St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church

St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church. Image provided by Temple University Urban Archives

5th Street & Girard Avenue

The Northern Liberties' growing German Catholic community established St. Peter the Apostle in 1842. Nineteenth-century Northern Liberties and lower Kensington already boasted several German Lutheran churches serving the heavily German neighborhood around Girard Avenue, but by the end of the 1800s, at least one-third of German immigrants settling the neighborhood were Catholic. As a German national parish, St. Peter's staffed German-speaking priests, offered German-language religious instruction and services, and served as a religious and social center for local German Catholics, many of them employed in the breweries, factories, and machine shops of booming North Philadelphia. At the turn of the 19th century, St. Peter's counted 7,500 parishioners, almost all of them German-speaking. St. Peter's magnificent main sanctuary is a fine tribute to its original German craftsmen and artists, and is the national shrine and burial place of Saint John Neumann, the beloved Bohemian-born fourth Bishop of Philadelphia.

German American populations in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania (including those known as Pennsylvania Dutch) that had been established since colonial times distanced themselves geographically and culturally from the 19th-century German immigrants. The later wave of Germans was a heterogeneous mix of people including Lutherans, Catholics, Jews, socialists, and artisans of varying skills levels. Throughout the Girard Avenue area, numerous secular German beneficial and social clubs and Protestant and Catholic churches provided a unifying cultural and organizational structure for subsets of German American communities.

The wider neighborhood around St. Peter's comprised a diverse Catholic population, with nearby St. Michael's serving a primarily Irish congregation, and small numbers of Polish and Slavic Catholics mixing into both parishes. Near St. Peter's, Culvert Street (now called St. John Neumann Way) was known as "Rosary Row" because so many of its young men became priests. Young Catholics especially tended to cross ethnic and linguistic lines at St. Peter's School, whose pupils reflected a more diverse population than the German-language masses would imply. As the communities aged, Irish and German Catholics socialized, lived, and worked together, and intermarried with increasing frequency. Assimilated German Catholics eventually identified themselves more as white Catholics than as Germans. By the 1920s, St. Peter's masses and church bulletins were conducted and published in English; especially after World War I, many Americans of German descent increasingly identified themselves as Americans rather than German Americans. Beneath the main altar of St. Peter's lay the body of Saint John Neumann, known for his compassion for immigrants of all nationalities, but especially for his service to the Irish, German, and Italian immigrants of Baltimore, New York City, and finally, Philadelphia. An immigrant himself, Bohemian-born Neumann became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1848. Bishop Neumann was buried in the floor of the basement of the church in 1860, the only Catholic saint on view in the United States, making St. Peter's an important site for all Catholics across the region and the world. St. Peter's still serves an ethnically diverse congregation — including a large contingent of Puerto Rican parishioners — that reflects the neighborhood's succession of newcomers.

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