Former church parishioner reflects on the legacy of Philadelphia’s first Black Catholic church

Adrienne Andrews Harris discusses the church’s fight to reopen since 2014 at Temple’s Blockson collection.

Adrienne Andrews Harris speaks about the closing of St. Peter Claver Church, its history, and her fight to reopen the space in the Blockson Afro-American Collective in Sullivan Hall on Feb. 6. CLAUDIA SALVATO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Saint Peter Claver Church, on Lombard and 12th streets, was built in 1842. It was the first  Catholic church for African Americans in Philadelphia, when they bought pews from it in 1892.

“It is a small church, but the community would welcome everyone,” Adrienne Andrews Harris said. “When it opened, people would sell tea to raise money.”

The church was closed on April 8, 2019. 

Harris, a former parishioner, spoke about her family and community’s fight against its closing at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection on Feb. 6. The event was part of the Black Lives Always Mattered! public program series. 

Harris’ relatives started attending the church in 1913 and she, along with people closely related to the church, advocates for the church’s right to be reopened. 

“The church of Saint Peter Claver has always been open to everyone, not just African Americans,” Harris said. “Today, the Archdiocese has locked the doors on us from entering our own church and allowed it to be stripped by other churches.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia did not inform the church community about the church’s closing in 2014 and stripping in 2015, which authorized other Catholic churches in the area to take artifacts from it, Harris said. The message sent to them was to stay out, she added. 

Adrienne Andrews Harris presents documents detailing the journey of St. Peter Claver Church’s opening, ownership, closing, and Harris’ fight to reopen it. CLAUDIA SALVATO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The original deed included an understanding that the church was a worship place for all races and ethnicities because Black Catholics had to relinquish the ownership, Harris said. The church was the only place of worship for African Americans but was taken away, along with the precious heritage inside, she added. 

“That is why that protective language was put in there,” Harris said. 

Our Lady of Victories, a statue of the Virgin Mary, at the St. Peter Claver Church was the oldest shrine in the area. A replica of this statue is in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris in Paris, France. This shrine was bought by Catherine Drexel, a contributor to the start up of the church in 1942, but it was gone during the stripping. 

Harris also discussed how the church felt suppressed under John Cardinal Krol, the Archbishop of Philadelphia in 1986 and how people still feel the same way under the present Archdiocese. 

“He cut everything off from us, we couldn’t get married, baptized or buried there but we refused to give up,” Harris said. “This Archdiocese of today has no respect for the Black Catholic community because most of that community is scared to death to object to anything they say.”

Adrienne Andrews Harris speaks about the closing of St. Peter Claver Church, its history, and her fight to reopen the space in the Blockson Afro-American Collective in Sullivan Hall on Feb. 6. CLAUDIA SALVATO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

She, along with other church members, advocates for the church and its possible reopening as they hope for an Archbishop that will support their community.

“This is an amazing piece of history and I admire them for what they are doing,” said Matt Hopkins, a former parishioner of Saint Teresa church. “It is a story that needs to be told.”

Harris wants people to understand what the church has been through, what it is going through and that it has a chance to survive through the people within, she said. 

An audience member spoke about Barney Richardson, who was a longtime church member and kept some of the church’s valuables.

Harris wants those valuable possessions to be archived and she has reached out to Richardson’s daughter to make that happen. 

“The goal for us is to work on that,” Donna Richardson, his daughter said from the audience. 

“I do not want to be buried anywhere else, when the time comes, if St. Peter Claver is not around,” Harris said. “It is important that what we are doing lives on and the young people fight for this and understand it as well.”

The Archdiocese broke some aspects of Canon Laws, a Catholic law system, when they closed down the church, Harris said, adding that she wants to take the case to Rome at the Vatican, if need be. 

“This is one thing that our ancestors did that we can put our hands on and say we deserve it and we can have it,” said Harris. “We want to open this church and make it an area for dialogue.”

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