The Spanish Chapel

Looking west down Spring Garden Street from the 1700 block.
The Highway Tabernacle steeple can be seen through the bare trees on the right, and further down at 20th Street, seen just beneath the traffic lights, is the square steeple of a former Methodist Church. The Spanish Chapel was at 1903 Spring Garden Street between these two churches.

Since the mid-nineteenth century there have been five Christian churches within the Baldwin Park neighborhood, what I have been defining as any area within two blocks of Baldwin Park. The Fifth United Presbyterian Church at 513 North 20th Street became the 9th District Police Headquarters around 1900, then was demolished for housing in the 1960s. The Emory Methodist Episcopal Church at 1827-1829 Callowhill Street became an iron foundry around 1920, and the site is now a vacant lot east of Franklin Beverage. The Methodist Church at 20th and Spring Garden Streets still stands but became housing in 2016. The Highway Tabernacle Church at 18th and Spring Garden Streets is the only active church remaining. There was another church one block west of this until 2013, and it has left a little reminder of its presence on a brass plaque at 1903 Spring Garden Street.

Brass plaque embossed with "1903 Rectory" at 1903 Spring Garden Street

This plaque marks the site of the Spanish Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (Capilla Catolica Hispana de la Medalla Milagrosa), the first Spanish language church in Philadelphia. It was at 1903 Spring Garden Street for 101 years, from 1912 to 2013. The two images below show the front of the building in 1992 and a detail showing the church signage above the front door.

Building and sign above front door in 1992.

A Catholic priest from the Vincentian order, Father Antonio Casulleras, appealed in 1909 to his higher ups in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to help establish a church for the "Spanish colony" in Philadelphia. According to his assessment, there were about 1000 Spanish-speaking Catholics scattered throughout Philadelphia (although there were more likely about 6000 in a city population then as now of 1.5 million), and these newcomers were neglecting religious services and sacraments due to the language barrier. He was given permission to hold Spanish-language services in St. Mary's Church in what is now Society Hill, but a year later he appealed to have a separate building for services. 

The Vincentian order of Barcelona purchased a home at 1903 Spring Garden Street in 1912 for conversion to a chapel. The purchase price of $12,250 had to be augmented with a conditional grant of $1,080 from Katherine Drexel, the founder of an order of nuns called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. She had inherited a steady flow of income from the estate of her banker father, Francis Anthony Drexel. The $1,080 grant was approximately the value of one day's income from that estate. Her two conditions were that services could not be refused to Spanish-speaking Indians or colored people, to use her words, and that a proportionate share of her grant would be returned to her order if the chapel were ever sold. 

The building celebrated many baptisms and weddings during its 100-year run. The two images below, from 1992, show the interior of the chapel.

Main altar of chapel, 1992
Alcove shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in the chapel, 1992

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal derives its name from an event in 1830 France. A young nun, Catherine Labouré, had visions of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in which Mary told her to bring instructions to the local priest. These instructions were to have a medallion struck with specific images on both sides. On the front was an image of Mary, encircled by the French words, which translated into English, are: "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." On the back were symbols for Mary and Jesus intertwined above symbols for the hearts of Jesus and Mary, as shown below. The phrase "conceived without sin," and the popularity of the medal, influenced the papal proclamation of 1854 confirming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary's mother's conception of Mary without original sin, NOT the virgin conception of Jesus). 

The front and back of the Miraculous Medal, a hugely popular item among Mary devotees.

Before the chapel was purchased, the Vincentian order had a seminary in Germantown, attached to St. Catherine's Church and a shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (still there and open for visits). The chapel on Spring Garden Street appropriated this name as a Spanish-speaking satellite branch of the church.

The Barcelona Vincentians withdrew from the chapel in 1976 due to declining numbers of priests. Spanish-language services in the chapel were taken over by priests from the nearby Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. In 2013 the Vincentian order decided to sell the building at 1903 Spring Garden to raise funds to support their retired priests. The building was sold to a developer who converted it into seven apartments, with four parking spaces out back on Monterey Street. The Blessed Sacrament order did get its proportionate share of the $750,000 sales price, thanks to the foresight of Katherine Drexel. The regular Spanish-language services were moved to the Cathedral building as of June 2013.

1903 Spring Garden Street in 2019.
Ghost signage barely perceptible above front door, 2019

Churches are fading from our modern landscape. Before the 21st century, every neighborhood had its own church, with services in the immigrants' own languages. In the nineteenth century, before high rise buildings, the spires of these churches were easily visible as neighborhood landmarks. The beautiful chromolithograph below, from the Library of Congress, shows the background spires over the Great Sanitation Fair of June 1864 at Logan Square, viewing toward the northeast.

Bonus features

The source documents used for this month's history page are from the Catholic Historical Research Center collected here.

Catherine Laboure was only one of many Marian visionaries in Catholic tradition. Several others have memorials near Baldwin Park. See them here.

I did not include in this main article another church, at 560 North 20th Street (southwest corner of 20th and Brandywine), because it is just outside my arbitrary two block radius of the Baldwin Park neighborhood. It is quite active and similar to the Spanish Chapel in two respects: it offers its services in another language (Church Slovenian); and its interior looks similar to the interior of the Spanish Chapel as far as fitting into a double-wide row home. Pictures here.

authored by Joe Walsh, February 2019

Matthias Baldwin Park 

423 N 19th St 

Philadelphia, PA 19130

Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to preserve the Matthias Baldwin Park

© 2018 Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park