What was once the city’s oldest African- American Catholic church will officially close its doors on Friday, Oct. 31. What was once the St. Peter Claver Church until its 1985 closing had continued to serve the city’s Black Catholic community as the St. Peter Claver Center for Evangelization since 1986.
When the old St. Peter Claver Church, 12th and Lombard streets, was closed in 1985 it left many families without a South Philadelphia area parish after worshipping there for about 100 years. There were some families that worshipped there for more than five generations.
Since then the site still held Masses then because it was home to the Shrine of Our Lady of victories previously maintained by the Holy Ghost Fathers, an order of African American Catholics. A year later it became the St. Peter Claver Center for Evangelization where some Masses were still held and special programs of the center and the Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics were held.
In recent years its held galas like the “Red Carpet Reception” that recognized the African American priests who served the Philadelphia Archdiocese and “The Gifts of Ministry” that gave awards to local leaders and volunteers in the city’s Black Catholic community.
Yet the center was slated to close two years ago. The Archdiocese said that the center would “cease as part of strategic actions to address its core operating deficit.” It was delayed by an appeal from Deacon William Bradley, the current director of the Office for Black Catholics. So, the ministry of the center and a schedule of Mass continued at the center.
“The result has been the underutilization of the St. Peter Claver Center,” said the Archdiocese in an Oct. 9 news release. “For example, less than 15 faithful currently attend the Mass that is celebrated at the center on a monthly basis and programs are sparsely attended.”
The Archdiocese said that no jobs will be impacted. The St. Peter Claver Center’s staff was laid off a few years ago. The Archdiocese said that “proceeds from any possible sale will be designated for the sole purpose of supporting ongoing ministry to the Black Catholic community.”
The original St. Peter Claver parish was founded in 1889. Prior to this African American Catholics sat in the balconies or rear pews of segregated churches and were the last to receive the Eucharist. The church was opened by the St. Peter Claver Union, who named their group after a 17th Century Jesuit who served Africans who were enslaved in Spanish colonies in the Americas. The union petitioned the Archdiocese for a church property.
It was under John Cardinal Krol who sent a 1984 letter to the congregation that stated that the need for the African American parish “no longer exists.” Reasons given included the gentrification of South Philadelphia, the fact that St. Peter Claver had only 300 members on its rolls, and that there was no longer a need for an exclusively African American parish. Yet a Catholic coalition was able to keep the building open as a historical symbol for the region’s 40,000 African American Catholics.
“In 1892 Black people came here to find Jesus,” said the Rev. Stephen D. Thorne at the 2009 receptions for the African American priests.
Thorne is the former director of the Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics and the current pastor of the Martin de Porres Church in North Philadelphia. “It was not just the priests or the religious who were evangelizing. All evangelized from here,” Thorne said.
“Whenever I come here I have to say that I am standing the sacred ground that our ancestors walked on,” said the late Sylvia Royster before a St. Peter Claver Mass held at the center. Royster was the executive director for the Martin de Porres Foundation.