The lavender velvet pews at the First Colored Wesley Methodist Church in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood were packed from end to end, just like in the old days. The choir was in fine form as it delivered a rousing version of “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.” As the strong winter sun filtered through the tall, arched stained-glass windows, the second-floor sanctuary felt as cozy as a rowhouse living room.
But there was a bittersweet feeling to all of it. After the clapping and singing and words of praise were over and most of the hundred or so attendees had filed downstairs for lunch, the Rev. Ralinda Golback gathered a tiny group of regular church members in the sanctuary, shut the door, and turned off the lights. Then, she asked them to pray that Wesley would remain the same close-knit family church it has been for the last seven decades.
“I felt like I was preparing a funeral,” Golback said afterward.
With its final service on Sunday, Wesley becomes the latest black church to pack up and leave the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, which was identified in a recent Pew study as the most intensely gentrified section of Philadelphia. Greater St. Matthew Baptist church sold its massive building to a condo developer about three years ago. First African Baptist moved out last year. Three smaller black churches – all of them Methodist – have been sold and demolished for housing since 2011.
Golback is the first to acknowledge that gentrification isn’t the sole reason for the move. Nor is the church a victim of economic displacement. Even though Graduate Hospital has transformed from a predominantly black neighborhood to a predominantly white one in less than 15 years, Wesley has owned its handsome, Italianate church at 17th and Fitzwater Streets since buying the building for $22,000 in 1943.
But the web of neighborhood connections that gave Wesley its reason for being in this part of South Philadelphia is rapidly disappearing. In a sense, the neighborhood left Wesley. And every Sunday, that diaspora of former residents would have to make its way back to Center City by car – and then find a spot to park.
So now, the historic congregation is striking out for new territory.
Depending on how you count, this will be Wesley’s seventh move since it was founded in 1820 in the back of a carpenter’s shop at Fifth and Lombard. This time it is heading northwest. Having sold its Fitzwater Street building to lawyer Charles Peruto Jr. for $1.6 million, Wesley has its eye on a large church in East Oak Lane, one that comes with an ample parking lot.
Since most of its members now live in northwest Philadelphia or the suburbs, Golback said, it makes sense to relocate Wesley to a place where parking isn’t a hassle. The lack of easy parking was also cited by Greater St. Matthew as the reason for selling its historic building.
“It could take 20 to 30 minutes to find a space,” complained Debora Knowles Anthony, who grew up a few blocks away at 17th and Fernon, but moved to Lindenwold, “so my kids could grow up with grass.” While the city offers Wesley discounted parking on South Street, the walk was too difficult for some older church members, Anthony said.
Source: Philly.com | Inga Saffron