With a soaring 196-foot steeple that towers over newer structures nearby, Christ Church is both a spectacular historic building … and living history at its best.
No musty old buildings or artifacts untouched by human hands here. Instead, this is a flourishing, active modern parish – where members still worship under a brass chandelier (with real candles) that has hung since 1744.
Parishioners continue to be baptized at a 15th century octagonal walnut font used by William Penn in 1644. And, says senior guide and historian Neil Ronk, “The bells we rang for the Revolution will ring for a wedding tonight.”
Ronk, an engaging, enthusiastic storyteller who publishes his own blog, “History Made Fresh,” said he was going to tell the best man at that evening’s nuptials, “Thomas Jefferson was best man at a wedding here.”
Started as a small log and brick building in 1695, the original church structure was not all that impressive. Alice of Dunk’s Ferry, an oral historian and Christ Church’s oldest known parishioner, told people “she could place the palm of her hand on the ceiling of the center aisle and walk the entire length without removing it.”
Little did she realize that this church, whose brick tower resembles one at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, would become known as “the nation’s church” – because of the Revolutionary leaders who worshipped here.
Besides being the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania, it was also the birthplace of the American Episcopal Church.
George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, and Betsy Ross all rented pews here. (Washington’s pew was number 56; Franklin’s, number 70.) You can even sit in their pews and imagine what it was like to be in this church during the Revolutionary War. (To get to those pews, you actually walk over some 20 graves installed inside the church from 1699 to 1796.)
The church’s famous 2-acre burial ground, which is three blocks away at 5th and Arch Streets, includes seven signers of the Declaration of Independence, five signers of the U.S. Constitution and 1,400 markers in all. (It’s closed January and February. Admission is $1 for children and $2 for adults. Burial ground tours are available through the Independence Visitors Center.)
7 facts you may not know about Christ Church:
- The tower, added in 1754, made the 7-story church the tallest building in the U.S. until 1810, and in Philadelphia until 1856. The addition was financed by two lotteries organized by Ben Franklin.
- Christ Church contains the largest Palladian window built in America in the 18th century.
- Since the Revolution in 1776, Christ Church has had just 10 pastors. One of them died in the first month.
- From 1747 to 1767, about 25 to 33 percent of Philadelphia’s free and enslaved Africans were baptized here.
- Eight bells, cast in 1754 by the same Whitechapel Bell Foundry that created the problem-plagued Liberty Bell, announced the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776. They did not break, and continue to ring weekly.
- Christ Church’s original bronze 350-lb. “Great Bell,” cast in 1702 and no longer needed after the steeple was built, was effectively lost for 250 years. Now found and said to have a magnificent tone, the bell is being readied for public display and celebration. Dedication of the new exhibit area is scheduled for July 4, 2014.
- Christ Church is thought to be the only place in the original 13 colonies depicting English royalty on the outside of a public building. A bas-relief of George II appears above the Palladian window on Second Street.
Delayed: Christ Church ‘Great Bell” ceremony
Dedication of the new display for Christ Church’s “Great Bell” has been postponed – due to more pressing issues. No word yet on a new date.
A final thought:
Unlike much of Philadelphia’s history, Christ Church is as modern as today’s breaking news. As historian Ronk puts it, “What is a place like this for if you can’t use the items?”
Address: 20 N. American St., Philadelphia, PA 19106 (Second Street above Market)
Current Building Opened: 1744
Architectural Style: Georgian
Number of annual visitors: 220,000
Tours: Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Expected donation: $3. Note: The church is closed Monday and Tuesday, January and February
This article was originally published in the January/February 2014 edition of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.