By guest author Kimiko Doherty, Manager of Community Development, Archdiocese of Philadelphia
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual This Place Matters national competition is underway this month. Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) was the only site in the City of Philadelphia included in the list of 100 and must now garner the most online votes during the month-long voting period (June 1- June 30). The site with the most on-line votes wins $25,000; second and third place are awarded monetary awards as well. Visitation consistently has been in the top 10 sites throughout the competition – every vote helps!
Every entrant in the This Place Matters is worthy of a vote. There are theaters, homes, band shells and battlefields on this year’s list that reflect architectural and cultural diversity worthy of recognition. There are places of nostalgia and where people can reminisce about bygone days; there are other places that enrich the lives of those who live in that community.
What sets Visitation’s apart and unique in this competition is the fact that few would ever come to visit Kensington while on vacation, and many who pass through these doors struggle with daily life that the buildings are far from the forefront of their concerns. Visitation exemplifies what many urban churches throughout our area represent – that their physical presence and services they provide are critical to neighborhood preservation. Visitation stands as a visible sign of confidence, investment, and faith in an area of our city often dismissed as a hopeless and neglected. There is no missing the twin spires of Visitation Church as you drive down Lehigh Avenue in Kensington!
Visitation parish was founded in 1872 in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. At the time of the parish’s founding, the Kensington area was bustling with industry and immigrants from Germany and Ireland, helping the City of Philadelphia earn the name, “Workshop of the World.” The parish was the center of community life (which was typical of many urban churches) – parents sent their children to school at Visitation; young adults participated in sports and social events; mothers and fathers participated in social and spiritual clubs; and everyone in the neighborhood went to Mass on Sunday.
Over the course of parish’s 137 years, Visitation adapted to the physical and social changes that occurred in the surrounding neighborhood. The buildings – the church, school, rectory and convent – were all built before the Market-Frankford Elevated Line. The monumental stairs in front of the church were added at the turn of the 20th century when Lehigh Avenue was excavated to accommodate the EL. Many of the surrounding businesses evolved or closed overtime. One of the more famous businesses – the Starlight Ballroom – was adapted and renovated in 2003 and the former ballroom is now the gym of the parish community center. Today community life continues to orbit around Visitation with their many programs and services and serve a diverse population of Latinos, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian communities.
Vote for Visitation in the This Place Matters competition by clicking here: http://www.preservationnation.org/take-action/this-place-matters/community-challenge/places/visitation-bvm-parish.html
Two area sites are among 100 historic places nationwide selected for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s This Place Matters Community Challenge. Philadelphia’s Visitation BVM Parish and West Chester’s Lincoln Biography Building are competing for a share of $40,000 in grants in the Trust’s annual contest. You can vote for your favorite project now through June 30, one vote per person. Represent Philadelphia (or West Chester) by voting here.