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Once the Cathedral of Kensington, now a heroin shooting gallery

In the half-light, the priest could make out thin forms. Some shot heroin in the pews, some laid half-naked on mattresses, others stumbled past in their stupor, not noticing the priest and nun in their presence.

Josh Green, who is addicted to heroin, lives inside the former Ascension of Our Lord Church in Philadelphia.
Josh Green, who is addicted to heroin, lives inside the former Ascension of Our Lord Church in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The gas company supervisor showed up at Mother of Mercy, a storefront church on Allegheny Avenue, in late June. He'd just been inside the long-shuttered Ascension of Our Lord, a hulking cathedral of a building at F and Westmoreland. After what he'd seen, he needed to speak with a priest.

He'd been working in the neighborhood, the PGW man said, and slipped through a broken stained-glass window to take some photos for his wife, who had grown up in the parish. That's when he saw the mess of needles carpeting the floor and pews — and the figures moving in the darkness.

"There were so many people in there it looked like they were waiting for Mass to start," the man reported.

It made sense to Father William Murphy. For months, he and Father Joseph Devlin and Sister Ann Raymond had been feeding the young people who got high on the lawn of McPherson Square library. But then the police drove the crowds away. The addicted people had to have gone somewhere, he thought.

So Father Murphy and Sister Raymond walked the few blocks to the church that long was the jewel of the neighborhood, until it wasn't. They stepped through a window, glass crunching underneath their feet.

In the half-light, they could make out thin forms. Some shot heroin in the pews, some laid half-naked on mattresses. Others stumbled past in their stupor, not noticing the priest and nun in their presence.

Father Murphy did all he could think to do. He began to bless them.

For nearly a century Ascension, with its towering columns and bell tower and interior that brought to mind the churches of Europe, was proudly nicknamed by parishioners the Cathedral of Kensington. It was deconsecrated in 2012 and sold two years later.

Now, the cathedral is a shooting gallery, a makeshift haven for young people who come to the neighborhood from all over for pure and powerful heroin – the latest place where they have taken up residence as the city attempts to address other Kensington heroin encampments like McPherson Square and the Gurney Street train tracks.

It is more proof, if anyone still needs it, that simply closing sites where people shoot heroin and pushing them from train tracks to park to church would be shamefully inadequate.

The building has the feel of an abandoned field hospital. Blankets and cardboard mattresses line the floors, the chapels, and the sacristy where priests used to robe. Needles litter the altars – and stick from the holy water font like crosses in a graveyard. Bloodied rags fill pews. Human excrement and condoms mar the confessionals.

Day and night addicted people come and go by the dozens through once-boarded windows. Some get high and collapse onto mattresses. Some come looking for prostitutes. Others have made it a home. Even in the depths of addiction, they are drawn to the familiar, the normal. First, a library lawn, now a church.

"I know it's probably not the right thing to do," said Josh Green, who is 28 and originally from Kensington. For three months he has been sleeping on blankets in the filth of a lower church office. "But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God's house."

Josh leaned against a pew Thursday afternoon, using a piece of wood from the rubble as a cane. His feet have grown raw. He said he was sick for the want of a hit.

Soon, he joined some friends and climbed a spiral metal staircase to a makeshift apartment filled with soiled mattresses, chairs, and school desks. All were covered with used syringes.

"Paradise Island," cracked a guy named Matt.

Hovering around the drugs were Matt and Anthony, both 25 and from the Northeast. And Steven Sharp, who is 23 and used to be from Chester County. They talked of relapses and rehabs, of abusive parents, loving parents, lost union jobs and abandoned college courses, of hunger and thrown-away opportunities – and they shot heroin.

They talked of the church as a safe place – a place they show respect. As proof, Steven said, they rarely shoot up in the main church.

"We wouldn't disrespect it," he said, squeezing his fist tight and injecting his forearm, before falling back onto a mattress.

Across the hall, in what looked to be a former devotional chapel, someone had spray-painted a plea: "Forgive me, father, for my sins."

Some tell themselves this place is only a way station. Like Valerie, who is 26, originally from Chester County, and addicted to heroin. She sleeps in the church with her Lab, Izzy.

"It's sad what it has become – a place to come when you use drugs and you don't have any options," she said, sitting on a dusty pew.

Her goal is to save up for a tent, so she can move to the wilderness. Rough it and get clean. But for now, she has settled on a large closet in the sacristy.

"I think I can put a bed in it and maybe sleep on it," she said as she swept trash with a broken broom. To make room for her sleeping space she moved away a tall wooden crucifix. As she worked, her friend Charlie, who is from California, nodded off on the ledge before a broken window. A neighbor yelled that she would be calling the cops.

New Philadelphia Investments bought the church and other parish buildings in 2014 for $800,000. When I called owner Kevin Fei, he said he did not know of anyone living there — but he hadn't been there in months, he said. A caretaker has been managing it.

"I'm sorry," Fei said. "I will take action."

The caretaker, George Groves, a neighborhood developer involved in a handful of community revitalization organizations, says he has been working for free to do all he can for the building – and that every time he nails boards up, people just tear them down.

He said he's been in touch with Fei to address the problem right away. "Like today," Groves said.

That will be a tall order. As ruined as the building is, it's probably best they tear it down. If not, in a church building where for nearly a century people celebrated, and mourned, and prayed, someone will likely die.

Next time it's boarded, city and outreach workers need to be there. Meet the young people at the door. Get them help before they find another kind of sanctuary, probably a worse-off one.

Thursday, the church was busy.

In the trash-strewn garden, Frank Ratke, who is 79 and can still recall the booming cadence of the old pastor's voice, walked his dog and watched stragglers slip through the window.

In the choir loft sat Michael Zenquis. The 37-year-old said he grew up singing in the choir of the very church he now comes to get high in – and sometimes sleeps in. He said he feels ashamed. He recalled how Ascension once shone.

Who knew if he was ever in the choir, or if this was even his church. But then he stood and began to sing, the gospel tune "Oh Happy Day!" His voice filled the old church.

After this column posted on on Friday, Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney, said the city would shut the building and dispatch social workers to help those inside. Later Friday, the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections checked the building. On Saturday, the owner had a crew seal the former church’s doors. On both days, city social workers went to the site to offer help to those inside, but no one accepted their offer.