Northeast Philadelphia & the Memorial Church of St. Luke

[Steve’s preface: In the next few weeks I‘ll be able to return to my beloved Midwest. I just accepted an offer to transfer to that most punned city of Illinois, Normal. Even before I received the transfer offer I began putting together highlights of my year (actually year and a half) in Philadelphia. I’ll begin with a look at the Far Northeast Philadelphia, taken from the prologue to a novel I hope to write. The narrator may be a lot like me, but he’s still fictional: I came to Philadelphia for financial reasons only. No failed marriage, no love affair, and I’ll withhold judgment on the job. But St. Luke’s Church has been a refuge for me:]

I had come to Philadelphia for escape–to flee a failed marriage, a dead-end job, and the memory of a love affair that had doomed both marriage and career. The city I found was not the Philadelphia of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin or Edgar Allan Poe, but Far Northeast Philly, a vast suburban sprawl which happened to be inside the city limits. That’s not quite true. There was beauty in Northeast Philadelphia. One just had to look for it. There was Pennypack Park, that lovely stretch of forest and stream which meandered through the Northeast. There was of Bustleton, the Civil War-era village now surrounded by post-World War II development. And within Bustleton was the Memorial Church of St. Luke, an English country church in all but location.

St. Luke’s provided solace for me that first year after I left the Midwest for the City of Brotherly Love. I found out quickly that I did not belong on the East Coast–that I was what writer Hamlin Garland called a “son of the middle border.” But the little Episcopal church was a refuge from the stresses of living alone in a strange city.

Like many small urban parishes, St. Luke’s was struggling financially. I regret that I could only afford a few dollars on some weekends and nothing on many. And because the parish didn’t have a lot of money, it had trouble keeping a rector. When the last rector transferred to a wealthier parish, there was a temporary rector, and then a series of visiting priests–retired clergy or priests who worked outside the church.

It was January–the feast of the Epiphany. I was struggling with depression and did not want to get out of bed that morning. But I told myself that this was an important day in the church year, and dragged myself out of bed, ate my usual breakfast of fruit juice, peanut butter toast and instant cocoa, dressed, and walked the six blocks from my apartment over to St. Luke’s.

It was a cold day, but bright, and I began to feel better as I breathed in the crisp air. Walking up Old Newtown Road, I passed the one holdout Victorian house at the corner of Gregg Street, and tried to imagine the neighborhood as it had been when St. Luke’s was built. At the top of the hill, I headed west on Welsh Road, and made my way to the red door of St. Luke’s.

The red door was once a sign of sanctuary. Because Christ’s blood had been shed for all, the red door was a sign that no blood was to be shed within that door. I doubt whether the church would be able to offer sanctuary today, though why such thoughts entered my mind, I didn’t know.

I found my usual pew, just behind the choir, and had time for a brief prayer before the organist began the processional: “Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord to the we raise…” A young black girl led the procession, carrying the cross in front of her. I bowed to the cross as she passed by. The other two acolytes, a white boy and girl followed, and joined the cross-bearer on the altar. Then came the lector, holding the Bible high above her head. The choir followed, filing into the pews in front of me, singing, “Anthems be to thee addrest, God in man made manifest.”

The priest, a woman with graying black hair,was last in the procession. It was only when she turned to enter the pulpit that I recognized a face I had last seen behind the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, where she had sought sanctuary from an enemy I did not then understand. As we sang the third stanza, those intense brown eyes focused on me. Was I imagining it, or was she singing it for me–for us?

Manifest in making whole
Palsied limbs and fainting soul;
Manifest in valiant fight,
Quelling all the devil’s might;
Manifest in gracious will,
Ever bringing good from ill;
Anthems be to thee addrest,
God in man made manifest.

© 2005 Steve Wyler.  Used by permission.

By Steve Wylder

Steve Wylder is a local historian, a sometime freelance writer, and an evening shift Amtrak ticket clerk in South Bend, Indiana. Steve blogs at On the Slow Train.