Sunday, April 20, 2014
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For Sale: Empty Catholic churches

Assumption on Spring Garden St. and St. Anthony's near the Navy Home are among the ex-church complexes seeking buyers as the Philly Church fades.

For Sale: Empty Catholic churches

The Church of the Assumption in 2010. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
The Church of the Assumption in 2010. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

The long decline of Philadelphia's once-powerful Roman Catholic church has raised the question of what's the best use for its empty former church-school-convent-rectory complexes, especially in the recovering neighborhoods around Center City.

Some (like St. Agatha's on 39th St. in West Philly) are suited for apartments. But others, including the big but hastily-built mid-1800s missionary complexes, need millions in repairs, and find few likely buyers, other than developers who'd like to knock the old structures flat, over the objection of Philadelphia historical preservationists. 

The former Catholic Church of the Assumption at 11th and Spring Garden Streets is for sale, along with its neighboring former school and residence, after the nonprofit Siloam AIDS ministry found it was unable to win city approval to demolish the angular, worn stone-and-plaster temple over opposition from the Callowhill Neighborhood Association. (See photos here.)

Siloam has hired James Scott and Michael Barmash of brokerage Colliers International to find a buyer. The group is selling "with great sadness," said interim Siloam boss Cathy Maguire. Siloam had hoped to build an HIV/AIDS service center there. She hopes to raise around $1.7 million. 

Historical preservationist Andrew Palewski, who helped the successful push to have Assumption historically listed, in part because Catholic Saints Bishop John Neumann and Mother Katharine Drexel ministered there in the mid-1800s, told me he's pleased Siloam is selling instead of knocking the hall down.

The former St. Anthony of Padua church at 23d and Fitzwater Streets, not far below South, in the onetime Irish immigrant neighborhood of Schuylkill (now "Southwest Center City"), is also for sale by its current owner, Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. The predominantly African American congregation is moving to a site north of Center City, with more parking, says broker Andrea Boelter who is helping Mike McCann manage the sale at Prudential Fox and Roach.

St. Matthews says it bought the property for a modest $325,000 in 1999. Pru is listing the property for $2.5 million. Standing across from Toll Bros.' Naval Square residential development at the site of the old naval retirement home, close to Childrens Hospital's and the University of Pennsylvania's planned east-of-Schuylkill expansions.

The church at St. Boniface, on Norris Square in lower Kensington, a former parish run by Neumann's old Redemptorist order of priests, also faces demolition under plans by Patricia DiCarlo's Norris Square Civic Association, which proposes a housing, commercial and education center on the parish site. The Redemptorists have moved to the vibrant Visitation parish and school up on Lehigh Avenue.

Empty Catholic sites elsewhere in Philadelphia and Delaware County are also for sale. In Northeast Philly some still-functioning churches with closed-down schools but large elderly communicant populations have invited funeral homes to take over buildings.

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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