text: seven walking tours through historic Philadelphia

Old St. Joseph's

Society Hill 33

Founded in 1733, it is the oldest Roman Catholic church in the city. The entrance to the church is from intimate Willings Alley just off 4th Street. Going through an archway with iron gates, one recalls the legend that Benjamin Franklin advised the Catholic congregation to design the narrow entryway so that, if religious toleration in Philadelphia ever ran a little thin, the church would not be so open to attack. The first church was built in 1733, enlarged in 1821 and rebuilt (the present building) in 1838. It survived a period of Nativist ("Know-Nothing") anti-Catholic rioting in 1844. A Philadelphia author, Agnes Repplier, described Old St. Joseph's as a "church as carefully hidden away as a martyr's tomb in the catacombs.

The archway leads to an inner courtyard, with the rectory and its beautifully balanced facade on the right. A quiet spot, it provides a fitting entry into the church. On the north wall there is a commemorative plaque paying tribute to William Penn, who brought religious toleration and understanding to the colony. The inscription reads:

When in 1733
St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church
was founded and
Dedicated to the Guardian of the Holy Family
it was the only place
in the entire English speaking world
where public celebration of
the Holy sacrifice of the Mass
was permitted by law.

The church interior has been restored in recent years. There is a particularly impressive painting of the crucifixion behind the main altar and a graceful curving balcony, unusual in Catholic Churches. Lafayette, the Comte de Rochambeau and Admiral de Grasse — all Frenchmen who came to the young republic's assistance in the Revolution — were worshipers here.

Society Hill