A walking tour of Philadelphia's churches, synagogues and meetinghouses

By Raymond M. Lane
Friday, April 2, 2010; WE16

"Almost every time, someone on the tour asks, 'Who is Father Bethel?' " laughed Peggy McGraw, a tour guide at Mother Bethel AME Church.

It was a rainy Friday down by the docks in old Philadelphia, and my daughter and I were taking a tour of the foundation church of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of America.

"I tell them there's no Father Bethel," said McGraw, teasing. ("Mother Bethel" is a play off the Hebrew for "mother house of God.") "But I ask if they know that one of America's founding fathers was Richard Allen. And not many do."

Allen, a black man once owned by Anne Arundel County-born Quaker Benjamin Chew, founded Mother Bethel in 1794. Breaking away from St. George's Methodist Church, about a mile north of where we now stood, in a protest against the segregation of black worshipers, he housed his congregation in a former blacksmith shop.

Today, Mother Bethel's fourth and final iteration is a handsome Romanesque-style building filled with stained glass and glowing cherry wood. It's still the leading shrine of the first religious denomination created by black people, which has grown to nearly 3 million members and about 6,200 churches worldwide. And lately, there has been news that the original rift between Mother Bethel and the white church it broke from shows signs of possible healing.

That's what brought my daughter and me back for another visit to Philadelphia's historic houses of worship. That, and our general fascination with the city's sacred sites, which we've nurtured over the years with walking tours, both guided and self-guided, promoted by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Its booklet "Sacred Sites of Center City: 5 Walking Tours" takes you to 48 historically and architecturally significant places of worship in central Philadelphia.

Perhaps chief among them is the unforgettable Christ Church, a few blocks east of Independence Square in Center City. The Christopher Wren-inspired gem was established in 1695, and George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and numerous Founding Fathers and their families worshiped from its old pews when Philadelphia served as capital of the United States. The Episcopal Church of America was founded there after the Revolution.

Just as fascinating is St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church, three blocks north. In 1844, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish mobs burned the original church to the ground while police stood by. A subsequent lawsuit affirmed the promise of William Penn, Pennsylvania's Quaker founder, that all religions would be protected, and the church was rebuilt.

A few blocks away at Congregation Mikveh Israel and the adjacent National Museum of American Jewish History, you can learn of the struggle and triumph of Jewish settlers in colonial Pennsylvania. It was here in 1705 that the first English-language Hebrew Bible was printed in America, testimony to awakening possibilities for Jews fleeing religious persecution elsewhere.

Then there's Old St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, where Jacqueline Kennedy's great-grandparents worshiped (the family mansion is nearby). For 40 years in the 1700s, it was the only place in the British Empire where Mass could legally be said in public. In the 1800s, the little church was deliberately hidden by other buildings, a single alleyway leading to it, to protect it from open anti-Catholic hostility.

On our first tour, we were blown away by the physical beauty of the old churches, synagogues and meetinghouses. But we also realized that they stand unacknowledged by most of us today.

That's why we wanted to pay a kind of homage when we heard about the rapprochement between Mother Bethel and Old St. George's. We started out at the latter, hoping to see its creamy blue-and-white interior again. But the church was closed, so we stood for a little while contemplating it from the outside.

When he left, Allen vowed never to return to this place, and he never did. Nor did any of those who came after him, until now. Last October, St. George's pastor Alfred T. Day III invited the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler of Mother Bethel to preach at St. George's as part of the 250th anniversary of Allen's birth on Feb. 14.Tyler did, and brought his congregation with him, setting off services at both churches that have since spawned discussions about healing the separation between the congregations.

"Everything changes," said Crawford Wilson, president of Mother Bethel's historical society, who, with McGraw, led us through the 1890 building, pointing with pride to the homemade benches and other artifacts from the rough beginning in 1794.

"We're in a new day," Wilson said. "But it's important to remember the old ones, too."

His message sounded so right to us, because these old buildings and their stories, like so many in this city and our country today, remain achingly relevant -- if only you have eyes to see.


Lane is a freelance writer in Washington.

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