Bold mosaics celebrate history of Phila. church and its city
  • Oak church pulpit and side chairs
  • A black church’s first female minister
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    Auction Finds

    Selling a 116-year-old church & its memories

    The church building was an anachronism, from its white shingled exterior to its red splintered and weather-beaten main door. Sure, it fitted in well with the rowhouses that surrounded it, but it was no match for the large brick megachurches of today.

    The First Baptist Church of Bridesburg in Philadelphia was built during a time when husbands, wives and their children walked out of their homes and strode right next door or two doors down the street to worship. This wooden church, built around 1899, was long past those years.

    Today, it’s a building without a congregation. Its founders and earlier members have all passed on, and new ones are hard to find. Its bell no longer rings on Sundays to alert parishioners to hurry for the day’s services. First Baptist was down to two members, and they were selling the building.

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    Reminders of services at First Baptist Church of Bridesburg.

    When I first saw the notice for the sale, I was obviously curious. I didn’t recall attending a church sale before (although the auctioneer told me later that he had sold one six months ago not far away from First Baptist).

    The notice offered exterior photos of the church. When I entered it, I found pews that looked like old movie theater seats like ones I had seen at auctions. They were dark wood seats with holders in the back for Bibles and hymnals, fold-up bottoms and no cushions. The floors were covered in a thin red carpet, and half-paneled walls held a long stylized heater.

    The pulpit held a baptismal pool with steps that led down into it. “We believe you go in and the whole body gets baptized,” one member noted.

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    Interior views of the church sanctuary.

    Allan Babnew – who said he was a deacon, trustee, treasurer and maintenance person – and his siblings were baptized and raised in this church. It had been the family’s spiritual home since his parents moved to Bridesburg 70 years ago.

    “We had a good congregation years ago,” said Babnew, who now attends a Presbyterian church nearby. “As the years went on people stopped coming to church.”

    The church continued to hold prayer meetings and other special events, and for a while an elderly pastor from Cape May, NJ, came up to conduct services “because he loved to preach,” Babnew said.

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    One side of First Baptist Church of Bridesburg overlooks its yard to rowhouses across the street. The “un-ring-able” bell is in the tower at top left.

    The building was 3,000 square feet and the fenced lot, 7,050. Much of what was inside would also be sold. The piano was already sold, he said, and the organ would stay (since its pipes were in the wall). The Communion plates and other small items were taken away to remove the temptation from not-so-honest auction-goers.

    In the basement, stained-glass windows bearing the names of loved ones would also be removed, the auction house’s real estate specialist noted during the auction. But, he said, the new owner could negotiate for the seats in the sanctuary.

    The church building was being sold by its last two members who were the owners of record. “You can do with it what you want,” the specialist said. “We are not selling it as a church.”

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    A stained-glass window in the basement honors a loved one.

    Several people had their own ideas about how it could be used: The auctioneer suggested renovating it as a house, with a big-screen TV in the sanctuary to show black-and-white movies as an organist played (as was done in silent-movie days).

    One woman, a member of the Bridesburg Historical Society, thought it would be a good space for that organization, which was meeting these days at a local church. Besides the sanctuary and two other small rooms on the first floor, the building had a large open community room in the basement, along with bathroom and kitchen facilities.

    It would be a perfect location for the society, given the long history of the neighborhood and the church. Bridesburg was part of a region that was originally the home of the Lenni Lenape Indians, and Europeans first arrived here around 1609. First came the Swedes and then the Dutch, according to Wikipedia, and then William Penn and the English in the late 18th century.

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    The main entrance to the church.

    The name Bridesburg was a shortened version of the name of James Kirkbride, who owned land in the area. Philadelphia County bought the land in the early 19th century and changed the name. Bridesburg was incorporated in 1848 and became a part of the city/county in 1854.

    Babnew said the church was founded in 1899 by the Dunn family, and a plaque devoted to them was in back of the church. A 1901 entry in the Church Standard noted that the minister of the church gave up his salary for a year to help pay off a $2,200 debt on the church. The pastor went to work in a factory to support his family. He preached on Sundays and made home visits at night, according to the publication.

    Some memories of the church are more recent. In the basement, I listened as two members and a neighbor recalled their own.

    “We always had the largest Vacation Bible School in the neighborhood,” one member said.

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    The baptismal pool in the back of the pulpit.

    “Still got the bell upstairs?” the neighbor, who lives two doors down, asked. Inside an enclosed tower at the peak of the church is a bell, its knotted pull-rope near the main entrance inside the church. Members would ring it every Sunday, but now it’s “un-ring-able,” as the auction-house specialist put it.

    “I wouldn’t ring it,” another member said, laughing, and repeating “I wouldn’t ring it.”

    “What I’m going to miss,” the neighbor added, “is Jesus praying. ‘Cause (I’d) sit in the backyard in the summertime when you had evening (services) and that was all lit up nice. That was pretty.”

    He was referring to an image of a praying Jesus in a circular stained glass window on the wall high above the pulpit. Another stained glass window with a gold crown and cross was above the main entrance.

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    Two stained-glass windows installed high on front and back walls in the sanctuary.

    When the church building came up for sale, the real estate specialist noted that taxes on the building would be about $1,500. There were no precise figures because churches do not pay taxes.

    The auction started, and the auctioneer asked the 25 or so people in the audience to make a bid. Silence. Then someone shouted $5,000. A “realistic bid,” the auctioneer admonished. Then came $50,000 and the bidding was on. By the time it ended, the building sold for $160,000 plus a 10 percent buyer’s premium.

    The buyer, the auctioneer said, planned to use it as a house.

    Before the sale, Babnew said it would be a little sad losing the building. “I’m 65,” he said. “I have memories.”

    But he has accepted it and moved on. “That’s what keeps you alive,” he said. “You can’t sit still. If you let the grass grow under your feet you’re not going to go nowhere. That’s like a lot of things. They’re closing my building so I’ll be out of a job. (He has worked at the old Nabisco bakery in Northeast Philadelphia for 46 years and will retire. It will be closing in a month or so).

    “Things are happening around you, so you just move on.”

    First Baptist Church of Bridesburg

    Two signs are propped against a wall in a room on the first floor.

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    1 Comment

    1. So sorry to hear about this church . I live in Bridesburg as a kid in the early. I’m 65 now . I attending the church and have a lot of fond memories. I was very close with Mr and Mrs Lawley.

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