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Success Story! Calvary United Methodist Church, West Philadelphia

A Grand Building Crumbles

Calvary United Methodist Church’s granite ten-story tower soars over the beautiful Victorian street corner of 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue. It stands guard over stately old mansions and townhouses. But in the there was a time when this magnificent church was almost demolished.

Visitors to the church in the early 1990s were greeted by a doomed space. The deteriorated condition of the room was sunlit by a riot of color from the central stained-glass dome and the massive Tiffany windows on the angled walls. A world class organ hugged the wall.

The church had been mostly abandoned for a quarter century. Gaping holes in the walls, hundred-pound chunks of plaster fallen from the ceiling, and ample evidence of indoor rainfall detracted from its splendor.

Like so many grand 19th-century churches, the congregation at Calvary started dwindling in the 1970s. They were unable to maintain the building. In 1990, with structural problems that could be dangerous, the disheartened congregation decided to sell the building.

However, because of the condition of the building and its location in West Philadelphia, no one was interested in taking on such a burden, so it continued to deteriorate. After three years with no buyer, the congregation decided to reduce the building’s price, and sell the Tiffany windows separately.

When the community learned of the decision, they were devastated. They asked if there was any way to keep the building intact and congregation active?

Listening to the Community

A group of concerned long-time residents formed Friends of Calvary (FoC). Bob Jaegar from Partners for Sacred Places led the effort.

FoC hired Jackque Warren to facilitate neighborhood focus groups. Warren worked hard to reach the diverse community stakeholders. He asked them: If we could save the Calvary building, what would you like to see happen there?

Surprisingly, almost everyone said the same thing!

  1. The building stays a sacred place, and the congregation remains.

  2. Space for community activities, because public space was scarce.

  3. A local venue for culture and the arts to spur commercial development on Baltimore Avenue. The handsome “Main Street” had lost many businesses and buildings needed repairs.

The congregation decided not only to stay, but to redevelop the building to serve all three goals.

Restoring the Church

The non-profit organization Calvary Center for Culture and Community (Calvary Center) was formed with the mission to redevelop, repair and restore the building.

The non-profit balanced the needs of the congregation and the community to create a shared sense of ownership.

With a part-time staffer, Calvary Center helped the congregation raise money from the Pennsylvania Keystone grant program, William Penn Foundation and other sources; manage a capital campaign; and make major repairs to the building. Often a separate non-profit, like the Calvary Center, can facilitate funding from government and foundations which are uncomfortable giving money to religious organization.

Partners for Sacred Places was instrumental in the negotiations to form Calvary Center. They continued to help, including providing major grants for the building’s restoration.

Several local organizations also helped: the University City Historical Society, the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School and Historic Preservation Department at Penn’s Graduate School of Design, and later the University City District (UCD).

Calvery Center was enormously successful:

  • Raised more than a million dollars for repairs, renovation and restoration of the building

  • All rooms of the immense building are used.

  • A new roof installed

  • Heating system overhauled. The

  • Reconstructed the main granite-clad gable walls.

  • Repaired deep-relief plaster

  • Restored the Bishop’s office, and bringing the

  • Brought kitchen back to working condition.

The sanctuary is the last room waiting for full restoration. In the meantime, it is still regularly used.

How a Building Builds Community

The Center also redeveloped the building for new uses. Today the once-empty is a true community center. It is home to many different organizations, including:

  • University City Historical Society

  • Cedar Park Neighbors

  • Prometheus Radio Project

  • The Literacy Center of Philadelphia

  • Mariposa Food Co-op

Local bakers use the newly updated kitchen. Calvary has become the community’s unofficial town hall. The building hosts town meetings, retreats, and different organizations’ meetings.

The building is a venue for music, art, and theater performances, using the flexible stage built at the front of the sanctuary. Performances include:

  • Music concerts organized by the Crossroads Music Series.

  • Plays and musicals by The Curio Theatre Company

  • Other special concerts and events are performed.

One Church, Many Congregations

Calvary continues to be a sacred space. The Calvary United Methodist Church (UMC) still uses the building, and its congregation is growing. But Calvary UMC is not the only group to worship at Calvary.

There are five other Christian congregations that call Calvary home, including a Mennonite congregation, an Ethiopian congregation, and three Pentecostal congregations. Calvary made local history when the first synagogue in the neighborhood in over 50 years was formed and housed in the church.

Calvary is more meaningful as a sacred space than ever before!

The Ripple Effect

Calvary has been able to share space at well-below market rates, and yet income from others who use the buildings now covers utilities, day-to- day maintenance and repairs, and some operating costs. Calvary Center raises money for the large renovation and restoration projects. Calvary UMC has a balanced budget every year.

Many people who worship at Calvary now call the neighborhood home, and their house of worship doubles as local spot for evening entertainment.

In the past few years, Calvary’s renaissance encouraged seven restaurants to open in surrounding blocks. A new bookstore; two coffee shops; a wellness center; and another art, theater, and music venue have renewed Baltimore Avenue.

The University City District made Baltimore Avenue an official Commercial Corridor, which means they installed street lighting and small parks along the avenue. The whole area is vibrant and welcoming.

Partners for Sacred Places helps congregations and others with a stake in older religious properties make the most of them as civic assets in ways that benefit people of all faiths and of no faith. They are a national, nonsectarian and not-for-profit organization.

phone: (215) 567-3234,,

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