A tiny church that has served Spanish-speaking Philadelphians for a century will be closed in June, leaving behind a history that stretches from Spain to Spring Garden Street and is marked by the benevolence of a future saint with a keen sense of inflation.
Katharine Drexel, the daughter of a Philadelphia investment banker who was canonized as a Catholic saint in 2000, contributed $1,080 toward the $12,250 purchase in 1912 of a Spring Garden property that became a cherished chapel, called La Milagrosa, where generations of Hispanics have worshiped.
Drexel, a careful steward of her family fortune, stipulated that her order of nuns should get a proportionate amount back if the chapel at 1903 Spring Garden St., purchased by Vincentian priests from Barcelona, were ever sold.
That day has come.
Vincentians in Barcelona decided last year to sell the chapel to help pay retirement costs for their priests in Spain - a move that could bring a tidy windfall of $75,000 to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which Drexel founded in 1891.
"We are very appreciative to the Vincentians for informing us, keeping us in the loop, and honoring this in the way they have done," Sister Sandra Schmidt, congregational treasurer and councillor for the Bensalem-based order, said this week.
Priests from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have been saying Mass at La Milagrosa, which means "The Miraculous" in Spanish, since 1978, when the Vincentians departed.
The final Mass is scheduled for June 23, and on June 30 a procession will lead from the chapel to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, where a weekly Spanish-language Mass will be added, the archdiocese said.
Members of the congregation, which is part of the cathedral parish, have protested the closure with complaints to archdiocesan officials, who insist they have no control because the archdiocese does not own the property.
Opponents of the closure, who held a protest vigil Sunday morning, also said they have received no response to letters sent to the Vincentians who ordered the chapel's sale.
"They have never, never, sat down with us and said, 'Let's make a plan,' " said Miguel Ortiz, 41, who emigrated from Mexico in 1989 and has worshipped at La Milagrosa for 18 years.
A maintenance worker for a real estate company in Center City and a member of the cathedral parish's pastoral council, Ortiz said he had suspected for five years that La Milagrosa's future was in doubt.
He has accumulated documents on the origins of La Milagrosa and its relationships to the archdiocese and the Vincentians.
"In another life, maybe I'll be a reporter or a lawyer," he joked while stuffing papers back into a black canvas briefcase.
Central to Ortiz's hope that the closure could be averted is an agreement the Vincentians made with another nun, Sister Maria de Jesus Quintana.
Vincentians arrived in Philadelphia in 1909, leading services at Old St. Mary's Church in what is now Society Hill. Three years later they moved to the Spring Garden neighborhood, which in the late 19th century was home to newly wealthy industrialists.
In 1910, when Philadelphia's population was 1.55 million, there were between 5,000 and 7,000 Spanish-speaking people in the city, estimated Victor Vazquez-Hernandez, an historian whose doctoral dissertation at Temple University was a history of Puerto Ricans in the city from 1910 to 1945.
Spanish-speaking enclaves were in Southwark, Northern Liberties - and Spring Garden, after La Milagrosa took root there with the help of Sister Maria, the daughter of a cattle rancher and merchant in what is now California.
She was born in San Luis Obispo in 1847 and joined the Daughters of Charity in 1864, coming to St. Joseph's Hospital in Philadelphia in 1898.
In April 1912, the nun wrote to Vincentian authorities in Europe, seeking permission to "establish a mission for poor Spanish-speaking Catholics in Philadelphia" and agreeing to provide $30,000 to support it, according to an online catalog of letters at DePaul University in Chicago.
Her 1912 agreement with the Vincentians said she would donate the money "for the purpose of securing the spiritual well-being of the Spanish-speaking Colony of Philadelphia."
The Vincentians did not receive the $30,000 until 1920, when her estate, which included Pennsylvania Railroad Co. stock and assorted railroad bonds, was settled after her death in 1919.
The Vincentians purchased the chapel in June 1912, according to Philadelphia property records.
"This agreement with Sister Quintana has nothing to do with the property or the sale of the property," said Christopher E. Cummings, a lawyer and partner in the Malvern office of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young.
Ortiz recognizes that the Quintana agreement does not mention the property. "I think it's more about the formation and continuity of the service to the community, which is still standing and a good number," he said. "It's indirect."
By contrast, St. Katharine Drexel, who donated an estimated $20 million to charitable works for poor blacks and Native Americans, was explicit that her contribution of $1,080 to the Vincentians was for the purchase of 1903 Spring Garden St. and that the proceeds from a sale should be split proportionately.
If the property, which is being marketed by Flynn Co., were to fetch the new assessed value of $846,300, the proceeds to Drexel's 123-member order would be $74,613.
Schmidt said she recalled two occasions since 1996 when money came back. "Whenever we do get money of this nature, it's ordinarily used for mission," as opposed to paying for care of sisters or for buildings and maintenance, she said.
For members of La Milagrosa, where about 150 worship each weekend, according to the archdiocese, the loss of the chapel is heart-wrenching.
"It's of religious significance and it's of cultural significance," said Maria Miranda, who said she has attended Mass at La Milagrosa off and on since 1978, when she arrived in Philadelphia from Puerto Rico.
"That's our Liberty Bell right there," she said.