Since summer, Immanuel Highlands Episcopal Church’s historic façade and breathtaking stained-glass windows have been shrouded in scaffolding, tarp and plywood as the parish completes a restoration project more than one century in the making.
The church was established in 1884 by, amongst others, Bancroft Textile Mills President, John Bancroft.
That modest wooden church, built within walking distance of the mill, was consecrated on Advent Sunday, 1884. It was replaced in 1914 by a stone structure–Wissahickon Schist, to be precise– at the corner of Riverview and 17th Avenues.
Today, the modified gothic structure is home to an Austin Pipe Organ, plus more than 20 historically and artistically significant stained glass windows, including 17 by famed, local illustrator, Frank Schoonover.
For Reverend Curt Kennington, who joined the parish during COVID lockdown, the church’s historically and artistically significant sanctuary was part of its appeal.
“I stand here in the morning and think to myself, ‘This is miraculous: the beauty of the colors, all the creatures of the sea – whales and giraffes… lightning, planets.’ They show a diversity of human life, and people of every color. These windows contain so many images of who we are as people.”
But the people who make up the parish have long been aware that their church was slowly crumbling.
The primary culprit? Wissahickon Schist, and some poorly rendered previous restorations.
Wissahickon Schist is used primarily as a decorative rather than a weight bearing stone – though numerous area buildings (like those on the Brywn Mawr College camp) are made of the stuff. The rock tends to be rich in mica and thus strongly foliated (sheet-like) and fissile (easily split). Ergo the soft rock, and serious leaks.
Those leaks came to put those miraculous windows, that priceless organ, and everything around them in grave risk.
To say nothing of the parishioners. On Christmas Eve last year, torrential rains led to water flowing through Schoonover’s “Fisherman’s Window,” soaking interior rock walls and pooling at parishioners’ feet.
Parish Site Coordinator, Beth Burnam, knows only too well; her feet got wet that night.
Burnham, alongside Reverend Kennigton, Project Treasurer, Ken Germain, architects, historic restoration specialists, parishioners, and supporters, are in the final stretch of a restoration project, dubbed Cornerstone II, that began in 2019 when it became apparent the stone was only part of the problem.
Two years, many drone flights and now, hand-on inspection and restoration, have surfaced additional challenges.
“It turns out that much of the flashing was improperly installed,” Burnham explained. “Roof ridges were poorly sealed, and some of the original roof sheathing and guttering had rotted away.”
Zavorski Masonry Restoration expects that work will be done by Thanksgiving.
“People have loved this parish church for over a century,” Burnham said. “Countless have been christened, wed, comforted, and laid to rest here.”
“We hope that, come Thanksgiving, neighbors will join with us to celebrate a dry and music-filled community church with the glorious window paintings reminding us all of our need for bread, beauty, and human love!”
Highlands Community Association’s Fall 2021 Meeting will take place on Wednesday, October 20 at 7pm via Zoom (link here). As always, we’ll hear from neighborhood and civic leaders on the state of our community. For additional community events, resourcesand stories, please visit the Highlands Community Association website.