An unexpected place in Philly

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A diamond in the rough sits near historic Laurel Hill Cemetery not far from the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Many cities in America boast a wealth of historic churches and synagogues in various states of decline.  As the populations of America’s inner cities ebb and flow, the state of the old church buildings also changes. The diamond I refer to sits in splendid isolation surrounded by edgy urban neighborhoods in northern Philadelphia.

On a bike ride along the river, my friend and I took a detour to see a project his church has embarked upon. We jumped a low fence and walked into another place and time. St. James-the-Less parish church stands amid a sea of stone crosses, a copy of an English country church built in the thirteenth century. Construction began in 1846 and the vestry hoped the church would serve as an oasis for both wealthy and working classes. This vision to build a medieval-style church in the nineteenth-century began a movement to build English Gothic churches across the American landscape.

Today, its thick stone walls and vertical bell tower stand in slight decay awaiting a new moment of glory. The wood pews and elaborate high alter speak of exquisite craftsmanship and its pastoral setting continues to be an oasis from the rough streets. When a school re-opens on the surrounding property, hopefully new life will restore the church.

I’m sure there are “famous” people associated with the church. Department store magnate John Wanamaker had his family crypt built at the edge of the property.  A Civil War officer or two or more are buried in the churchyard. But these aren’t the stories I’d want to know. I want to know about the craftsmen who spent years creating this unexpected treasure. Who were they? Perhaps one day their story will be told.

Do you know of other amazing historic churches? Tell us about them.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
This entry was posted in 19th century, cemetery/grave, religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to An unexpected place in Philly

  1. Bethany says:

    Just discovered your blog through a Hershey connection. You should check out the churches in Central and Western Pennsylvania. I live in the Oil History region, but have family in Central PA! Beautiful spaces!

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