitetta and structural engineer Robert MacIntosh of MacIntosh Engineering unveiled the results of their study at Tuesday’s meeting.

The study results were divided into categories based on the urgency of the needed repairs. The recommended urgent repairs, including the dismantling and reconstruction of several of the church’s massive buttresses, finials and spires, totaled roughly $1.2 million. Urgent repairs were recommended to be completed before December of this year, to avoid further damage from more winter weather.

The study recommended that an additional $2.3 million in repairs be completed within one to five years.The O’Donnell & Naccarato study results are set to be published on the church’s website by the end of this week.

Securing funding

The main focus among the more than 2,600 active church members has now shifted from a cry for more information to the question of how to raise the funds needed to make the necessary repairs.

Several parishioners, including lifelong church member Mary Evans, suggested that the church sell its surrounding buildings and use revenue from the properties to fund repairs to the main church.

“I think the other buildings should go. Maybe turn them into a parking lot. It’s so close to Main Street, you could make a lot of money from cars parking there,” Evans said. “I’m not worried about saving the rectory; I’m worried about my church.”

Rev. Thomas P. Kletzel, the pastor of St. John the Baptist said the church is exploring all options, including the possibility of selling some of its properties.

“We look at everything. We’ve looked at knocking the rectory down and making it a parking lot. We looked at knocking the convent down and making that a parking lot as well, because the convent is not inhabitable. We’ve looked at every possible scenario and we continue to collect the data for the values of the properties and how they can service the parish,” Kletzel said.

Working together

Others have begun rallying around the recently created Save St. John the Baptist committee; a group of parishioners, school alumni and friends of the church who intend to establish a 501(c)3 nonprofit to raise money for the church repairs.

Co-chairman of the Save St. John the Baptist committee, Richard Van Fossen, Jr., said the group is reaching out to the more than 10,000 living alumni that have attended St. John the Baptist Schools for support, as well as philanthropists who can provide expertise and advice on the best ways to go about raising the monies needed to save the church.

Fossen added he’s confident that the fundraising goals can be reached.

“We really want to work with the Archdiocese and with Father Kletzel to save this spectacular church. I’m getting emails from people all over the country who are asking how they can help with this effort. I’m encouraged,” he said.

St. John the Baptist has also formed a committee to determine the best plan for addressing the church’s financial shortfall. Fossen said he will be sharing his group’s plan to raise funds with the church’s committee when they gather for their first joint meeting next Thursday.

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