Canaan Baptist Church
5430 Pulaski Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19144
Canaan Baptist Church is a beautiful structure at the corner of Pulaski Avenue and Winona Street in Germantown. Its storied history is intertwined with that of Germantown – a community steeped in history from colonial times to twenty-first century urbanization.
The church structure was built in 1880 as the Westside Presbyterian Church. When that church merged with First Presbyterian in 1972, it moved to Chelten and Germantown Avenues leaving the Pulaski Avenue structure empty. At its inception, First Presbyterian was a predominately white congregation. First Presbyterian is still at the Chelten Avenue location; today it serves a diverse and active community.
Canaan Baptist was established in 1908 as the Canaan Missionary Baptist Church. It had its first home at Belfield Avenue and Haines Street. In 1972, Reverend Gus Roman led the church to its present place of worship on Pulaski Avenue. Since 2006, when Pastor Derick Brennan became the spiritual head of the church, the congregation has increased by hundreds of parishioners. In 2014, he leads a congregation of 1100 individuals and 650 families.
The well known phenomenon of “white flight” and the practice of blockbusting contributed to the transition of Germantown from a primarily white neighborhood to a majority African American neighborhood. However, another social movement had an impact as well. In the 1960’s during the “white flight” movement, the black identity movement was also emerging. In a sense, the segregation of neighborhoods and its churches was coming from two directions. Black churches were launching pads for civil rights. Self-help in the form of the awareness of Black pride and emphasis on community activism was fostered in houses of worship. As Pastor Brennan has observed, Canaan Baptist played an important part in this dynamic. Along with other African American churches, it was integral to the civil rights movement.
Today, Germantown, despite its many beautiful Victorian homes and the large old trees that grace its streets, is a struggling community. There has been a decades’ long decline of the Chelten Avenue shopping district. Germantown has lost 7 percent of its population in the last ten years. The poverty level is at 28 percent. However, residents committed to this attractive and historic neighborhood have seen signs of improvement. In 2013, the City of Philadelphia committed $2.2 million to redesign Maplewood Mall, a row of shops not far from Canaan Baptist. SEPTA is renovating nearby train stations. Nonetheless, it will take political will and enormous energy to reinvigorate the many historical gems that dot the once independent borough. The decline of these magnificent buildings is emblematic of the challenges that Germantown faces.
Canaan Baptist continues to be an activist congregation and strives to be part of a Germantown renewal. It supports a Family Empowerment Center, an Economic Empowerment Center, and an Education Center. In 2013, Canaan Baptist celebrated its 105th anniversary. It was given recognition by such Pennsylvania luminaries as Governor Tom Corbett, Mayor Michael Nutter and Senators Robert Casey and Pat Toomey. As its mission statement declares, “The Canaan Baptist Church is a Word and Christ centered fellowship providing worship, holistic care, and nurturing to its family members while seeking to share the Full Gospel of Jesus Christ to meet the needs of people in the local and broader community.”