Everywhere you walk there is some sort of gem. Most of them are unseen, because people don’t pay attention to the small wonders. I happen to not be one of those people. This summer I interned at the Historical Society of PA in the communication and public programs departments. As part of my workload, I undertook researching Catholic churches to write posts about them in connection with the Papal visit. Needless to say, I don’t know a lot about Catholic history, nor did I have an interest in it, but it might have been the most rewarding experience I ever had. I found it interesting, but also explored different collections in-depth, something I never had the opportunity to do.
The main church I focused on, as well as wrote about, was St. Augustine’s Church. Also needless to say, there is a connection to Villanova University: Augustinian friars established the institution we know and love. While this much I knew, I did not know the church’s history, and it is absolutely fascinating!
St. Augustine is the fourth oldest church in Philadelphia, and the mother church of the Augustinian Friars. It was established in 1798, with assistance from the public one of these people was our very own George Washington! Little did I know the church was burned down during the Kensington Riots of 1844. The church was rebuilt and consecrated in 1847. Built on top of the ruins of the old church, St. Augustine continues to serve the Philadelphia community. While I love Independence Hall and our other historic attractions, St. Augustine represents a history of intolerance and persistence that other places cannot represent. Visiting and exploring St. Augustine can place us in the period to which it was destroyed and understand what happened in 1840.
Another little unknown fact, St. Augustine is home to the oldest fresco in the United States! This was announced late last month that this designation would be given to St. Augustine. Previously, it was thought the oldest fresco was in Washington D.C. The fresco is St. Augustine was similar to that of the Sistine Chapel! Who knew something so close was so historic! Being the nerd I am I took a trek to St. Augustine to look at my research subject and was blown away! It was peaceful and serene and everything the pictures I found at the Historical Society showed. It was a great experience to step inside this historic building and see the oldest fresco and the beauty of the church. It was also home to the sister of the Liberty Bell, which is now at Villanova!
St. Augustine is magnificent in and of itself, but not many people know it exists or what it is. We know it as “that church that’s by the Ben Franklin” and I’ll admit I’m guilty of it too. But I hope we can start to look at the other historic landmarks that make Philadelphia the wonderful city that it is.
Here are some pictures from my excursion!