As Philly Is Designated a National Treasure City, Don't Forget Black Historic Sites, Say Advocates

If only buildings could talk, the church at the corner of 12th and Lombard Streets in Center City Philadelphia would have a lot to say. 

Especially Thursday, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation will announce its designation of Philadelphia as a "National Treasure."

"St. Peter Claver Catholic Church tells an American story of faith, resistance and triumph. St. Peter Claver also tells a contemporary story of gentrification, displacement and lack of protection of the city’s historic resources," says Faye Anderson, director of All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that is documenting Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. She is one of a number of African Americans in the city who have been vocal about preserving St. Peter Claver.

"The Archdiocese of Philadelphia wants to put the Mother Church of Black Catholics on the auction block," she told NBC10. "In the wake of the development boom, historic black churches have fallen victim to Philadelphia’s culture of demolition. If St. Peter Claver is erased from public memory, it would make a mockery of Philadelphia’s designation as a ‘National Trust’ by the National Trust for Historic Preservation."

The church, dedicated in 1892 and owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was the first Catholic Church in Philadelphia where blacks could worship without having to sit in the balcony or back pews; the only one, in those days, in which they need not wait for the white congregants to receive Communion before they did. It became the “Mother church” for black Catholics in the city and remained that until 1986 when the Archdiocese first suppressed it (limited worship at the site), and then officially shuttered it in 2014.

“If they close St. Peter Claver, they might as well close Independence Hall,” parishioner Grace Jones told the Daily News back in 1986. “It is our heritage.” 

When in 2016 the Archdiocese headed to Orphan’s Court to attempt to remove the “racial” restriction from the deed that requires the black Catholic community’s consent before the property can be sold, they were met with opposition from not only from Catholics, but other African Americans who acknowledge the site’s historic significance to the city’s black community. 

“The efforts of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to sell the first African American Catholic church in Philadelphia is exactly why Mayor (Jim) Kenney's efforts to preserve Philadelphia 's history is important,” says Anthea Butler, associate professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “Gentrification and rampant construction at the expense of erasing the history of Black Catholics in Philadelphia to pay for the legal cases and financial problems of the Archdiocese would be one more indignity for the Black Catholic community in Philadelphia to face from an indifferent Archbishop.”

(An NBC10 request for comment from the Archdiocese has not been answered yet.)

It remains to be seen which buildings will be protected by Philadelphia’s designation as a “National Treasure” designation, but Anderson intends to be at Thursday morning's announcement to make sure St. Peter Claver isn’t forgotten.

Meanwhile, Advocates for the Descendants of St. Peter Claver Parishioners met Wednesday at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church on 43rd Street for an informational meeting.

Arlene Edmonds — history buff, Philadelphia journalist, co-author the African American Catholic Youth Bible and longtime advocate for the church’s preservation — was there and tidily sums up the group's efforts to preserve the church: “If the future of Black Catholic life in Philadelphia matters, then the legacy of St. Peter Claver, Mother Church of Black Catholics in Philadelphia matters.”

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