St. Dominic Church added to historic register; pastor unhappy

St. Dominic Catholic Church in Holmesburg is now historically protected, but the church’s pastor believes it limits the parish.

JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

The oldest active Catholic church in Northeast Philadelphia was officially added Friday to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

St. Dominic Church, which was built in 1897, was determined by the city’s Historical Commission to deserve protection because of its unique architectural style. The Holmesburg church now has to consult with the commission before obtaining permits or significantly altering the building. 

The Rev. Edward Kearns, St. Dominic’s pastor, said the parish found out the church had been nominated to the historic register less than two months ago — even though the application was filed in March.

Once a property is nominated, it has the same protections as a building already on the list. Kearns found that out the hard way, he told the Northeast Times, when the parish went to the city to get a permit for new shingles.

He said St. Dominic was redirected to the commission, which told him the project needed to include more expensive materials. 

“I would rather not be on (the historic register) because it limits you as to what you can do with your building,” Kearns said in an interview. “As far as I can see, there’s no benefit to it for St. Dominic’s Parish.”

“Maybe there’s a benefit for the people that like to look at it but there’s no benefit for the parish,” he added. “We get no help with any repairs. You just get people telling you what you can and can’t do with your building.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia did not take a position on the nomination, spokesman Ken Gavin said.

Historian Celeste Morello, who has successfully nominated several Catholic churches in the city, submitted the application for St. Dominic, 8500 Frankford Ave.

“You can see it’s a gorgeous church,” Morello said. “A lot of details. Lots and lots of details.”

Morello’s case relied on St. Dominic’s architectural style, which members of a Historical Commission subcommittee called late-Victorian Gothic with subtle French influences.

The original St. Dominic Church burned down in an 1896 fire. At the time, Holmesburg was still dotted with farms, and the congregation numbered 1,300 members, according to Morello’s application.

Architect Henry Roby, a captured Confederate soldier who established an office in Lebanon, Pa., was commissioned to design the church, which was dedicated in 1897. St. Dominic is Roby’s only building in the city, according to the application. 

Morello, in the nomination, said that Roby used a unique blend of metal and stone and may have been influenced by prominent Philadelphia architects Frank Furness and Edwin F. Durang. “(Roby) brought an architectural style to Northeast Philadelphia that was in vogue in Center City as well as in other active urban centers where wealthy Gilded Age clientele cared what types of architecture was trend-setting,” Morello wrote.

“St. Dominic church’s Victorian Gothic design then, is historically important as part of this era and role in the use of this style that continues to enchant all who see it,” she continued.

Morello was previously hired by the Tacony Community Development Corporation to draw up an application for St. Leo the Great Church, at Unruh Avenue and Keystone Street. It was added to the register in May. 

In addition, she has successfully nominated two properties on the campus of Jefferson Torresdale Hospital connected to St. Katharine Drexel — the St. Michel/Drexel House and the Chapel of the True Cross.

Morello has also submitted an application for the old Maternity BVM Church at Winchester and Bustleton avenues, which dates to 1870, and she said she expects the commission to decide on that nomination by the end of the year.

Many properties connected to the Catholic Church meet the criteria of the Historic Commission and are worthy of being preserved, Morello said.

Kearns, the pastor, said he understands the need to protect historic buildings. However, he said he was surprised by the process. Anyone can nominate any building for the register, without notifying the owner.

“I’m just surprised that you wouldn’t have more say as to what you can and can’t do with your own building,” Kearns said.

He said St. Dominic is not at-risk for demolition. In fact, the parish recently spent money fixing up the church’s facade, Kearns said.

Friday’s commission vote was unanimous, and only the church building was nominated. The parish’s school, hall, cemetery and any other surrounding buildings were not included in the application. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com