West Philadelphia church burned in blaze to save soaring bell tower

A West Philadelphia church is rebuilding after a 2019 fire. Most of the 115-year-old building will be demolished but the bell tower will be preserved.

The Greater Bible Way Temple at 1461 N. 52nd St., was severely damaged by fire in August 2019. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Greater Bible Way Temple at 1461 N. 52nd St., was severely damaged by fire in August 2019. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Six months ago, catastrophe struck West Philadelphia’s Greater Bible Way Temple.

The 115-year-old Gothic-style church became a raging inferno last August, as a crowd of neighborhood residents, devoted churchgoers, and news reporters watched in horror.

Now the church’s leadership is moving forward with a new strategy for the future. Last week, they pulled demolition permits for much of the fire-scarred property, preserving only the soaring belltower and an attached three-story building that used to house the rectory.

“The whole church building is coming down, only the bell tower will remain,” said Ralph Berrios, who is leading the project for demolition contractor EK Multiservice LLC. “We are going to surgically cut around it.”

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Berrios said that his crew will salvage as much of the historic building materials as possible on behalf of Greater Bible Way Temple’s future building project on the site.

“We are stockpiling the stone because they are going to try to use as much of the old church as they can to bring back their new facilities,” Berrios said.

Berrios said that the new facilities will be in the same location as the old church, just off the intersection where 52nd Street meets Lancaster Avenue. The new structure will be located at the rear of the site, away from the road. The land where the fire-ravaged building currently stands will become a parking lot.

Reached by telephone, Greater Bible Way Bishop Benjamin Petersen said he would soon have a statement for the media and refused to discuss details further.

The building on 52nd Street is a former Roman Catholic church. The impressive structure is a neighborhood icon and Greater Bible Way’s larger complex of buildings served a variety of social functions in this community near the edge of Fairmount Park. Before the fire, the complex of buildings provided housing for people experiencing homelessness and served as a daycare center.

The church is not on the city’s Register of Historic Places, but the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia did lobby Petersen to save more of the building.

According to Preservation Alliance executive director Paul Steinke, the church only received an insurance settlement that would cover half the cost of fully renovating the building.

Steinke said that Petersen told him that the current plan — demolition then building a smaller structure — would only cost 75% of Greater Bible Way’s settlement, leaving the church with some extra funds in addition to a new building.

Berrios said the demolition of the building should take four-to-six weeks.

“It’s not about sinking it down fast, it’s about sinking it down right,” Berrios said.

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