The Church of the Advocate: Church of the Advocate — Justice through Prayer and Art

In 1890, construction began on the Church of the Advocate at 18th and Diamond streets in North Philadelphia. It quickly began as a church for the “every man” and has continued to play a significant role in the social history of the local area and the nation.

The wife of George W. South built the church in memory of her husband, a wealthy merchant, Philadelphia County treasurer, and philanthropist. The architect Charles M. Burns was hired for the project. He designed the church based on the form of a 13th century French Gothic basilica and included details that closely match the Gothic style. These detailed characteristics include flying buttresses, stone sculpture, and impressive stained glass windows. The construction took seven years; the church opened for Episcopal worship in 1897.

Since its opening, the Advocate has embraced the concept of Free Church and has always aimed to support and embrace its parishioners and the community around it. An early example was the church controversially ending the traditional renting of pews in an effort to make the church financially accessible to anyone and everyone. This action cemented its position as a church for the community, a church for the “every man,” and a church for all.

Major changes in the congregation occurred in the 1950s. During those years, the surrounding neighborhoods began to change from a mostly White area to a mostly African-American one. After this shift, the new local African-American community felt increasingly disconnected and unrepresented in the symbols of the church.

The Church of the Advocate adapted to this demographic change. The most notable of these efforts occurred in the early 1970s when Father Paul M. Washington commissioned two African-American artists for a series of modern paintings. Richard Watson and Walter Edmonds created the fourteen paintings that now hang on the church walls. Just like in some historic European churches, these paintings surround worshippers with contemporary images that aim to show the relevance of the Bible.

Commissioning the artwork was meant as a way to connect the church’s new African-American congregation and community back to the church. The paintings in the Advocate depict the African-American experience, and under each is a Bible verse that helps relate the experience shown in the painting to biblical messages. The paintings have become a central part of the Advocate’s identity, though, over the years, some congregation members as well as visitors have objected to the violence depicted in some of the pieces. Father Washington defended the paintings, saying they are meant to portray both the “suffering and the anger, as well as the strength and dignity of the African-American.” The paintings have remained on the church walls since 1976 when they were completed and continue to portray the reality of the African-American experience and show church patrons its biblical relevance.

Beyond just depicting the African-American experience, The Advocate played an important role in the making of African-American history in the late 60s and early 70s. It provided space for civil rights groups who could not find another place to meet, because they voiced ideas often unwelcome elsewhere. The Advocate hosted the Third Annual Conference on Black Power in 1968 and the Black Panther Convention in 1970. Both events happened peacefully, launching the Advocate into national significance as a place of equality and progress.

Shortly after, the Advocate’s reputation of equality and progress brought another nationally significant event to its doors. When a group of white middle-class women sought to become Episcopal priests, they turned to the Advocate. The church welcomed them despite the church’s risk of losing funding. The women were ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in the Church of the Advocate in 1974. Their actions caused a flurry of disapproval throughout the denomination. The Philadelphia Diocese did not react harshly, so the Church of the Advocate survived the turmoil. Women were officially allowed by the Episcopal Church to be ordained only two years later.

Though time has distanced the Advocate from these historic moments, it continues to support the surrounding community. It organizes youth programs that support the arts, sports and academic pursuits. It also houses a soup kitchen that helps feed local residents in need with several meals a week and has a hand with several other charitable endeavors.

Since its original break with the tradition of renting pews, the Church of the Advocate had continuously sought to move towards “one world, one people and one love.” This mentality lead to the momentous events in the 60s and 70s and has inspired its charitable involvements since that time. Because of this national and local significance and the impressive building, it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1996. The Church of the Advocate and its building, history, and the paintings it houses continue as the symbols of strength, dignity, and equality.


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