St. John the Baptist parish has been welcoming residents and visitors to the corner or Rector and Cresson Streets since the 19th century.
By Brian Anderson
Photos by Alexa Nahas Photography (alexanahas.com)
At 200 feet in elevation, the steeple of St. John the Baptist rises above Manayunk with a stately permanence. This 118-years-young church, designed in the Gothic style of architecture, is one of the most impressive and beautiful buildings in Manayunk. Rich in details and character, St. John the Baptist parish has been the spiritual home to thousands of Catholics in Manayunk for almost two centuries.
St. John the Baptist parish began humbly in 1831 when Jerome and Eulalia Keating gave the gift of property and constructed a small church that stood on Rector Street where the upper school building now stands. The magnificent cathedral-like church many of us know was constructed in the late 19th century. St. John the Baptist Church is one of the oldest structures in Manayunk, and certainly one of the most magnificent.
Thousands of parishes and guests have walked through the doors of St. John’s since its dedication, and many more will continue worshiping in the years to come. This is the story of the design of the church that so many of us know today.
St. John’s was built with thousands of gray, brownish stones, described in church records as “almost as hard and durable as granite.” The stones came from a quarry in Bucks County. Inside, materials — wood, marble, plaster, metal and glass — blend and come together throughout the nave and sanctuary.
Step inside the church’s nave and you’re welcomed by the defining characteristics of Gothic architecture: pointed arches, rib vaulting, and stained glass windows.
These majestic arches are painted in muted but beautiful reds, blues, and golds. The grayish-green base of each arch calls back to exterior gray stones. These magnificent arches invite you into this place of worship. As they extend up into the rib vaulting, your eye is drawn toward the sanctuary.
Dedicated on April 1, 1894, constructed through a legacy bequest by Bernard McCane and his wife, and funding from the community totaling $250,000.00 to complete, St. John’s was designed by architect Patrick Charles Keeley of New York. Written to celebrate the church’s sesquicentennial, the church’s history book from 1981 documents the founding of the church, including key elements of its design.
“The selection of Mr. Patrick C. Keeley of Brooklyn, one of the most celebrated architects of church buildings, proved to be one of Mr. Loughrey’s best decisions,” the history exclaims. [Loughrey was the longtime friend to McCane and executor of his estate].
Monsignor Kevin Lawrence, St. John’s pastor, explains Keeley’s architectural influence is clear in these arches. Keeley, a renowned Irish-American architect, designed hundreds of churches with these exquisite point arches.
Along the aisles, St. John’s features 14 stained glass windows. Many of these windows depict arches and other Gothic design elements, which is a unique feature for these works of art. You’ll also find a rose window in each semi-transept and one at the entrance of the church.
Continue through the nave, toward the sanctuary, and peer up toward the vaulted ceilings. You’ll find four more sculptures of important figures for the church: St. Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland), since Manayunk and Roxborough had a large Irish population at the church’s founding; St. John the Baptist, the church’s namesake; St. Peter, one of Jesus’s 12 apostles and the first Bishop – or Pope – of Rome; and St. Paul, spreading the teachings of Jesus authoring 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament in the Bible.
Finally, we’ve arrived at the sanctuary. The main altar is white marble with columns of Mexican onyx, the history explains. The main altar is flanked by two side altars – one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the other to St. Patrick. This main altar is where Msgr. Lawrence and other priests celebrate Mass each week.
There are two more sculptures on the main altar that speak to both its founding and its mission. In 1881, Bernard McCane and his wife, Cecilia, provided a $100,000 gift to construct a new cathedral-like church, which was instrumental in the funding of the construction of St. John’s.
“The two figures on the high altar represent St. Bernard and St. Cecilia, namesakes of [the church’s| benefactors Bernard and Cecilia McCane. They allegorically refer to the preaching of the Gospel, St. Bernard, and beautiful music, St. Cecilia, both integral parts of our Catholic heritage,” explains the history. The Lourdes shrine, Crucifixion, Stations of the Cross, and most of the original statues were cast by eminent sculptor Joseph Sibbel.
Look closely at the art around the sanctuary and you may learn more about St. John’s the Baptist. These murals, original to the church by the J.P. Kavanagh Studio in New York, depict the life and death of the saint.
Together, all the gothic features, sculptures, materials and religious symbolism create a beautiful church that is celebrated by parishioners each week. It is a truly remarkable place of worship.
If you walk out of the nave and look up, you’ll see dozens of pipes that make up the church’s grandiose organ. This Austin 1906 pipe organ, like so much in St. John’s, is original. The intricate woodworking surrounding the organ makes it an incredible sight to behold as you walk out of the church. The organ has been repaired and updated over the years, and more repairs are likely needed in the future.
Now, step outside the church and look up – way up. Completed in 1906, the bell tower reaches more than 200 feet into the sky and is visible throughout Manayunk and beyond. For many Manayunk residents, it’s the landmark on 76 that says, “You’re almost home.” The bell itself is original.
Though made of unmovable stone and mortar, the building has been updated and improved in recent years. The baptismal font was moved closer to the center of the church, and with it came new Tennessee marble flooring surrounding it that matches the color and tone of the marble floors throughout the church.
Several years ago, an initial church restoration capital campaign raised funding to repair the masonry and other structural repairs, including reinforcing the bell tower and refurbishing the cross atop the tower. The campaign also helped pay for repairs to the roof, exterior stone and mortar, which is now secured and better protected from the elements. The parish recently launched the second phase to address much needed interior repairs to paint, damaged plaster due to prior water infiltration, and environmental controls for remediation of these issues for future sustainability.
Restoring and repairing St. John’s is an ongoing project for the parish, but these improvements reflect both the history of the church and its role in the future in Manayunk. Like the parish community it supports, the design of Saint John the Baptist Church never stops evolving.