Philadelphia Studies at One: A Year in Review Essay

As with most projects that I undertake, the idea behind a Philadelphia history-related blog began as a conversation with Brandon Sargent some years ago. I had grown annoyed by the misuse and abuse of Philadelphia’s history in the comments section of various Philly.com articles. I thought – hum – a blog to correct these errors and, in the process, air my frustration. I suppose my frustrations were not too great as the concept never developed much further. Additionally did Philadelphia really need yet another blogger? In the milieu I had hoped to enter, several excellent Philadelphia history-type blogs already existed and maintained by people far more talented than me.

The blogging idea came back to the fore in the fall of 2013. This time, I thought I could use the rather large Philadelphia book collection in my possession (lovingly referred to by me as the Library of the Philadelphia Studies Association) as source material for a blog that looked at neighborhood history through books and ephemera. So on New Year’s Eve 2013 – this blog was born. The first post was a brief narrative about the first Philadelphia history book I purchased – Leon Rosenthal’s History of University City. The post was fine, I suppose. The post generated six page views.

Thanks to WordPress, I was recommended to give the blog a tagline. I settled on “Philadelphia history through books, ephemera, and the Episcopal Church.” I will be honest, adding the Episcopal Church was an afterthought. I knew the blog would serve as a hosting area for the historical materials from Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany I had digitized up to that point. But the degree to which St. Luke and The Epiphany and the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, in general, would be covered on the blog had yet to be decided. As you can see, I really had not thought this blog idea through very well.

The blog took its present form thanks to a chance find at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. While researching the 1898 merger of St. Luke’s Church and Church of the Epiphany, I found an article about the merger from the perspective of Church of the Ascension (Broad and South Streets). The bitterness of Ascension’s rector (Rev. G. Woosley Hodge) oozed off the page. There was a passing reference to the St. Clement’s Magazine published by St. Clement’s Church. I wondered if the Magazine covered the 1898 merger. I emailed Fr. Gordon Reid if St. Clement’s had saved copies of the Magazine. Not only did St. Clement’s have copies, Gordon invited me over to look at them. I really did not know what to expect when I met with Gordon, though I was really excited at the potential the St. Clement’s Magazine. After a brief chat about my intent to put anything related to the merger online, Gordon led me to the parish’s archives room in the undercroft (Anglo-Catholics don’t have basements, so I am told). At least seven filing cabinets filled with material. Boxes stacked on a desk and a table, and boxes on the concrete floor. Gordon pointed out the Magazine and Quarterly, they were on the desk, and said that I could photograph and post online whatever I wanted. Stunned and, equally, pleased, I got right to work.

I honestly did not know where to start. There was just so much stuff. Compared to the materials in the archives of St. Luke and The Epiphany, the archival collections of St. Clement’s Church was like the National Archives. My first visit focused primarily on the Magazine and its successor publication the Quarterly. At the time I did not think it wise to photograph every page of every issue. Instead I looked for articles that might interest my two likely readers (Brandon and Michael Smith- honestly who else would read this blog. Of course I did not know Davis d’Ambly at the time). Much to my surprise the St. Clement’s articles proved popular – very popular! The St. Clement’s posts were getting between 200 and 300 per day. Even international page views (we can, mostly, thank Gordon for that!). Hoping that I did not wear out my welcome, I sheepishly, asked Gordon if I could visit St. Clement’s again. Naturally he said yes. On my second visit I found a box labeled “old and odd.” At a place like St. Clement’s you know a box with that label is going to good. And it was. The box contained every service leaflet, newsletter, and miscellaneous parish mailing from the 1940s thru the 1970s. It looked like that the material was saved by one parishioner. A gold mine!

I had found something that I totally enjoyed doing. Sharing the archival contents online from St. Luke and The Epiphany and St. Clement’s combined my interests in Philadelphia, Episcopal, and neighborhood history. These interests gave me some guidance to help decide what was important and what was not so important. My library science background helped in organizing the content on the blog. I also realized how much of a librarian I truly am. I wanted to free the parish archival collections of St. Luke and The Epiphany and St. Clement’s and share them with the world.

Although I still had yet to scratch the surface of the archival collections at St. Clement’s and still had piles of scanning to do at St. Luke and The Epiphany, I received an email from Fr. Rick Robyn at Trinity Church, Oxford, in Northeast Philadelphia. Fr. Robyn invited me up to view and scan their archival collections. I was not familiar with the parish’s history except that I knew the parish was old – very old. Fr. Robyn referred to Trinity, Oxford, as the most historic church you never heard of. The headstones in their cemetery read like a Northeast Philadelphia street map. As the collections from Trinity, Oxford, went up on the blog, the history of Trinity, Oxford, was shared with the world.

Thus far I have visited nine parishes across the City. Besides St. Luke and The Epiphany, St. Clement’s and Trinity Church, Oxford, I have also been warmly welcomed at the parishes of Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Grace Epiphany Church, Mt. Airy, St. Mark’s Church, St. Mark’s Church, Frankford, and St. Mary’s Church, Hamilton Village. In each case I looked for service leaflets, announcements, or other printed material that told the story of these parishes. The material from these parishes can be seen on the blog, though much remains to be processed and/or posted.

It is even more remarkable that these parishes invited me, a stranger, a non-member of their community, into their archives. Imagine receiving an email from someone you don’t know, asking to rummage around in your basement and/or attic and then asking for carte blanche permission to post that content online! Would you say yes? That was the risk I took in emailing parishes for an invitation to do just this. The rectors of these parishes did not have to say yes. They did not have to invite me in. But each did, and for that I am grateful. Thank you!

Lessons Learned in 2014

1. My Mission, perhaps: I wrote Dean Judy Sullivan about a possible visit to view and scan the archives of Church of the Saviour. Due to the construction of the cathedral tower, my visit to view that collection is delayed until later in 2015. However in our conversation she referred to my blog project as my “mission.” In two parishes I visited, I have been told my email had come at the perfect time. These parishes had been wondering what to do with their archival collections. Here I come along to get their collections online, and committees get formed in the respective parishes on how to store and preserve them. Could it be that unlocking the archival collections of the various parishes be my service, my contribution, my mission to the Episcopal Church? I do think Dean Sullivan is on to something.

2. Parish Archives Work is a Great Way to Meet People: I have met many wonderful people thanks to the blog project. I have learned a great deal about each parish I have visited thanks to working with the archival collections but also interacting with interested clergy and lay persons. We know we have historic parishes, parishes that have contributed greatly to the life and work of our neighborhoods, our city, and the wider church. But what to do with the stuff that documents those contributions. The task to maintain, store, and preserve a parish archive can seem herculean. Interacting with people who are equally concerned about these issues as well as interested in the history of their parishes has been a great joy. Then there are the readers – congregants of these parishes and/or those interested in the history of the city

3. Episcopalians have always been (and will likely forever be) a small tribe: There is much talk today about the decline of the Episcopal Church and some are wondering if the point will come when there won’t be any Episcopalians left. Well it seems the Episcopal Church has been wondering aloud about its decline since the 1880s – or at least in Philadelphia anyway. On this blog, I pay special attention to articles about decline. Thus far I have found pew rents, the elimination of pew rents, apartment buildings, country clubs, birth control, snobbery, exclusivity, and suburbs blamed for the decline of the Episcopal Church. In our own time, women’s ordination (1974), new prayer book (1979), and gay bishops (2004). Just as an aside – seriously Gene was not the first. Just the first the conservatives knew about. These reasons seem rather silly when compared to the actual numbers. The membership of the Episcopal Church peaked in 1965. Yes, 1965. And in 1965, Episcopalians made up 3% of the American population. Not particularly a large tribe at its height. The marketed changed, however, are the minute details of our comings and goings, our successes, and our foibles are hardly covered in the newspapers anymore. In the 1920s and 1930s, the rector of St. Luke and The Epiphany, David Steele, made regular appearances in the New York Times. I think our current rector, Rodger Broadley, has only been mentioned in the New York Times once. Anyway, on this blog I pay special attention to articles about decline in the 1920s and 1930s because at that time the Episcopal Church was in rapid decline in Center City Philadelphia. Further growth stagnated in the suburbs thought-out the 1930s. Compared to the 1920s and 1930s, growth in the 1950s seems the exception.

4. The Good Old Days Weren’t So Good: Coupled with the sense of decline there is a sense among many that the best times for the Episcopal Church have passed. Many long for the good old days. Many long for the glories of the Episcopal Church. But. what year was that exactly? Would we really want to return to a time when “the poor” were segregated to the “free seats,” our LGBTQ+ clergy and congregants were expected to stay in the closet, and the closest a woman could get to the altar was being on the altar guild? I don’t, and would not want to attend a church that does.

Goals for 2015
• Finish scanning and processing the collections from Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany, Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, St. Clement’s Church, St. Mark’s Church, St. Mark’s Church, Frankford, St. Mary’s Church, Hamilton Village, and Trinity Church, Oxford.
• Scan and/or photograph the archival collections of Church of St. James the Less, Church of the Saviour, Grace Church and the Incarnation, St. Luke’s Church, Germantown, and St. Timothy’s Church, Roxborough. I had hoped to visit these parishes in 2014, however, for a variety of reasons that was not possible.
• Provide digital backups to the parishes I have worked with.
• Maintain the relationships built at the parishes I have already visited.
• Build new relationships with the other parishes in Philadelphia for possible future archives visits.

6 thoughts on “Philadelphia Studies at One: A Year in Review Essay

  1. Peradventure

    I’m a dreadful reactionary and thus have a somewhat different view of the Good Old Days, but I still owe you my hearty thanks for this excellent trove of Anglican history. May it grow and prosper.

    Reply
  2. Nick

    I have some great material (re: Philadelphia Divinity School) that I would be happy to share with Mike. I also am searching for material that Mike may have in his cache of material. Would you please contact me directly? Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Abbey Gates

    Hello!
    My name is Abbey Gates and my brother is going to be living in the refurbished building of St. Augustine’s Church of the Covenant on West Girard, or as my research tells me was originally the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Covenant.

    I would like to learn more about the history of this building as well as see if you have historical images and/or literature about the church. I would love to have copies so I could print and frame them for he and his girlfriend’s new apartment, I think it would be a nice gesture as a gift. I know they would love learning about the history and soul of the building, as well as keep the historical integrity alive.
    Well, let me know! I would truly appreciate any help you can give me.
    Thank you!
    Abbey

    Reply
  4. vietnamlit

    Hi, the reference desk at the Walter Royal Davis library at Chapel Hill drew my attention to your work when I asked them for help on the life of David McI. Gracie. It was my old friend Paul Lyons’ books that led me to Gracie. It occurs to me that you may enjoy my weekly column at the Facebook page of the “Viet Nam Literature Project.” I am following meridians of longitude west to write about connections with the nations of Viet Nam. I may never get out of Philadelphia, since the associations of militarism and pacifism, dissent and establishment, education and immigration, run so broad and deep. We have done a dozen columns in the city so far and next week is Gracie’s St. Barnabas. Just go to “Viet Nam Literature Project” on the FB. Thank you for the Gracie documents. Cheers – Dan

    Reply

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