Summer Beckley goes to church to find out why the rest of Philadelphia is missing out on this gem.
Light streams in through ornate windows at Christ Church. In the hushed calm, it’s easy to imagine this place centuries ago, with its high ceilings and massive columns, filled with men in powdered wigs and breeches and women in gowns and petticoats. Christ Church has seen our nation develop in the last 300 years, from the turmoil and confusion of its beginning to the present.
“For almost as long as there has been a Philadelphia, there has been a Christ Church,” Senior Guide and Historian at Christ Church Neil Ronk said. “It’s been a mirror of the community. It’s a picture that can be one of hope for the city.”
Christ Church is a National Historic Landmark located in the heart of Old City on North American Street. Founded in 1695 by the Church of England, it is known as “The Nation’s Church” and was attended by Founding Fathers like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and Betsy Ross.
“Christ Church was very important in the founding of our country,” said Anne McLaughlin, the director of tourism at Christ Church. “It is where many of the Founding Fathers worshipped and where [five] signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried.”
The church was originally housed in a small, wooden building on the site. The congregation quickly grew and between 1727 and 1744, the current church was constructed. It is now held as one of the nation’s most beautiful surviving examples of 18th-century Georgian architecture.
Unlike many landmarks in Philadelphia, Christ Church is still fully functioning in its original purpose.
“It’s one of few historic buildings in Philadelphia that’s still in existence and continuing to do what it did. Christ Church is an active church that has not missed a service since it was founded. The church has had its ups and downs. There have been times when the neighborhood wasn’t very nice. But right now it’s very active. We average about 400 members,” McLaughlin said.
“We want to teach history in a way that goes beyond, ‘George Washington sat there.’” Ronk added. “We want to take that nugget of history and from that, make the audience think.”
Fifteen signers of the Declaration of Independence worshipped at the congregation in the 1700s. At the First Continental Congress in September of 1774, Christ Church rector, Jacob Duché, led the opening prayers in Carpenter’s Hall. During the Revolutionary War, Reverend William White served as Chaplain to the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate.
Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried at the Christ Church Burial Ground, including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. The two acres at the corner of Fifth and Arch streets were purchased by Christ Church in 1719. Historically prominent Philadelphians, Andrew Hamilton and Robert Morris lay at rest there along with many victims of the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.
Christ Church is among the top 10 most visited sites in the Philadelphia region.
“We average about 250,000 people a year who come to visit the church and burial ground,” McLaughlin said. “Between March and June, we get about 2,000 students a day.”
McLaughlin said that many families visit the church in the summer months, from the end of May through September. Other visitors are senior groups and college students. Professors from history and architecture classes often pay the church a visit.
Christ Church is the birthplace of the American Episcopal Church. McLaughlin said it is “the mother church for Episcopalians.” In 1804, Christ Church was home to the ordination of Absalom Jones, the first African-American priest in the Episcopalian Church.
“Each year, we tell our story through a different theme,” McLaughlin said. “That way, when people come to Christ Church and the Burial Ground, they don’t always hear the same tour. For example, we have looked at women and African Americans. One year we did ‘Artists, Writers and Composers.’
“This year, for 2010, we’re going to be focusing on connections to the military. It’s fascinating for everybody. We find new information or sometimes rediscover material that’s been lost,” she added.
Today, brass plaques mark the wooden pews, showing where historic individuals once sat. It is fascinating to visit Christ Church, knowing that people like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin once walked the aisles.
“It’s not just history.” Ronk said. “It’s about how you turn the past to make you think about what you can do for the future.”
Summer Beckley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.