Changing Skyline: Another black church says farewell to Graduate Hospital neighborhood

With the F.C. Wesley Methodist Church choir belting out a song in the background, Pastor Ralinda Goldback leads the congregation in a deconsecration ceremony.

The lavender velvet pews at the First Colored Wesley Methodist Church in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood were packed from end to end, just like in the old days. The choir was in fine form as it delivered a rousing version of "We've Come This Far by Faith." As the strong winter sun filtered through the tall, arched stained-glass windows, the second-floor sanctuary felt as cozy as a rowhouse living room.

But there was a bittersweet feeling to all of it. After the clapping and singing and words of praise were over and most of the hundred or so attendees had filed downstairs for lunch, the Rev. Ralinda Golback gathered a tiny group of regular church members in the sanctuary, shut the door, and turned off the lights. Then, she asked them to pray that Wesley would remain the same close-knit family church it has been for the last seven decades.

"I felt like I was preparing a funeral," Golback said afterward.

With its final service on Sunday, Wesley becomes the latest black church to pack up and leave the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, which was identified in a recent Pew study as the most intensely gentrified section of Philadelphia. Greater St. Matthew Baptist church sold its massive building to a condo developer about three years ago. First African Baptist moved out last year. Three smaller black churches - all of them Methodist - have been sold and demolished for housing since 2011.

Golback is the first to acknowledge that gentrification isn't the sole reason for the move. Nor is the church a victim of economic displacement. Even though Graduate Hospital has transformed from a predominantly black neighborhood to a predominantly white one in less than 15 years, Wesley has owned its handsome, Italianate church at 17th and Fitzwater Streets since buying the building for $22,000 in 1943.

But the web of neighborhood connections that gave Wesley its reason for being in this part of South Philadelphia is rapidly disappearing. In a sense, the neighborhood left Wesley. And every Sunday, that diaspora of former residents would have to make its way back to Center City by car - and then find a spot to park.

So now, the historic congregation is striking out for new territory.

Depending on how you count, this will be Wesley's seventh move since it was founded in 1820 in the back of a carpenter's shop at Fifth and Lombard. This time it is heading northwest. Having sold its Fitzwater Street building to lawyer Charles Peruto Jr. for $1.6 million, Wesley has its eye on a large church in East Oak Lane, one that comes with an ample parking lot.

Since most of its members now live in northwest Philadelphia or the suburbs, Golback said, it makes sense to relocate Wesley to a place where parking isn't a hassle. The lack of easy parking was also cited by Greater St. Matthew as the reason for selling its historic building.

"It could take 20 to 30 minutes to find a space," complained Debora Knowles Anthony, who grew up a few blocks away at 17th and Fernon, but moved to Lindenwold, "so my kids could grow up with grass." While the city offers Wesley discounted parking on South Street, the walk was too difficult for some older church members, Anthony said.

Much as in the rest of America, churchgoing habits in Philadelphia have changed. Fewer people attend worship services regularly. And those who do, don't necessarily head to the nearest church or synagogue, preferring to find one that suits their identity. On Sunday mornings in Graduate Hospital, church vans transporting elderly parishioners are a regular sight.

Yet, even though Wesley's new location promises to be more convenient, it was clear Sunday that the prospect of leaving the familiar sanctuary has left many of Wesley's members deeply conflicted. Many are third or fourth-generation church members who have planted themselves for decades on Sundays in Wesley's plain whitewashed sanctuary.

"This was always a family-oriented church," said Charlene Reid, one of the few members who still lives in South Philadelphia. She feels a deep attachment to Wesley's humble, redbrick building, designed in 1857 by the noted architect Samuel Sloan.

The Fitzwater Street church, Reid said, was where her mother and nine siblings first slept when they arrived in Philadelphia in 1944 from eastern Georgia, as part of the Great Migration northward. Wesley "provided food and clothing until the family became stable," said Reid.

Growing up, she walked to church every Sunday from her home at 17th and Tasker, just as she walked to school at Edwin M. Stanton at 17th and Christian.

"I don't blame gentrification," she said. Things change. "But I will miss the love I feel in this building."

Since Wesley was recently nominated for historic status, the hope is that the building will survive in some form, perhaps as condos. Before Wesley acquired the church, the building had three prior occupants, and they tell the story of a constantly changing neighborhood: It opened as a Presbyterian Sunday school, was sold to St. Paul's German Reformed church in 1865 and acquired by the First African Presbyterian Church in 1890.

The churn never stops, the Rev. Charles Fenwick, former pastor, reminded worshipers. "Everything is changed by time and the church is no exception," he said. "You can't stop change because you can't stop time."

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