The Fleisher Years Chapter 3: A Basilica on Catharine Street Becomes an Art Sanctuary (1886-1943)

The story of the Basilica—once Church of the Evangelists, later the Sanctuary of Fleisher Art Memorial—is a remarkable chapter in the dramatic story of South Philadelphia’s transformation by 20th-century immigration and urbanization. Since opening on Catharine Street in 1886, the Sanctuary has inspired Philadelphians by welcoming them into a small world apart from the workaday street.

The building has led an extraordinary life as a uniquely situated place of reflection and reform. Designed in the 1880s as the Episcopal Church of the Evangelists, the building was purchased by Samuel Fleisher in 1922 to serve his Graphic Sketch Club as a place to celebrate and teach about the reforming power of art and beauty in everyday life. Today it continues to serve as a gathering place at the heart of our thriving arts organization—Fleisher Art Memorial. Since its inception, this building has served its South Philadelphia neighborhood in many ways, though it has always been a sanctuary of one kind or another—to inspire religious devotion, celebrate art and beauty, or both.

The Church of the Evangelists

Episcopal priest Henry Robert Percival assumed leadership of Philadelphia’s Church of the Evangelists in 1881. A charismatic preacher and widely read author of books on Episcopal theology and worship, Percival was inspired to create a new church built from old ideas—a basilica church, inspired by places he’d admired while traveling in Europe. Percival commissioned a firm led by the celebrated Philadelphia architect Frank Furness to create the design, completed by young associates E.J. Dallett and Louis Baker.

The new Church of the Evangelists opened on Catharine Street in 1886; the congregation thrived until Percival’s death in 1903. Meanwhile, the surrounding community had been changing dramatically, as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe flocked to Philadelphia and made new homes in crowded South Philadelphia neighborhoods. Percival’s successor, Dr. Charles Wellington Robinson, attempted to reach out to the changing community by building St. Martin’s School for Indigent Boys. His well-intentioned attempt was short-lived, and both the school and church were closed by 1911, emptied of much of their decoration.

In Fleisher’s mind, art was on par with the uplifting capacity of religion, so it made perfect sense that he acquired such a thoroughly religious building as the sanctuary to serve as the intellectual and spiritual home of his beloved club. He called the space “an art sanctuary” and “a playground for the soul.” 

An Art Sanctuary

Philadelphia, like all large American cities, grew and changed dramatically in the decades around 1900. Factories expanded, downtown buildings grew taller, automobiles began to dominate the streets, and immigrants arrived in ever larger numbers to make new lives. South Philadelphia, including the Third Ward area around Catharine Street, was typical. Immigrant families from Italy, Russia and elsewhere crowded into substandard houses, bustling markets were loud with myriad languages, and children played in the streets, creating neighborhoods that could be seen as vibrant or dangerous, depending on one’s perspective.

The flow of immigration that contributed to the Church of the Evangelists’ waning congregation—Italians and Eastern Europeans tended not to worship in the Anglophile Episcopal church—also presented opportunities for the work of reformers like the Fleishers. South Philadelphia’s congestion attracted many reform institutions, including settlement houses, whose mission was bringing better lives to the most disadvantaged parts of the city. Fleisher’s interest in art and beauty as positive environmental influences were brought energetically to life in the Graphic Sketch Club.

The power and impact of the “Art Sanctuary” drew on the contrast it presented to the surrounding streets—a peaceful space and curated display of beauty, as opposed to the chaotic, dirty, and gregarious streets of the neighborhood.

“You cannot long do things in an environment of peaceful quiet and beauty without that environment entering into and becoming a part of you.” -Samuel S. Fleisher

Leave a Comment

Comments are subject to review. Your email is never published nor shared. *Required fields