About 800 people gathered Saturday for a Mass held by Philadelphia’s archbishop to remember the Tacony neighborhood’s storied St. Leo’s Catholic Church, which was destroyed last month in what has been labeled as arson.
Archbishop Nelson Pérez delivered a homily aimed at cheering the community still saddened by the loss of the Northeast Philadelphia landmark, said Bill Ivers, a City Council staffer who helped arrange the event. Pérez’s message was “you can burn a building, but you can’t burn the spirit of the parishioners that were there today,” Ivers said.
The church, at the corner of Keystone Street and Unruh Avenue, was consumed in a dramatic Mother’s Day blaze that sent black smoke billowing across the neighborhood. It took more than 100 firefighters more than two hours to bring the fire under control.
Days later, local and federal investigators announced their conclusion that the fire had been intentionally set, though few details of their probe have been subsequently released.
Designed by architect Frank R. Watson and opened in 1894, St. Leo’s was named after Pope Leo I and built to accommodate the neighborhood’s growing Irish population, including many who worked for the Disston Saw Works. A classic example of 19th-century Gothic Revival architecture, it was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2019.
Its striking bell tower — visible from I-95 — and its elaborate stained-glass windows bearing the names of some of the neighborhood’s founding families made the church a Northeast Philadelphia landmark.
Some of the stones used in its Gothic Revival facade came from the company itself and the decision was made not to install a bell in the church’s belfry for fear it might interrupt the sleep of the factory’s shift workers.
A bell was placed in the parish’s school building, which survived the blaze, but it was rarely rung, Ivers said.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed the parish in 2013 as part of a cost-cutting merger with neighboring Our Lady of Consolation Parish, but the building was kept open for occasional services until it was permanently shuttered in 2019 to prepare it for sale.
That transaction with real estate investor David Damaghi’s Paul Street Real Estate LLC closed in April.
The church’s closure and sale, followed by its fiery destruction, was a “double whammy” for neighbors and parishioners, but Saturday’s Mass was uplifting for those who attended the event, which was capped by the ringing of the seldom-sounded bells in the surviving school building, Ivers said.
“They rung today for the first time in many, many years,” he said.