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Ready For The Pope? Philadelphia's Sacred Sites Reveal The City's Religious Stories
From Shrines to Synagogues, The City of Brotherly Love Has Spirit
This year presents the ideal opportunity to explore Philadelphia’s sacred side: The city will host the eighth World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis himself. A long list of sacred places, thanks to their history, architecture or emotional resonance, make Greater Philadelphia an awe-inspiring place to visit all the time—even when the pope is home in the Vatican. Around the region, new sites rise next to centuries-old houses of worship. Together, they provide physical testaments to the indomitable spirit of people who made great sacrifices for the liberty to worship as they please.
Here’s a look at the region’s old and new sacred sites:
- Hundreds of thousands of visitors and pilgrims travel each year to The National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Guests can pray in one of the many chapels, including the Lower Church, designed to replicate Our Lady’s Chapel from the Jasna Gora Monastery in Poland, or the Upper Church, with the breathtaking sculpture of the Holy Trinity above the altar. The original Barn Chapel, outdoor Stations of the Cross and Rosary Garden provide additional places for private reflection. A Visitor Center, cafeteria, exhibition gallery and gift shop round out the holy offerings. Open daily 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. 654 Ferry Road, Doylestown, (215) 345-0600, czestochowa.us
- Along the busy Girard Avenue corridor sits the St. John Neumann Shrine, part of St. Peter the Apostle Church. The functioning urban parish houses the remains of the bishop who’s credited with establishing the diocesan Catholic school system in America. In the basement of the baroque church, a glass altar allows for viewing of St. John Neumann’s (1811-1860) body, set off by a fiberglass likeness of his face. Masses and confessions are held several times daily. 1019 N. 5th Street, (215) 627-3080, stjohnneumann.org
- Known for her work with African- and Native-Americans, St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) lies at rest in the St. Katharine Drexel Shrine at the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Visitors to the shrine, Mission Center and St. Elizabeth’s Chapel are encouraged to take part in programs on social justice, view artifacts from black and native cultures and reflect on the nun’s accomplishments by perusing her belongings and watching a short video about her life. Pilgrims can ease their minds by placing prayer requests into an Apache Burden Basket. Open daily 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. 1663 Bristol Pike, Bensalem, (215) 244-9900, katharinedrexel.org
- For more than 100 years, the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia has honored the saint long known for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. Canonized in 1900, she is often referred to as “The Peacemaker.” Many know the shrine as a place of prayer, devotion and pilgrimage. The upper level operates as a church to its parish, while the lower level houses the shrine dedicated to its patron saint. 1166 S. Broad Street, (215) 546-8333, saintritashrine.org
- Celebrating 50 years as a parish, Saint Jude Parish and Shrine focuses its mission to educate parishioners on Catholic teachings and to promote social justice. The shrine itself is devoted to Saint Jude and is open daily for Blessed Sacrament, prayer and reflection, from morning Mass until 8:00 p.m. 321 W. Butler Avenue, Chalfont, (215) 822-0179, stjudechalfont.org
- In 1701, William Penn gave the land for the Arch Street Friends Meeting House to the Religious Society of Friends as a burial ground. In 1804, the meetinghouse was constructed, and today it remains the largest building of its kind in the United States. Dioramas about William Penn’s life and a piece of “treaty elm” believed to be from Penn’s 1682 treaty with the Native Americans help chronicle the experience of the people upon whose principles Pennsylvania was founded. Open 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 320 Arch Street, (215) 627-2667, archstreetmeetinghouse.org
- When The Baptist Temple opened in 1891, it was the largest Protestant church in the United States. More than 120 years later, a $29 million renovation has restored the building’s Romanesque grandeur and re-established its role as a landmark where dignitaries such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Dwight Eisenhower, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr. have delivered speeches. Owned by Temple University, the structure is now called the Temple Performing Arts Center and is used as a multipurpose event and performance center. 1837 N. Broad Street, (215) 204-9860, templeperformingartscenter.org
- Since 1864, the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter & Paul has served as the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The domed Roman-Corinthian cathedral contains numerous mosaics, medallions, Italian marble columns and a crypt holding the remains of most of Philadelphia’s bishops and some of its prominent clergymen. 18th Street & Benjamin Franklin Parkway, (215) 561-1313, cathedralphila.org
- Perhaps Philadelphia’s most recognized place of worship is Christ Church & Burial Ground, where Benjamin Franklin is buried and many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Robert Morris, worshiped. Absalom Jones, the nation’s first black priest, was ordained here. Tours of the National Park Service-affiliated church—a National Historic Landmark—occur throughout the day, and guided tours of the burial ground take place 11:00-3:30 p.m. Church, 2nd Street between Market & Arch Streets; Burial Ground, Arch Street between 4th & 5th Streets, (215) 922-1695, christchurchphila.org
- In use since 1700, the building that houses Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Episcopal Church holds the designation of the oldest church building in Pennsylvania and the second-oldest in the United States. It also boasts one of the country’s oldest baptismal fonts—a massive Swedish-style font crafted in 1731. Models of the two ships that brought the first Swedish colonists to the region hang from the ceiling. Open Tuesday-Sunday 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Columbus Boulevard & Christian Street, (215) 389-1513, old-swedes.org
- Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church is the cradle of American Methodism and the denomination’s oldest church building in continuous service. St. George’s licensed Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, the first African-American Lay Preachers of Methodism, before racial tensions led them to split from the church and establish their own churches. Francis Asbury preached his first sermon in America in this sanctuary in 1771; he later became the leader and pioneer bishop of American Methodism in 1784, after its establishment as new denomination. A museum and library houses documents dating to the 1700s, and docents offer public tours of the museum and sanctuary by appointment. 235 N. 4th Street, (215) 925-7788, historicstgeorges.org
- People walk on hallowed ground when they visit Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, the “Mother” Church of the nation’s first black denomination. What began at Mother Bethel is now an international denomination on five continents and more than 40 nations. Sitting on land purchased by A.M.E. founder Richard Allen in 1791, Mother Bethel holds the distinction of being the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African-Americans. The current church memorializes Bishop Richard Allen, its founding pastor and first consecrated bishop of the A.M.E. Church. The basement houses Allen’s tomb, The Richard Allen Museum and the Mother Bethel Archives. Trained docents are available for free tours; walk-ins are welcome, but larger groups are encouraged to schedule a tour in advance. Visitors are encouraged to attend Sunday morning services. Open Monday by appointment, Tuesday-Saturday and after Sunday services. 419 S. 6th Street, (215) 925-0616, motherbethel.org
- Old First Reformed Church, United Church of Christ was founded by a German congregation in 1727. As the congregation grew, a second church was built at the site, and then a third (the current one) in 1837. When the congregation moved to other parts of Philadelphia in the 1880s, the building became a paint manufacturing company and warehouse. In 1967, they voted to return to the original location and spent 10 years restoring the church. The original altar surround, which was discovered behind partitions of the paint warehouse, is on view, and the church hosts concerts and community meetings, a winter homeless shelter, weekly food cupboard and youth work camps. Visits by appointment only. 4th & Race Streets, (215) 922-4566, oldfirstucc.org
- Soon after the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church’s founding in 1768, one of its first pastors, George Duffield, defied British arrest by serving as chaplain to the First Continental Congress and joining Washington at Valley Forge. Thanks to Duffield’s loyalty and parishioners such as John Adams, Old Pine soon became known as the “Church of the Patriots.” More than 285 Revolutionary War soldiers are buried in the church’s graveyard. Today, it remains the only Presbyterian structure in Philadelphia dating back to Colonial and Revolutionary times. Call for hours. 412 Pine Street, (215) 925-8051, oldpine.org
- Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church is Philadelphia’s oldest Catholic community. Founded and still staffed by Jesuits, the community has been in continuous existence since 1733. Open to the public for self-guided tours every day: Monday-Friday, 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 7:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. 321 Willings Alley, (215) 923-1733, oldstjoseph.org
- Built in 1763, Old St. Mary’s Church was the second Roman Catholic institution in the city, and it figured prominently in the life of Colonial and Revolutionary Philadelphia. The church was the site of the first public religious commemoration of the Declaration of Independence and became the first Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Diocese of Philadelphia (1810-38). Members of the Continental Congress officially attended services here four times from 1777 to 1781, and though not members of the congregation, both George Washington and John Adams worshiped here on a few occasions. Old St. Mary’s historical cemetery includes the remains of John Barry, Father of the American Navy, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ great-great-grandfather, Michael Bouvier (1792-1874). Open daily, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; tours available by appointment. 252 S. 4th Street, (215) 923-7930, oldstmary.com
- Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, built in 1761, was a leading Anglican Church in Philadelphia during the 18th century. The congregation supported the cause for independence, and some of the greatest calls for severing ties with Great Britain came from the church’s pulpit. Along with Christ Church, St. Paul’s encouraged the founding of the Episcopalian diocese of Pennsylvania in the 1780s. Though no longer used as a church, St. Paul’s is now the headquarters for the Episcopal Community Services of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. In its historical burial ground is the grave of Edwin Forrest (1806-72), the great tragedian known for Spartacus and other dramatic roles and for whom Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre is named. 3rd Street & Willings Alley
- In its first incarnation, the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia & South Jersey was a 75-foot-high, 600-seat church that floated on the Delaware River. This floating chapel served as a destination for worship for merchant seafarers from 1849 to 1859. After many relocations, the non-profit ecumenical, non-denominational facility now provides recreation facilities, a television lounge, a computerized communication center, a clothing bank for visiting mariners and the Chapel of the Redeemer, which is open to the public. 475 N. 5th Street, (215) 940-9900, sciphiladelphia.org
- The first service at St. Peter’s Church was held in 1761, and the church has been in continuous use ever since. William White was the first bishop of the American Episcopal Church and served as rector until his death at the age of 86 in 1836. Absalom Jones, enslaved by founding member Benjamin Winkoop, attended services here. In 1792, after gaining his freedom and co-founding the Free African Society, Jones established the first African-American Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained him in 1804. Built on land donated by the Penn family, the church was designed by Robert Smith. Free cell phone audio tours, available by calling (215) 554-6161, guide visitors through the church and its burial yard daily, except during Sunday services. 3rd & Pine Streets, (215) 925-5968, stpetersphila.org
- Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1954 and dedicated in 1959, Beth Sholom Synagogue is one of only four synagogues nationwide to be designated a National Historic Landmark. The building, which incorporates the rich symbols of Judaism, is the only synagogue designed by Wright and one of the last projects he completed before his death. Open Sunday 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. and Wednesday-Thursday 10:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.; group tours by appointment. 8231 Old York Road, Elkins Park, (215) 887-1342, bethsholompreservation.org
- Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuous Jewish synagogue in the country, traces its beginning to 1740, when Thomas Penn granted land to Nathan Levy for a burial ground. In 1782, the temple’s first house of worship was completed with financial assistance from Benjamin Franklin and others. The nearby cemetery contains the grave of Rebecca Gratz, who founded the first Jewish Sunday School and reportedly was the inspiration for the character Rebecca in Ivanhoe. Open Sunday-Friday. Cemetery tours by appointment. 44 N. 4th Street, (215) 922-5446, mikvehisrael.org
- The National Museum of American Jewish History, located on historic Independence Mall in Philadelphia, brings to life the 360-year history of Jews in America. Tracing the stories of how Jewish immigrants became Jewish-Americans, the museum invites visitors of all heritages to share their own stories and reflect on how their histories and identities shape and are shaped by the American experience. 101 S. Independence Mall East, (215) 923-3811, nmajh.org
- The Society Hill Synagogue began its life as a Baptist church designed by one of early America’s foremost architects, Thomas U. Walter, who also drew the plans for the dome and House and Senate wings of the U.S. Capitol. Almost 200 years after the building’s construction, visitors still marvel at the National Historic Landmark. Call for hours. 418 Spruce Street, (215) 922-6590, societyhillsynagogue.org
Places for Rest & Reflection:
- One of the few cemeteries in the nation to be designated a National Historic Landmark, Laurel Hill Cemetery is home to the bodies of six Titanic passengers, 40 Civil War generals and myriad local icons. The bucolic setting, ornate gravestones, dog-walking paths and fun-spirited annual events such as the Gravedigger’s Ball make this setting just as popular with locals as with tourists. Admission is free seven days a week for self-guided walking, driving and cell-phone audio tours, as are children’s activity packs, but a highlights map costs a few dollars. 3822 Ridge Avenue, (215) 228-8200, thelaurelhillcemetery.org
- At The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, visitors see structural fragments of the home where Presidents Washington and Adams lived during their terms and where the first president kept nine enslaved Africans. At the open-air Independence National Historical Park site, located just steps from the Liberty Bell Center, visitors learn about the events that transpired through illustrated glass panels, timelines and video re-enactments, and they can partake in silent reflection. 6th & Market Streets, (800) 537-7676, nps.gov/inde
- The Museum of the Miraculous Medal Shrine contains 500 pieces of religious art, including the many phases of the Blessed Mother’s life in statue, painting and relief; Christ’s Last Supper in seven different styles; statues of Joan of Arc; paintings of saints; and an original Miraculous Medal from 1830. The pieces range from 1653 to modern day and come from places such as Italy, China, the Netherlands, Germany and France. The museum also includes an 80-seat chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Open Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Tours available upon request. 475 E. Chelten Avenue, (215) 848-1010, cammonline.org
- At Valley Forge National Historical Park, 15 monuments honor the soldiers who endured the harsh winter and those who lost their lives here in the Revolutionary War. The Daughters of the Revolution Monument was dedicated in 1901 for all the soldiers “who sleep in Valley Forge,” and the National Memorial Arch, constructed in 1914, honors Washington and his troops. Route 23 & N. Gulph Road, King of Prussia, (610) 783-1099, nps.gov/vafo
VISIT PHILADELPHIA® makes Philadelphia and The Countryside® a premier destination through marketing and image building that increases the number of visitors, the number of nights they stay and the number of things they do in the five-county area.
On Greater Philadelphia’s official visitor website and blog, visitphilly.com and uwishunu.com, visitors can explore things to do, upcoming events, themed itineraries and hotel packages. Compelling photography and videos, interactive maps and detailed visitor information make the sites effective trip-planning tools. Along with Visit Philly social media channels, the online platforms communicate directly with consumers. Travelers can also call and stop into the Independence Visitor Center for additional information and tickets.
- Donna Schorr, (215) 599-0782
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