When Philadelphia Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan decided to build a parish in Grays Ferry in the early 1900s, the South Philadelphia enclave was on the cusp of change.
The neighborhood — which stretches from 25th Street to the Schuylkill, and from Snyder to Grays Ferry Avenues — was just beginning to see an influx of residents but was still decades away from the squat rowhouses and working-class shops that characterize the area today. Factories and mills dotted the landscape, and the soon-to-close refinery operated nearby.
Ryan seized an opportunity: The city’s Catholic population was expanding rapidly. Grays Ferry would need a parish. And so, prominent architect Edwin Forrest Durang was tapped for the job.
By 1909, it’s estimated, St. Gabriel Catholic Church was built, and within years, its campus had expanded to include a Catholic school, annex, and convent. Centered near 29th and Dickinson Streets, St. Gabriel became a fixture of Irish Catholic community life. Christmas Mass was packed. Marriages and baptisms, frequent. And later, when the neighborhood suffered from disinvestment, drugs, and racial tensions in the late 20th century, the St. Gabriel campus found itself playing a central role, as well.
So earlier this year, when word spread that the archdiocese was quietly marketing a St. Gabriel building — the nearly 15,000-square-foot convent — Grays Ferry residents grew concerned about the fate of the structure and the rest of the church’s grounds.
“There was some grumbling,” said Carmine Zulli, president of the Grays Ferry Community Council, a registered organization in the neighborhood. St. Gabriel "is important to the community, and [some residents] were concerned that it would be knocked down.”
So far, it seems, the convent has escaped that fate.
According to an application submitted in June to Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, plans are in the works to redevelop the gray, stone building into 20 apartments. The St. Gabriel School’s annex building next door will continue to operate as it currently does. The application, filed by real estate lawyer Daniel Reisman, of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, asks for lot lines to be moved to allow for the separate uses.
The L-shaped property was put under agreement of sale on May 2 by 2922 Properties LLC, according to Ken Gavin, an archdiocesan spokesperson. The purchase price was not disclosed. 2922 Properties was incorporated by real estate lawyer Jack Hubbert earlier this year, records show. Reached by phone Tuesday, Hubbert said he would pass along The Inquirer’s request for comment to his client, who is redeveloping the building. The Inquirer did not hear from the developer.
Calls to Reisman, the lawyer who filed the application with the city, also were not returned.
“We are respectfully not going to share [the developer’s name] right now. We wanted to share that with the community at large,” said the Rev. Carl Braschoss, St. Gabriel’s pastor. “We have really been trying to be focused on what’s best for the community. We wanted to keep the neighbors and others involved. ... We can say it’s a local developer who has been well-vetted and has done many other projects in the area.”
Braschoss said the rest of the church campus will continue current operations.
The apartment conversion plans, while still far from reality, represent an example of potential preservation in Philadelphia, a city that has long underperformed its peers when it comes to keeping properties standing. Despite having the second highest number of buildings built before 1945 in the U.S., Philadelphia has historically preserved only 2.2 percent of its buildings. In Boston, 7.2 percent of buildings are protected from demolition, and Washington has a rate of 19.4 percent.
This year, Philadelphia identified steps to bolster historic preservation, but the city still has a long way to go. Mayor Jim Kenney, in April, announced a set of priorities to strengthen Philadelphia’s historic landscape. According to a city spokesperson, some progress has been made.
One of Kenney’s priorities is to develop a citywide survey of all properties, which would create a comprehensive inventory of Philadelphia’s historic buildings. The city spokesperson said last month that a vendor has been identified to carry out and customize that survey.
Meanwhile, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced legislation last month to provide incentives for historic preservation, including eliminating parking minimums for historic buildings. The bills will be considered when Council resumes this fall.
The convent, at 2922-28 Dickinson St., is not on Philadelphia’s historic register, meaning it could be demolished. However, according to the zoning application, the plan is to keep the building standing.
Neither the St. Gabriel church nor the associated school buildings are on the register, either.
The convent has been vacant for a year and last made headlines in 2012 when it was burglarized twice. The building is zoned to allow single-family development. For the project to move forward, the developer would need a zoning variance.
Zulli, the Grays Ferry Community Council president, said a meeting is scheduled in August to discuss the project with the community. Details on the proposal are sparse. Braschoss said the parish received multiple competitive offers for the building but selected this particular developer because it believed an all-residential proposal was best for the community.
Braschoss said he thought the units would be market-rate. According to the application filed with the city, the project, because of its location outside of Center City, may be targeted to "households earning 80 [percent] of area median income.”
“From a community perspective, we’re really excited,” Zulli said. “... St. Gabriel’s was the bedrock of the Grays Ferry community for a long, long time. With all the changes in the church, [we are happy] that the structure is going to be preserved.”
“There is a need for apartments in Grays Ferry,” Zulli continued. “Gentrification is taking hold. We’re seeing concern of being displaced out of the neighborhood.”
Grays Ferry has historically been a blue-collar neighborhood — even today, the median income for the U.S. Census tract is about $31,000 — and, if not for racial tensions that captured widespread attention, it may have existed as an area that received little attention. In the 1990s, however, two back-to-back episodes of racially motivated violence catapulted Grays Ferry to the national stage.
One of the racially motivated attacks happened on St. Gabriel’s grounds. In February 1997, a black woman, her son, and her nephew were attacked and beaten by a group of white men while walking near the church. The next month, a white teen was shot killed by black men during a robbery. Both crimes underscored the animosity that existed between the neighborhood’s longtime white residents, including Irish Catholics, and a growing population of black residents.
During the period of hostility, St. Gabriel was known as being a force trying to calm tensions, offering space for meetings, and prayer to restore community peace.
Today, tensions have largely subsided, and Grays Ferry remains just as demographically diverse. Its location — surrounded by Graduate Hospital to the north, Point Breeze to the east, and University City to the west — has made it attractive to developers. New homes are under construction, and neighborhood home prices have soared, according to data provided by Kevin Gillen, a Drexel economist and senior economic adviser to the real estate start-up Houwzer.
In 2018, the median price of a single-family home in Grays Ferry was $100,000. Five years before, it was $36,000, a 177 percent increase. Sales volume also surged 81 percent during that five-year period.
“We believe in this area. There is potential for a community that has been struggling for many years but that is turning toward greater harmony,” Braschoss said. “We look forward, with this building, to having an influx of people to be friends of our community that will partner with us to continue to improve this neighborhood."