Bells across France rang out in solidarity with Notre Dame Cathedral as the iconic spire and medieval roof collapsed in a fiery blaze this week. The Catholic community of Philadelphia mourned with believers around the world.
But it wasn’t just Catholics who felt the loss. For the Rev. Martin Cioppi, pastor of Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia, it was as if he were the ambassador to France for one day just because he wore a collar.
“People were coming up to me all day, saying ‘You’re a priest! I’m so sorry about Notre Dame,’” he told me.
He said it isn’t strange for people to react like that when a church is damaged, even if they’ve never been inside because church is at the heart of family life.
In a way, what happened all at once to Notre Dame mirrors the same loss we have felt in our own neighborhoods, albeit more slowly, as church after church has closed its doors. But as Cioppi pointed out, it’s not too late to visit the spiritual and architectural gems that are still open right here.
“Go back!” he said. “Take possession of your church!”
This week leading up to Easter, known to many as Holy Week, presents Catholics and all Philadelphians who are interested with this opportunity. After the Mass on Holy Thursday, churches around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will remain open into the night in remembrance of Christ’s last, lonely vigil before his crucifixion on Good Friday. Many people take this opportunity to go on a prayer walk to visit a few churches beyond their own home parish. The tradition is known as “Seven Churches Visitation,” but there’s no set number on how many churches you can visit.
It’s a unique time to visit sacred spaces — especially for those who aren’t regular church-goers — as the Seven Churches Visitation does not include a formal Mass, just private prayer.
The best place to experience this unique tradition on Holy Thursday is at your local parish. Odds are there is one within walking distance of your home. But in case it’s been a while since you’ve been to church, or even if you’ve never stepped foot in a sanctuary, I asked around for a few recommendations for places you can go to pray in solidarity with Christ in the garden — and with those mourning the destruction at Notre Dame Cathedral.
3 Philadelphia churches recommended by the Rev. Martin Cioppi:
1723 Race St., Philadelphia
Mass at 7:30 p.m., prayer following until 11 p.m.
2319 Green St., Philadelphia
Mass at 7:30 p.m., prayer following until 11 p.m.
21 S. 13th St., Philadelphia
Mass at 6 p.m., prayer following until 10 p.m. in the lower church
For starters, Cioppi suggested one very popular route of three churches right in the heart of the city, starting at the mother church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Why the number three?
“It was a family tradition really. Three being a divine number, we would visit three churches,” he said. “That way, you can hit several by midnight, adoring the Blessed Sacrament in each to be with Jesus in his loneliness.”
1019 N. 5th St., Philadelphia
Recommended by Erika Harnett, professor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary
Mass at 7 p.m., night prayer TBD, Stations of the Cross at 12:15 p.m. Friday
“I recommend the Shrine of St. John Neumann. It has the exposed body of St. John Neumann, a Philadelphia bishop who was canonized in the ‘70s,” Harnett said. “In Europe, many churches have relics on display, but this is something you don’t normally see in America.
“If you’re not Catholic, you may be shocked or unnerved. He’s startling to see, but it’s a unique and moving experience. Very devout people come here from all over the country to pray for healing.”
1166 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia
Recommended by Deacon Christopher Roberts, president of Martin Saints Classical High School
The Upper Shrine is open for prayer all day until 9 p.m.
“One of the most important ways of reaching young people about faith is through the experience of beautiful spaces. But it does take some education and formation to be cultivated to really appreciate these things,” Roberts said. “That’s something we try to pass on to our students, both through visits to places like the St. Rita Shrine and outdoor excursions like camping and canoeing. Beauty shapes people, beauty elevates people, whether it’s nature or sacred space.”
6301 Woodbine Ave., Philadelphia
Recommended by Cassie Detwiler, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes
Mass at 7 p.m., prayer until midnight
“Holy Thursday is one my favorite nights of the church year. I remember when I first learned about this as an adult convert, I thought, ‘I cannot believe this has been going on my whole life, and I never knew about it!’
“This will be my sixth year making a traditional ‘pilgrimage’ with a small group of women to seven churches in the Philly suburbs, starting at Our Lady of Lourdes, where the Mercedarians keep watch late into the evening. If you’re lucky, you can even catch them chanting Night Prayer.”
Recommended by Sarah Dickerson, a parishioner at Holy Martyrs
120 Allison Road, Oreland, Pa.
Mass at 7 p.m., prayer until 10 p.m.
“The altar at Holy Martyrs was used during the papal Mass on the Parkway during the World Meeting of Families,” Dickerson said. “Our pastor was unable to attend the various meetings and Masses downtown, but he put in a request for the altar. We are thrilled to have the altar in our midst! That link to apostolic authority is crucial, especially in this time of ecclesial confusion.”
After the Holy Thursday prayer watches have ended, you’ll hear the bells ring out again at 12:05 p.m. on Good Friday, beginning the next Holy Week activity. But it’s OK if you weren’t able to make it out to the vigil in time. I have it on pretty good authority that these beautiful churches are open to the public each and every Sunday.
Stephanie Walker is a marketing editor at WHYY and parishioner at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.