This historic North Philly church needs $7 million in repairs. Can its ‘mother tiger’ reverend find a way?

Things are so bad at the Church of the Advocate that the ceiling is literally falling down.

The Church of the Advocate at 1801 W. Diamond St.

The Church of the Advocate at 1801 W. Diamond St.

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Updated Oct. 7

The Church of the Advocate has been standing in North Central Philadelphia since 1897.

Known intimately by the neighborhood for its employment and emotional support opportunities, the church hosts dozens of community events and gives away roughly 500 meals a week.

A Victorian cathedral that takes up an imposing 100,000 square feet, it’s considered an architectural masterpiece. Behind the granite walls is an arched limestone sanctuary covered in 14 large-scale murals depicting vignettes of the Black experience.

In 1989, the institution helped welcome the world’s first woman bishop. But today, only 30 to 40 people show up for Sunday service. Without a large and steady congregation, the church relies on outside donations for funding. Over the summer, its 36-year-old soup kitchen nearly shut down.

Right now, the Advocate is in a bind. If leaders can’t find a way to raise money for badly needed physical repairs, all its history is at risk. Estimated cost: $7 million.

Without the required fixes, the building could flood in a heavy rainstorm. The ceiling could crumble. Should the church ever catch fire, congregants could be trapped inside by heavy doors that aren’t fire safe. And the community would be left without its hub.

“You can’t just walk away from a dependance that you created,” Reverend Renee McKenzie told Billy Penn. “How does it feel when our church walks in and starts participating in the trauma?”

Rev. Renee McKenzie showing the water drip marks on one of the sanctuary's murals

Rev. Renee McKenzie showing the water drip marks on one of the sanctuary's murals

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Offering sanctuary that’s no longer safe

Designed in the 1800s by noted Philadelphia architect Charles Burns, the Advocate is a “magnificent example of Ecclesiological design in America,” per a 2005 building survey published by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners.

The majestic example of traditional Gothic architecture was infused with African American culture in the 1970s when local black artists painted 14 murals for the interior. The blended masterpiece has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

From its inception, the Advocate was a free church — radical compared to most religious institutions of the time, which required renting pews. It served a mostly black congregation during the Civil Rights era, and in 1974 was the site where the first-ever women priests in the Espisopal Church were ordained.

More recently, the church became known for hosting a family taking sanctuary from violent conditions in Mexico.

Rev. McKenzie picked up the reins eight years ago. Almost immediately, she was handed a report detailing urgent fixes — a 2005 estimate compiled pro bono by the Kelly/Maiello firm. It laid out a strategy to complete repairs in stages. But McKenzie has barely been able to scratch the surface.

Netting prevents ceiling plaster from hitting people on the head

Netting prevents ceiling plaster from hitting people on the head

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Among the needed fixes:

  • There’s no cooling system
  • There are no lighted exit signs, and the doors don’t have panic bars — both fire hazards
  • The doors aren’t wheelchair accessible
  • The interior limestone is eroding
  • The ceiling sheds big chunks plaster constantly, so much so that there are nets installed to catch the falling materials

Acoustics have eroded. Sounds now take roughly 4 seconds to reverberate off the building’s walls — 60% longer than standard church reverberation time. This makes it harder to hear the weekly music and sermons.

The roof and gutter are leaking so badly that during storms, McKenzie said she can see a downpour of rainwater flooding down the historic limestone walls — and worse, the hand-painted murals.

“It is the most heartbreaking sight you’d ever see,” McKenzie said. “These murals were painted in place, so it’s not as if you can just pick them up and move them.”

The bill amounts to $1.2 million in immediately necessary fixes, $500,000 in short-term repairs and more than $5 million in long-term interior and exterior work.

“When do you ever get enough money to make this look beautiful again?” she said. “At this point, just give me stabilization so things don’t continue to deteriorate.”

Giving out of scarcity — not abundance

As repairs become increasingly urgent, the Advocate continues to operate on thin margins. Bills are paid mostly through donations and grants, plus some Diocese funding.

In June, after an anonymous donor suddenly dropped a monthly $800 contribution, the church almost had to permanently its soup kitchen, which feeds 70 to 80 people daily. That money previously paid the cost of groceries, plus the price to rent a van and pick them up.

The Advocate Café costs $70,000 a year to maintain, McKenzie said. Add the church’s additional services, like employment assistance, technology coaching and emotional support workshops, and church expenses are likely double or triple that number.

“The Advocate is not an endless pocket of money,” McKenzie said. “I think some people believe that because we give so much, they don’t appreciate that we’re giving out of our scarcity — not out of our abundance.”

Rev. McKenzie in the kitchen that feeds 500 people a week

Rev. McKenzie in the kitchen that feeds 500 people a week

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

She refuses to let it fall away because she knows it would further traumatize an oft-overlooked community. How will she make it work? Immediate, concrete plans the reverend does not have.

But she’s working on it. Fortunately, the almost-crisis of the soup kitchen closure brought a few more big-ticket donors. McKenzie is also dreaming up some profitable enterprises to incorporate into the church’s structure.

Perhaps she could open the Advocate’s gym as an event space to be rented for parties. Or turn the backyard into an outdoor cafe. And she’d like to leverage the clothing donations she receives en masse and open up a thrift shop inside the church’s basement classrooms.

“All these Temple students are always looking for somewhere to go, somewhere to spend money,” McKenzie said. “That’s what I’m thinking.”

Challenges withstanding, McKenzie swears she’ll find a way to make it all happen.

“I will get like a mother tiger if you mess with the Church of the Advocate,” she said. “The Advocate has fought to be here, to stay here. The last thing I want it to do is go away on my watch. That can’t be part of my legacy.”

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