Where 18th Street meets Berks Street, six boots hang on power lines. Facing south on the corner, the view of the William Penn-topped City Hall is obstructed, as if to remind this neighborhood that, in many ways and to many Philadelphians, they are out of sight and forgotten. This corner also marked the near completion of my walk from Founder’s Hall to the Church of the Advocate.
Surprisingly, I was motivated to stroll this cracked portion of sidewalk, lined with abandoned buildings and littered with trash, by $1.6 million.
Founder’s Hall, on the corner of Girard Avenue and Corinthian Street, and the Church of the Advocate, on 18th and Diamond streets, both received substantial federal grants early last month.
The grants, totaling $544,554 and $500,000, respectively, were given by Save America’s Treasures, a public-private organization established in 1998. Using the grants, the barely worn roof of Founder’s Hall and the water-damaged walls of the Church of the Advocate will be replaced.
In North Philadelphia, a portion of an historic city often ignored by tour buses and brochures, the importance of helping to restore these landmarks cannot be overstated. Both have greatly influenced not only Philadelphia, but the country.
In 1831, Stephen Girard, whom some considered the richest man in the world at the time of his death, bequeathed his large fortune to a number of charitable organizations. A large portion was set aside to open a school for poor, white, orphan males.
More than a century later in 1968, the first black students were admitted into Girard College, named for the school’s original founder. The admission of four black male students came after two years of picketing, led by Cecil B. Moore – the head of a local NAACP chapter – and highlighted by a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, guarded by portly security guards and an unforgiving iron fence, Girard’s campus houses 677 students, overwhelmingly black and more than half female. The school has given opportunities to countless individuals who likely would have otherwise never found them. Founder’s Hall, with its enormous columns and graceful steps, remains the school’s centerpiece.
Along the walk to the Church of the Advocate, deserted buildings and vacant lots grow more frequent. On my first trip to the Advocate – as those who know it well call the 1890 European-style Gothic masterpiece – I found cold and desolate stone, closed and alone.
When I returned on the following Sunday, I was led under the church’s unapproachable ceiling by an eager tour guide who guessed I wasn’t a regular member of the church.
After service, the church, earlier filled with the swells of organ music, became alive with a congregation preparing for yet another event for the community. With children’s camps, lectures and adult programs, the Advocate is rarely inactive.
The Rev. Isaac Miller, who has been a rector at the Advocate for 16 years, said there is “not only architectural, but huge historical value” in the church.
The Advocate has been active in a troubled community since the turbulent 1960s. The Third Annual National Conference on Black Power and the 1970 Black Panther Convention – attended by 5,000 members – were both held peacefully at the Advocate.
In 1974, the first 11 female Episcopalian ministers were ordained, two years before the National church recognized women in the ministry.
Founder’s Hall and the Church of the Advocate were certainly blessed to receive these grants – representatives for the Advocate filed applications nearly two years ago. Using these grants and the surrounding neighborhood to continue to support communities that have seen better days may need even greater intervention, and surely more luck.
Miller, for one, is not discouraged. We’ll take this generous gift, the rector said, and with the help of others, we’ll roll up our sleeves and do the work we’ve always done – the work that needs to be done to save this church and the people who need it most.
Christopher George Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.