In Philadelphia, many things are sacred. At least they should be.

Our nation will celebrate 250 years of existence in 2026 , with its formation and Declaration of Independence  having taken place within the city boundaries. The City of Philadelphia, designed by William Penn as a safe place for the Quaker People, and placed in a desirable location at the confluence of both the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, spawned from a treaty negotiated with the Lenni Lenape by Penn himself in 1682, some 600 years after the first Native Americans settled the land around what would become the City of Brotherly Love.

Last month, a cleaning crew uncovered vandalism in the Mother Bethel AME Church in Society Hill. A man was sighted throwing a brick through the Church’s historic windows dating from 1890 causing around $15,000.00 in damage. The Church dates from 1794 and is largely credited for the development of the Free African Society.

Also affected this week was Saint John Neumann Shrine which dates back to 1847, causing $20,000 in damages.

So should the birthplace of America stop desecrating its historic places of worship?

We have some of the most historic churches in America. Philadelphia houses the oldest continuously operating church in America, Gloria Dei Old Swedes Church in South Philadelphia which was originally built between 1698 and 1700, and whose congregation dates back to Swedish worship services as far back as 1655 with worship services originally in Tinicum Island.

In May of 2021, in Northeast Philadelphia,  Tacony’s St. Leo the Great Catholic Church was destroyed in an arson fire. The Church was built in 1884.

Occasionally when dealing with monuments from three centuries ago, things happen. Just north of Philadelphia  —  at the one of the oldest Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania (Abington Presbyterian Church) was formed in 1714. The church’s cemetery across Old York Road features a marker that designates the ten mile distance to Rising Sun Tavern, a directional, geographic program inspired by Benjamin Franklin. 

The marker sits right outside of the cemetery’s historic walls that served as cover for multiple Revolutionary War skirmishes around 1777. The church funded a restoration of the marker in 2011, which was damaged due to being moved during multiple widening projects of Old York Road. One such project  —  right after World War II  —  was begun with the anticipation by Abington Township of finding remains of some of the native Lenni Lenape who had inhabited the area long before William Penn negotiated for the land around Abington.

Congregations often cannot foot the bill for expensive repairs. Aside from Mother Bethel’s $15,000 price tag this week was a 2017 incident, one of Philadelphia’s churches formed during the Civil War in 1861, St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, suffered vandals toppling over headstones as well as moving some of them seven years ago. Among the estimated $10,000 in damage, and 23 headstones affected   were a son and his father who both perished in WW1.

Although Philadelphia doesn’t have the highest rate of cemetery and church vandalism with over 398 attacks happening on Catholic Churches alone in the US since May 2020, the vision of a safe city created by William Penn at the confluence of two rivers that would ultimately become the birthplace of American freedom should not include damaging some of the oldest houses of Worship in America, dating back to the inception of our nation.

Oh, and those several sets of remains that Abington Township was prepared to discover in 1946 during a road widening project? A total of 92 bodies were found.

Michael Thomas Leibrandt is a historical writer living in Abington Township.

One thought on “Michael Thomas Leibrandt: When nothing is sacred”

  1. Mary Treat Died 1742. Good article.
    I see you. Very interesting topic.
    In 1946, a project began to widen the roads around the cemetery in Abington at the corner of Susquehanna Street Road and Old York Road. The original project had an estimate and preparations to exhume and move 21 bodies for relocation during the project. A total of 92 bodies were discovered during the widening, some of which were believed to be the remains of Lenape Indians.
    Here is a question: Do you listen to James A. Lindsay’s podcast New Discourses? Give it a listen.

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