High school students from Holland, Michigan, on an annual class trip to Philadelphia visit the Old St. Joseph’s Church every year just to hear themselves sing.
The choral director of Holland Christian High School, Erika Blom, used to live nearby in Swedesboro, New Jersey. She knows how to navigate the tiny cobblestone alleys of Society Hill to find Old St. Joe’s.
She had about 30 teenagers join hands in a circle around its empty nave – Whoville-style – to sing sacred choral music with no audience.
“We don’t get a chance to sing in churches with this type of acoustic setting back in Michigan,” said Blom. “Older churches have that beautiful acoustic ring to them. It’s a very worshipful and reverent moment to sing in that space, to have the natural raw sound.”
It’s not just the acoustics that are special. “The Angelic Exaltation of St. Joseph into Heaven,” a circular painting fixed to the ceiling and 15 feet in diameter, is now officially recognized by the Philadelphia Historical Commission as historically significant.
It was painted in 1886 by Filippo Costaggini, whose work can also be seen in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. According to documents filed with the commission by local historian Celeste Morello, this painting typifies the Italian Neoclassical style that dominated Catholic churches in the late 19th century.
“Old St. Joseph’s is an appropriate site to show how an art movement from the late 18th century in Rome was brought to the new nation and lasted well beyond the 19th century because of the popularity and wide appeal of the artistic style used by the Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520),” Morello wrote in her 81-page proposal nominating the painting for certification.
The painting shows St. Joseph surrounded by angels with an infant Jesus on his lap bearing lilies, the flower associated with the saint.
“It’s literally a centerpiece of the church – it’s in the center of the ceiling,” said Old St. Joe’s pastor, the Rev. Daniel Ruff. The church also has a very large painting of the Crucifixion above the altar, painted circa 1840 by parishioner Sylvano Martinez, after Peter Paul Rubens.
“The art plays a major role because there’s relatively little of it in our church, compared to other churches that are much more ornate,” said Ruff. “I think the art that is there gets noticed, giving the feel of this space.”
The historic certification will not change how the clergy and congregation will treat the painting on the ceiling. The entire church — founded in 1733 — already has landmark status, with a board in place to maintain its historic attributes.