Friday, May 19, 2017

"Among these dark Satanic mills": St James the Less, Philadelphia

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen! 
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills? 
--William Blake, Jerusalem (1808)

Previously on Modern Medievalism, I toured the church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont: a splendid Gothic church in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Today I bring you some photos and commentary of another Gothic marvel: St James the Less.

An article on St James the Less from ten years ago already references Blake's poem, but I can't help repeating it for the title to my entry because it's so apt. St James is one of those churches you simply can't believe exists anywhere this side of the Atlantic until you step inside. I had, of course, heard about it because the pastor of my Ordinariate parish was rector of St James for some two decades in a previous chapter of his life (as an Episcopal priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition). As an enthusiast of Gothic architecture, I wanted to scope the church out for myself and so reached out to the current chaplain in residence at St James when it would be convenient to get a tour. He welcomed me to meet him immediately after a Sunday evening liturgy. Following Mass at my own parish and a brief rest at home, I made the drive out to a part of the city I had never been to before.

Idyllic as it might appear from the photos, St James is nestled in a neighborhood of Philadelphia which, I was told, has some of the lowest life expectancies in the state. More-or-less the opposite of Good Shepherd's Main Line neighborhood, the community around St James suffers from poverty, substance abuse, gang violence, and absent parents. Cutting through some urban decay, the old Tastykake factory, and the famous Laurel Hill Cemetery on the way, I pulled into streetside parking along a road which divides the church and the schoolhouse. As I walked in, the service was just beginning the Gloria in excelsis to a gospel-style tune, accompanied by both the organ and a bongo drum. The chaplain presided from a forward altar, a small table placed in front of the rood screen. From what I could tell, it seemed more of a "Rite II" order of worship, but my wife was waiting in the car with the children sleeping in their seats (or so I thought), so I decided to get back in and drive around until it was over.

When we got back, most of the (very small) congregation were still there for a community dinner, and the head of the school gave me a quick introduction to the church. In short, St James is not really "Gothic revival"--it's America's first ever church in an entirely authentic Gothic style because it's a replica of a 13th century village parish church near Cambridge (England, not Massachusetts) called St Michael's, Longstanton. The church's first sponsor was one Robert Ralston: a philanthropist who desired to build a house of worship for both the wealthy captains of industry whose mansions overlooked the Schuylkill River and the laborers who toiled in the textile mills nearby. This was a novel idea in the mid-1800's because congregations were typically segregated by class, e.g. the wealthy built a finely appointed church for themselves, and then a modest mission for their hired help further away. But Ralston and his partners were captivated by the ideas on faith and architecture put forth by the Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Camden Society.

A word on the Society: I haven't written about them on my blog before, but the CCS revolutionized Anglican church-building in the few decades they were active. They were a group of fiery Cambridge students; all wide-eyed modern medievalists like yours truly; who were doggedly determined to export the ideals of the Tractarians to every new Anglican church being built, whether in Great Britain, the United States, or anywhere else. It was the CCS that singlehandedly brought the chancel and choir stalls back into fashion at a time when neither Anglican nor Catholic clergy had much of a concept of sitting in-choir anymore.

View from the middle of the chancel, between the choir stalls.
By no means were they mere aesthetes: the Society rated an architect's personal life and theological beliefs as well as his designs "we do protest against the merely business-like spirit of the modern profession, and demand from them a more elevated and directly religious habit of mind". This also took on a sectarian lens: as a result, Augustus Welby Pugin earned low marks for being a Roman Catholic despite being the founding father of the Gothic revival, while William Butterfield (who never took a commission from Catholics) was the Society's golden boy, even if he strayed from CCS orthodoxy from time to time by using brick. More on the CCS can be read here on Victorianweb.

How is this at all relevant to St James the Less? Consider the Society's attitude to rented pews (a ubiquitous feature then): "What is the history of pues, but the history of the intrusion of human pride, selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of God?"  To the CCS, architecture was a tool for converting souls: "We know that Catholick ethics gave rise to Catholick architecture; may we not hope that, by a kind of reversed process, association with Catholick architecture will give rise to Catholick ethics?"

With the plans of a 13th century church in hand, sent to architect John Carver by the CCS, St James was built in 1846, and dedicated by the Episcopal bishop in 1850. Visitors, overwhelmed by the success of the parish's design, spurred a wave of imitations whose effects are seen to this day with the imprint of the Gothic revival everywhere in Protestant America: high or low church. Over the next century, the parish cemetery filled to capacity and urban sprawl engulfed the neighborhood--but next to nothing about the church itself, architecturally or spiritually, changed. At his arrival in the 1980's, my pastor (then rector of St James) picked up the torch of Anglo-Catholic worship via the Anglican Missal on the one hand, and social teaching on the other by operating the school for children, nearly all from broken or disadvantaged families, across the street. From what I can gather, the continuity of worship naturally extended to continuity of doctrine. His rectorship, along with the vestry of St James, wouldn't survive the sweeping changes of the Episcopal Church in regard to women's ordination, practicing homosexual clergy, and, I'm sure, other controversies that I'm not privy to as an outsider.

The second rood screen. The original was made of wood.
While I'm grateful that the school of St James is now back in operation and service to the children of the neighborhood, and that the chaplain very kindly gave me a tour of the church (now back in part-time use after several years of neglect), I must still say as a Roman Catholic that I'm glad my pastor made the choice of entering into full communion with Rome through the Ordinariate... because, speaking merely as a Gothicist, I would have been tempted to find some negotiation with the Episcopal diocese to live out the end of my days in this "green & pleasant Land". But, as I'm sure he would remind me, the Church is the faithful, not the building.

Like the Lady Chapel at Good Shepherd, this altarpiece is the work of Davis d'Ambly. His fingerprint is everywhere in Philadelphia.
This recessed sedilia is, curiously, only for two ministers (there is a seat for one directly across on the Gospel side). But it wasn't an oversight. See below.
This photo is from the model church in England: St Michael's, Longstanton. As you can see, the sedilias are substantially the same.
Like the original church in Cambridge, the western window here is very small. A massive window would probably been well beyond the means of a 13th century village parish's budget.
The confessional. The chaplain admitted to me it's currently used as storage, though he said he would like to teach the schoolchildren about auricular confession as, in his words, "it's a sacrament of the Church".
This is just one part of the sprawling cemetery around the church.
The carillon tower. At the base rests the mausoleum of the Wanamaker family. John Wanamaker was actually a Presbyterian, but his family's legacy looms over Philadelphia like the Waynes of Gotham.
The door to the Wanamaker crypt.

The churchyard is a "who's who" of Victorian Episcopal bishops, famous Civil War generals, architects, and members of prominent Philadelphia families like the Biddles.

Who knew graveyards were so much fun?


  1. That Lady Chapel makes me want to don a cassock and surplice and sing some chant and polyphony.

  2. Wonderful post. Oh the happy and sacred times spent at St. James the Less! The last picture is a wonderful contrast of movement amongst stillnes, new life and eneregy amidst rest.

  3. Is S. Alban's, Olney on your list? I remember reading a book on its building by its rector and restorer. He also wrote The Practise of Religion.

    Gratias tibi ago!

    Seraphim the Anglican+

  4. The illustration from Lonstganton shows a double piscina, not sedilia.
    Simon Cotton

  5. Check out foundation mass photos re Notre Dame Priory, Tasmania, Australia, held at St Patrick's Colebrook (13th C English village church, Pugin revival, rood screen and all):

  6. Check out foundation mass photos re Notre Dame Priory, Tasmania, Australia, held at St Patrick's Colebrook (13th C English village church, Pugin revival, rood screen and all):