Old St. Joseph’s In The 20th Century

Fourth and Walnut Streets, 1957. INHP archives.

The 20th century saw the decline – and renewal – of parish life. As neighborhood residents moved west and to the suburbs, Old St. Joseph’s became a hidden shrine for private devotions and the sacrament of reconciliation. Former parishioners sometimes returned to “light a candle,” but the vital parish life of mid-century was moribund. The colonial district surrounding the church had become a slum. In 1933, Old St. Joseph’s 200th anniversary, a commentator noted, “Today her parishioners are almost exclusively the poorest and most destitute of God’s blessed poor.”

The renewal of parish life began with the establishment of Independence National Historical Park in 1950 and the concurrent “urban renewal” focus of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. With federal funding, parking lots, auto repair shops, small businesses, and rundown rooming houses and apartments surrounding the church were either demolished for new construction or renovated by new residents.

In 1953, Dennis Kurjak, Independence National Historical Park historian, published the first scholarly history of Old St. Joseph’s, and in 1956 the National Park Service conducted a Historic Site Survey. For the first time, Old St. Joseph’s history was documented and its buildings surveyed. Shortly thereafter, Jesuit pastors negotiated the demolition of the properties north of the church by the National Park Service to create the present garden and open space. For the first time since the 18th century, the church became visible to passers-by. The Walnut Street buildings had been erected to within four feet of the north façade of the church; now sunlight flooded the stained glass windows of the church.

300 block Walnut Street, 1960. INHP archives.

The revitalization of the historic district brought new parishioners to Old St. Joseph’s, and major renovations to the church were undertaken in the 1960s. Box pews replaced the Victorian pews of 1886; some of the decorative accretions to the church interior were removed; and much of the interior was painted white – which unfortunately concealed the frescoes of an earlier age. Only Costaggini’s ceiling painting remained. Further renovations were made to the church and rectory in 1985 by Fr. James Casciotti under the direction of architect H. Mather Lippincott and Gail Gasky Winkler, interior design consultant. It was at this time that the church archives were established.

Jesuit pastors Robert Curry, S.J., Eugene McCreesh, S.J., Bill Watters, S.J., James Casciotti, S.J., and Bill Rickle, S.J., served the parish from the 1970s until 2000. Seminars on spirituality, scripture and liturgy were begun, a pastoral council was formed, Eucharistic ministers began a hospital ministry at Pennsylvania Hospital, sanctuary ministers and lectors were trained, an Ignatian Spirituality committee was formed, a music program was begun, and a bookstore was opened. In 1976, Old St. Joseph’s was a founding member of Old Philadelphia Congregations, a consortium of historic churches and synagogues that trace their heritage to William Penn’s Charter of Privileges. And in 1992, the Old St. Joseph’s Historic Preservation Corporation was formed to strengthen efforts to preserve the historic site.

Just as previous congregations had responded to the “the signs of the times” in establishing ministries, so too has Old St. Joseph’s in recent decades. In 1985, under pastor Bill Watters, S.J., an outreach to the homeless in the area was begun, and now includes two programs: the Carewalk and the Outreach Center. The Outreach Center serves dinners three weekday afternoons to homeless and low-income men, and Carewalk workers take food to the area’s homeless in the evenings. In response to the educational needs of inner-city youngsters, parishioners formed the Committee for the Children of the Gesú School in 1990, which has provided cultural and material assistance to north Philadelphia children since that time. And from 1993-2000, the Michael Taylor Fund provided funds for AIDS patients with acute emergency needs.

Pastors Leo Murray, S.J., and William Gavin, S.J., served the parish at a critical time when emergency replacement of the failed wooden trusses of the church was necessary. The congregation was forced to move to nearby Holy Trinity Church for nine months. Despite the disruption, parishioners stepped forward in 2001 to conduct a $1,500,000 Capital Campaign to fund the truss repairs and to renovate the parish hall, kitchen and courtyard, replace the rectory roof, replace the Henry Corrie organ, and conserve the masonry of the church. Old St. Joseph’s parishioners became stakeholders in the future of this historic site.

Acknowledgement and thanks to Martin I.J. Griffin, M. Maury Walton, Eugene Gallagher, S.J., and John M. Daley, S.J., for essays or pamphlet histories of Old St. Joseph’s.