10 Questions: Abandoned Churches Photographer Matthew Christopher Murray

The majority of photographs featuring the City of Brotherly Love depict iconic landmarks like City Hall and Liberty Place. For one Lebanon County photographer, he looks to forgotten gems of Philly architecture for inspiration.

Matthew Christopher Murray is the artist behind “Abandoned America”, a photography series focusing on derelict buildings across the country. The centerpiece of this collection of crumbling houses and rusting factories is his images of abandoned churches.

Murray speaks to about how he became a photographer, his haunting church photos, and his work with saving forgotten structures.

What made you want to become a photographer?

Well I actually started out in the mental health field. I was interested in the history of mental health, asylum care, and institutional care. In 2002, I had been reading about Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, which was a psychiatric hospital in Northeast Philly. The hospital had been abandoned for about a decade, and after reading more about the facility, I decided I wanted to go there. See that place was a transformative experience for me. I was trying to explain what so significant about it, why it was important to see and document that place. I realized that while words were great, pictures were better at explaining the special interest in that building. That’s when I got started on photography.

Was that experience what sparked your interest in abandoned buildings and churches?

Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of Philadelphia State Hospital. I was a terrible photographer back then, and now I regret not having any. After that day, I found out about other hospitals out there, as well as abandoned schools, power plants, and other derelict buildings. The obsession really started from there… I was overwhelmed by it, awed by it. Being so close to Philadelphia, I became inspired by all of the churches that had been consolidated and closed in and around the city. The architecture and history is so compelling and significant. These churches are repositories for immigrant culture, the people who came to these communities, and are full of distinctive features from those points in time. Now they’re falling into disrepair and are torn down. We’re losing a cultural legacy and works of art. Churches are the only buildings that are built as works of art…factories and schools are built on function, but churches are built to be works of art, grander than our own mortal existence.

Now on your website you feature a whole selection of Philadelphia abandoned churches. Could you tell me a bit about photographing St. Bonaventure?

St. Bonaventure was a difficult one. I had wanted to photograph the building for years! I tried to contact the owner to let me come on the property, but they never responded to any of my messages. They were hands off with regards to care and let the building fall apart. Luckily I was able to go in because it was already partially demolished before being torn down in 2013. The destruction of this church and the lack of the ability to document it when it was whole, it’s heartbreaking. It was one of last architecturally significant buildings in that neighborhood.

And on your Facebook page you have some photos of the Church of the Transfiguration?

That one is near and dear to me…of all of the places people contact me about, I get the most contacts from families that were a part of that church. A sad byproduct of the demolition of that church is that people are heartbroken. It wasn’t just a church building, Transfiguration. A brief background on this building: Raffaello Follieri, Anne Hathaway’s boyfriend, was a con man. He ran this big scam, said he was going to buy churches from the Vatican and convert them into places for the elderly, uninsured, and students. He got a few high profile investors and then lived the high life on the money. He purchased Transfiguration right before his house of cards collapsed and he went to prison. The church was sold to a Latin school, who bought it to be a school building and then hastily tore it down. There was no time to say goodbye, they just tore it down as quickly as possible so there wouldn’t be any opposition. As of about 3 months ago it was still a vacant lot. It would have been a tragedy to build a fast food place on that corner, but leaving it as a litter-packed parcel of land is so much worse.

Do you have any new abandoned buildings you are planning to photograph?

I hesitate on telling you that because it can be damaging to let people know where abandoned buildings are. People will strip out the buildings, so I keep that list close to the chest so they face a better fate. I try to get into buildings while they are still functional, that way I can preserve that building in at least one way.

What kinds of people have you met through photographing churches?

Oh, the American Catholic Historical Society, The Catholic Sun…organizations full of people who want to document these places. People look back at these great cathedrals and churches and know that 500 years of history are gone when one is torn down. I also work with preservation groups and people trying to salvage these buildings. Outside of my regular business, I hold photography workshops in some abandoned buildings and so far have raised $45,000 for properties I’ve partnered with.

And I hear you’re coming out with a new book of your photography?

Yes, it’s called “Abandoned America: The Age of Consequence.” It’s a collection of places I’ve photographer over 7 or 8 years. It includes sanatoriums, churches, power plants, and more. The book focuses on the phenomenon of widespread urban blight in historically significant and architecturally significant buildings that have been stripped, torn down, and lost in our culture.

What goes through your head when you’re photographing these churches?

Honestly, I’m just focused on the work I’m doing, playing out what next photograph take it, looking at what going to best represent building, space, contents, et cetera. I’m trying to find ways to make the place significant, showing people why a particular building is something they should care about.

Why Philadelphia for many of your photographs?

My family is from Philadelphia, I’ve spent most of my life in Philly. The city is in a transitional state where we still have some remaining historically significant buildings. These buildings are a part of my home, so I view them as a personal loss.

Do you still connect with the mental health field?

That’s an interesting question…I’m not as active photographing state hospitals because they’re almost all gone. In 10 years I think we’ll be able to say state hospitals are thing of past, all remnants will be gone. The opportunities to photograph those places just do not exist anymore.

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