In a dramatic turn of events on Sunday, a group of anti-homelessness activists occupied a vacant church in North Philadelphia where they planned to house people displaced from Philly’s ongoing protest encampments or other unsanctioned dwellings across the city.

Shortly after midnight, however, police arrived at the former Catholic church of St. Edward the Confessor and arrested protest organizer Cheri Honkala. She now faces charges of felony criminal trespassing and criminal mischief, court records show.

“There were about six of us there,” Honkala said, after being discharged on Monday afternoon. “We had all our food and we were getting ready to lay down and get some sleep. Next thing we knew the police came in looking for me.”

It is unclear who initiated the shutdown of the city’s latest protest encampment. The Philadelphia Police Department said officers observed the front door of the church open around 11 p.m. and entered to make the arrest.

Cell phone footage of the late night shutdown shows a person on scene claiming to be the building’s owner — who, on paper, owes the city tens of thousands in backed taxes. The blighted 100-year-old church was purchased by a shell company in 2017, which sits on an $89,000 property tax bill, records show.

City officials confirmed that the building is considered “unsafe,” but that the owner has active permits to perform restoration work on the bell tower and other work.

The action at St. Edward’s comes at a time when Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is trying to close two other protest encampments that have persisted for three months, one on the Ben Franklin Parkway and another near the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters on Ridge Avenue.

A representative for the Parkway encampment, known as the James Talib Dean Camp, said he was aware of Honkala’s proposed occupation, but not of any plans to relocate people; Jennifer Bennetch, who is working with the PHA camp, did not answer a call for comment.

Those plans may be moot. The 57-year-old Honkala, who founded the Poor People’s Human Rights campaign and has been staging protest encampments for decades, said she has now been ordered to stay away from the church for good.

The second occupation of the old St. Edward’s church lasted less than 12 hours.

Activists gather in front of the former St. Edward’s church on Sunday afternoon, 25 years after occupying their first takeover of the building. Credit: Max Marin / WHYY’s Billy Penn

A reimagined protest camp, shut down overnight

The timing was intentional: This weekend marked the 25th anniversary of the church’s original takeover, which began in September 1995 and lasted into the following May.

On Sunday, Honkala convened a group of dozens outside the grand limestone building to recount the story of their months-long encampment, which sits dormant today. Stained glass windows have been shattered by rocks, some boarded up by plywood. Birds move freely in and out of the gaping windows.

Honkala spraypainted a sign with “NO PLACE TO LIVE” and strung it across the church doors. Another woman with the campaign worked a voter registration table, while someone else passed out masks and encouraged social distancing among the crowd of a few dozen, who recalled how they’d ended up at the location two and a half decades prior.

On an early autumn morning in 1995, nearly two dozen people dismantled the tent city where they’d been living for several weeks. “The rats were the size of cats,” recalled Tara Colon, an activist and formerly homeless woman who lived at the camp when she was 18 years old.

By nightfall, the group had found shelter less than a mile away in the chapel of the former St. Edward’s. Located at 8th and York streets, it was one of 10 churches abandoned by the archdiocese in one of the city’s most blighted areas.

They settled in, and stayed. Their occupation in the ’90s gripped Philadelphia in the same fashion as the current encampments — with near-identical demands for affordable housing access.

Graffiti on the chapel walls inside the church. Credit: Max Marin / WHYY’s Billy Penn

For some, Sunday’s stunt felt like an activists’ family reunion.

Honkala emceed a series of speakers. People recounted the months living in the church and the challenges they faced — the threats from the Catholic Church, the visits from the police, the shutdown attempts by the city.

The group broke out in a singalong of “A Rich Man’s House,” a modern labor movement standard that speaks about the poor seizing the wealth of the rich. “Well I went down to the landlord’s house,” they sang, “and I took back what he stole from me.”

As if on cue, the doors to the church interior swung open. God did it, Honkala said, jokingly. And the second occupation of old St Edward’s began.

Moving into the chapel, Honkala informed the crowd that the space would be available to anyone displaced by the encampments camps or booted from one of the dozens of PHA properties where people have been squatting.

“It will take work, it will take shifts, and for some of us…it might take going to jail,” Honkala said, unaware that her prediction was a mere hours from becoming reality.

A crowd gathers inside the chapel on Sunday afternoon. Credit: Max Marin / WHYY’s Billy Penn

Decades of decay, and a tax delinquent owner

In 1995, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was initially shocked by the occupation of its shuttered house of worship. They gave the group 48 hours to vacate, but then walked back the threat and made a deal. So long as the protesters remained in the chapel and did not expand their occupation to the church rectories and attached dormitories, they could stay until further notice.

Years later, St. Edward’s was revived as a Pentecostal church, the Highway Temple of Deliverance, a name that still adorns the outside of the building. Today, the building is privately owned.

Property records show it was sold in 2017 to Saint Edward Church LLC, a shell company that lists a P.O. box as its address and appears to have been established for the sole purpose of buying the building. Stepping into the vaulted chapel now, there is no hiding the decades of decay.

Shattered glass litters the wood floor where screws jut up at odd angles. Pews lay in battered stacks. Years of bird feces crust every surface, and graffiti canvasses the walls — from crude tags to desperate pleas from the down and out. “This is [unintelligible name’s] last message,” one message reads. “I am west bound, no longer to be found. If you see this it’s been a pleasure.”

The LLC owes the city over $89,000 in property taxes — slightly more than they paid for the building three years ago. The city has placed tax liens on the property, though a city spokesperson said the owner appears to have an appeal pending before the Board of Tax Review.

Attempts to reach the owners for comment were not successful. The business entity lists a Philadelphia post office box as its address. It is also linked to an address in South Philadelphia on Oregon Avenue that is home to an insurance agency. Reached by phone, a representative there said he had no knowledge of the company.

The Department of Licensing and Inspections cited the property as “unsafe” in 2019. L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said the “unsafe” designation wouldn’t have prevented people from dwelling there, though “it’s not optimal.”

“The property… is still considered unsafe, but the owner does have a permit to make the repairs necessary to restore the property to a safe condition,” Guss said. “The roof and a bell tower are damaged. L&I last inspected the property in July and spoke to the contractor who the owner hired to do the work.”

Outside St. Edward’s church in 1995. Credit: Courtesy photo / Scott Matney

Will the church protest camp come back?

The current encampments on the Ben Franklin Parkway and near the Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters face imminent closure. After months of failed negotiations, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has cast the protesters’ demands as wholly unreasonable. One of the main demands: that the city convert its vacant properties into emergency housing for the city’s low-income.

During their time in the church in the 1990s, advocates and members of the original occupation recalled maintaining a safer environment than those offered by the city’s shelters.

Colon, one of the original residents who returned on Sunday, recalled that water access was an early issue, as was getting electricity, but they found fixes quickly. The Department of Human Services made frequent stops and made attempts to take away children, she said.

Now a mother of five, Colon became pregnant with her first child in the church — her eldest daughter. Colon said they would get the derelict space clean in no time, just as they kept it immaculate in the mid-90s. “You could smell the Lysol, the cleaner, the Fabuloso,” she said. “We had a cleaning schedule that was real tight.”

With plenty of media attention, visitors in the ’90s were frequent, and donations bountiful. Around holiday season, people came to drop off presents — among them infamous Philly mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, who reportedly dropped off a truckload of Christmas bicycles for the kids living in the chapel.

Others also aided the protesters in their efforts to avoid a shutdown.

“We got word that L&I was going to come to make it unfit for habitation and shut it down,” said Jamie Moffett, a low-income housing developer who joined the Saint Edwards movement in the mid-90s. “Some fire department guys told Cheri [Honkala] in the middle of the night, and they brought the smoke detectors and exit signs we needed to get up to code.”

But the hope of recreating that space now was quickly turned upside down with Honkala’s arrest and the subsequent lockout of the church.

“We have to regroup a little bit and figure out what we’re going to do — and why in the hell they came down so hard on me,” Honkala said.

For now, she said, she needed to focus on dealing with the felonies.

Jamie Moffett and Scott Matney returned to the church where they had joined the initial protest 25 years ago Credit: Max Marin / WHYY’s Billy Penn

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...