St. Augustine’s Church
On the downstroke of the Ben Franklin Bridge heading into Philadelphia, the impressive spire of St. Augustine’s Church looms close over the bridge. So close, in fact, that in December 1992, a howling storm brought that steeple down, closing the Ben Franklin Bridge – and that entrance into Philadelphia – for 3 days.
That was not the first time St. Augustine’s endured major damage.
The church has a long and storied history. The cornerstone was laid for St. Augustine’s in 1796, “…just three years after the great Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793, St. Augustine’s was a symbol of renewed faith in Philadelphia’s future.” 2 President George Washington was among the financial supporters of the project.2
Nicholas FitzMaurice Fagan was the architect of the original structure. The cupola and tower, designed by William Strickland, were added in 1829. Strickland was a noted architect of the time and also designed the steeple of Independence Hall and the Second Bank of the United States. 1
The church became an educational and cultural center for the growing Irish population of the city, and contained at one time approximately 3,000 volumes. Originally called The St. Augustine Academy for Boys in 1811, the school eventually morphed into what is now Villanova University. 1
In my first blog entry, on the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul (link), I mentioned the violent anti-Catholic Nativist movement and its impact on the design of that cathedral. That violence centered around the Kensington section (Kensington was a separate township at the time) and St. Augustine’s Church. The clash had grown out of the dispute between using Catholic or King James versions of the Bible in local schools.2
On May 8, 1844, after several days of unrest and multiple fatalities, homes and Catholic churches were set ablaze.
The original St. Augustine’s was burned to the ground. All that remained was the back wall of the altar, which carried the inscription, “The Lord Seeth.”
As devastating as the fire was, the congregation was determined to rebuild. In 1847, Napoleon LeBrun –the architect credited with the design of the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul and the Philadelphia Academy of Music – designed the St. Augustine’s Church seen today. 3
The church was built in the Palladian style, much simpler than the Cathedral, but is noteworthy for the impressive murals on the ceiling and on either side of the altar by Philip Costaggini, which were painted in 1884, as well as the beautifully detailed marble work and columns of the altar itself.
Another notable feature of the architecture is the wrap-around, three-sided gallery, which essentially divides the space in half vertically. The result is the ability to place two-tiers of stained glass windows, bringing soft light and captivating color to the interior.
The image below is taken from beneath the gallery and shows how the upper level in incorporated into the main interior space, with a slightly arched gallery ceiling and columns. The arch elements are echoed in the stained glass windows of both the upper and lower levels, while the columns reflect and extend from the columns anchoring the altar.
St. Augustine’s in Philadelphia continues the traditional bond between the Augustinians and the Filipino community. (The first Catholic church in the Philippines was established in 1565 and was Augustinian. 1 )
Since the Santo Niño shrine, a replica of one in the Philippines, was opened at St. Augustine’s in 1992, Filipinos from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware have come to this small, beautiful church in the city.
My wife and I, along with some close friends, visited St. Augustine’s one evening for an open house. We were greeted warmly, shown around with enthusiasm and invited to join them for dinner. If you have the opportunity to visit, do so – not only to see the exceptional beauty of both the architecture and the murals, but to enjoy the people there.
As always, this blog is not intended to be the definitive history or discussion of St. Augustine’s church in Philadelphia. For more detailed information, please take a look at the sources I used.