The massive stone church at the corner of 52nd Street and Bible Way in West Philadelphia has stood for more than a century.
But after a blaze tore through Greater Bible Way Temple in August causing millions in damages, church officials decided to raze the house of worship.
“Economics tells you what to do,” said Estena McGhee, the church’s director of finance.
“You’ve got to use God’s money wisely.”
The cost to repair the 114-year-old structure was estimated at more than $8 million, a sum beyond the reach of the church’s 500 members, said Bishop Benjamin Peterson Jr., who leads the congregation founded by his mother and father.
On Friday, Peterson and McGhee, his sister, stood inside the church’s former shelter adjacent to the church, which was largely spared from the fire.
The building was an ongoing construction zone.
The sounds of drills and other construction work filled the rooms and hallways as crews worked to convert the former shelter into an administrative building and space to run youth programs, Sunday school, and more — all of which was housed in the church before the fire.
Church officials decided this week to demolish the building, but preserve the church’s bell tower, which will serve as a landmark. Peterson expected the church to be demolished within 60 days.
But church officials have yet to apply for a demolition permit and the structure remains a safety hazard, said a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections on Friday. The city initiated a court process to this week compel church leaders to get the necessary permits.
“We understand that they intend to demolish it, but we need to see movement,” the department spokeswoman said. “They are past due.”
Lost in the fire
Few things survived the fire.
The flames engulfed the church’s roof for hours and blackened the skies in the Carroll Park neighborhood on Aug. 27.
The fire destroyed the church’s roof, leaving charred beams and exposing the inside of the church to the elements. Officials deemed the fire an accident sparked by an open flame from a torch being used on the roof of the church.
Lost was most of the original stained glass that graced the church’s arched windows, except about six sections, Peterson said.
Among the few things to be preserved was a display case holding items memorializing Bishop Benjamin F. Peterson Sr. and his wife, Mother Estella Peterson, who founded the church in 1958 in South Philadelphia.
The glass displace case is now housed inside a white event tent set up on a vacant property across the street from church where Mass is held every Sunday. The case contains photos of Benjamin F. Peterson Sr., originally from South Carolina, and Estella Peterson, originally from Chester, Delaware.
“We lost all of our pictures, we lost all of our certificates, we lost our awards, so just to have this is really major,” Peterson said.
Greater Bible Way Temple moved in 1971 to a location on Spruce Street then again in 1984 to its current location, which was the former St. Gregory’s Roman Catholic Church. Peterson was raised in the church and has led the church for 25 years.
As crews continue to move offices and programs into the former shelter, Peterson is getting used to his new office there, too.
Much smaller than his previous office located in the church, the room lacks a conference table and a computer, Peterson said as he stood by his desk. The smell of smoke also lingers.
“It reminds me of what happened,” Peterson said.
Greater Bible Way Temple will rebuild, Peterson pledged.
“We’re coming back stronger, better, wiser,” he said.
Church officials want to build a new house of worship on a parking lot behind the stone church and provide more services to the neighborhood.
Peterson envisions a two-story building containing a chapel, community room, game room for children, and computer library for senior citizens. He wants to provide after-school and workforce development programs there, too.
Peterson had no estimate for the cost of the new church but expected construction to begin by February.
“We will continue to service the community in a greater way and be here for the next generation,” he said, “and give them an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to grow, and an opportunity to be educated naturally and spiritually.”