Temple University founder Russell Conwell was a powerful figure in his day: a lawyer, editor, minister and preacher who could pack the faithful in.
Conwell began a ministry at the Grace Baptist Church in December 1882.
His drawing power was so great that within four years the supervising deacons saw the need for a larger church to accommodate the growing number of people flocking to Conwell’s services.
When the Baptist Temple, built on North Broad Street between Montgomery Avenue and Berks Street, opened on March 1, 1891, it had the largest capacity of any Protestant church in America.
The building itself became a tourist attraction and drew people along the emerging Broad Street streetcar system to visit the coarse stone building with its short copper-domed towers.
One of Conwell’s many missions was the establishment of a college for the children of urban immigrants.
He wanted it to be a ladder to the middle class, a populist notion in a time where colleges existed mostly to serve and perpetuate the elite.
Conwell opened the doors to his college in 1884 with seven students who attended night classes in the basement of his church.
The college was granted a charter in 1888.
Conwell commissioned the architect who designed the Baptist Temple to design another building to the south of the church to house Temple College.
College Hall was completed in 1893; the building was recently renovated and is now known as Barrack Hall.
The original congregation used the church for 83 years and allowed the University to use it for graduations and other ceremonies.
When the congregation relocated to Blue Bell in 1974, they sold the building to the University for $550,000.
For a time the church was used as an auditorium, but today the church is deteriorating and the only thing it has been home to for the last 20 years are pigeons.
The University Board of Trustees recently voted to begin repairs on the building, after unsuccessfully trying for 20 years to get permission to demolish the building.
“The Baptist Temple has a long rich history and is worth saving,” said the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architechts, John Fox Hayes.
“While not officially part of the University until relatively recently, its symbolic connection to the University makes it significant to both Temple and the City of Philadelphia.”
Underneath the church is the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, a memorial to those who died on the U.S.S. Dorchester in World War II.
The battleship was transporting 900 servicemen to Greenland when a German submarine torpedoed the ship, sending more than 600 soldiers to their death.
The ship had four chaplains stationed on boar: a Roman Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Dutch Reform minister and a Methodist minister.
When the ship’s supply of life jackets ran short, the chaplains gave their life jackets to four servicemen and died when the ship sank.
United States President Harry S. Truman dedicated the chapel to honor the four men and the other serviceman who had died on board the Dorchester.
Chris Powell can be reached at email@example.com