First Italian Presbyterian Church

Founding

The First Italian Presbyterian Church was officially established on October 27, 1903. However, mission work by the Presbyterian community in Philadelphia to reach out to newly-arrived immigrants from Italy, who were typically Roman Catholic, may have been instituted as early as the late 1890’s. 

Photograph of "Little Italy" [Italian Market] ca. 1907, courtesy of the Library Company, Graphics Collection.

Open-air services were held at 10th and Kimball Streets, near Washington Avenue, and, in the summer of 1902, the Evangelistic Committee of Presbytery of Philadelphia raised a great tent in this location.  Services were offered in Italian by the Rev. Michele Nardi, nicknamed “the Italian Evangelist” who was described as “a truly great man of God” ("The Installation of the Reverend Michele Frasca," 4/25/1946).  

A temporary structure, known as the Presbyterian Tabernacle, was soon erected on the site at 10th and Kimball Streets by John H. Converse, who was a wealthy locomotive builder living in the Rittenhouse Square area and on a Main Line estate.  Approximately 1,000 people could worship in these new quarters.  In addition to worship services, the temporary structure housed a school, and lessons were provided for kindergarten and primary school children. Classes in industrial work, molding, wood carving, sewing, and knitting were also offered. In 1903, the Italian worshippers petitioned the Presbytery to organize them as the First Italian Presbyterian Church and, on October 27, 1903, the church was established with a provisional session.

George W. Bailey, President of the Superindentents’ Sunday School Association of Philadelphia and the Vicinity, made clear the Presbytery’s interest in spreading the Presbyterian faith to the new immigrant population in a letter dated March 23, 1905:

“Under God we are face to face with an important missionary problem at our very door.  Shall we not regard it as a blessed opportunity and unitedly rally around the banner of Jesus Christ already set up in this part of our beloved city, filled as it is to overflowing with children and youth who are sadly ignorant of Jesus and His Love?  To supply the bread of life to these hungry children who come to us from a foreign land and who stand with outstretched hands asking for that which by reason of our superior blessings we are abundantly able to bestow is indeed a great privilege.” (Bailey, 3/23/1905)

1917 Smith Atlas showing 10th and Kimball Streets, courtesy of The Free Library of Philadelphia, Map Collection.
Click photo to enlarge.
At the time that Bailey made this statement, there were an estimated 100,000 Italians residing in Philadelphia and 40,000 Italian children and youth situated within a few blocks of 10th and Kimball Streets. The First Italian Presbyterian Church and related Sunday School represented the only organized effort on the part of Presbyterians to serve the vast number of Italians in the city. As the church became better established, the land on which the congregation worshipped was purchased for $20,000. While a portion of the cost was initially paid, a mortgage debt of $15,000 remained.  The 50,000 children in the Presbyterian Sunday Schools were asked to collect the sum of $15,000 in dime offerings from pastors, superintendents, officers, and teachers of the Presbyterian Church so that the money could be collected without causing a significant burden for any one person, as the members of the congregation did not possess great wealth.  It was believed that by enlisting the students to help collect the debt, it would “[interest] them at once in both home and foreign missions, and at the same time [accomplish] a grand and noble undertaking” (Gara, 4/11/1905).  Gara implored members of the church to contribute by offering the following statistics: “At one cent and five cents at a time this country spends in the same time, one month, nearly two millions of dollars ($22,000,000 annually) for chewing gum. The Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company report shows gross receipts in five cent pieces in the same time, one month, $1,326,959. The Betsy Ross House is being bought with dimes” (Gara, 4/11/1905). By February 1906, the mortgage on the property was paid off and, to celebrate, a ceremony was held on June 11, 1906 in the Italian Tabernacle during which the cancelled mortgage was presented. 

 

The successful outreach effort in South Philadelphia that resulted in the establishment of the First Italian Presbyterian Church prompted the Presbytery to set up two other missions to Italians in Philadelphia in 1905 and 1906.  These missions eventually became The Second Italian Presbyterian Church (later renamed St. Andrew and St. Philip) organized in 1910 in West Philadelphia, and The Church of the Savior, organized in 1929 in Germantown. The success of the First Italian Presbyterian Church was also apparent in the construction of a new building in 1908 on the newly purchased land to house the congregation at 10th and Kimball Streets.  The new Spanish/Colonial style structure was designed by architect Charles S. Hillman (fl. 1907-1935/36) and cost approximately $38,000.  The building was most likely built in this unique style to appeal to the foreign population for which it was built. The cornerstone for this new building was laid on November 21, 1908 and, on October 3, 1909, the First Italian Presbyterian Church at was dedicated.  The new building could house 1,200 worshippers and contained a pastor’s study, Sunday school rooms and kindergartens.  Soon after the building was constructed, the Rev. Arnaldo Stasio was formally installed as pastor of the church.  At this time, there were 500 church members and 400 Sunday school students.

 
Image of the First Italian Presbyterian Church, printed in The Philadelphia Record, October 19, 1913, courtesy of the Campbell Collection, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
 
Image of Reverend Arnaldo Stasio, printed in The Bulletin, October 1, 1909, courtesy of the Campbell Collection, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

 

Interior of Christ's United Presbyterian Church, courtesy of The South Philadelphia Review.

 

The First Italian Presbyterian Church underwent a period of transformation in the coming years. The church building itself was physically changed, which can be seen in the removal of the tower in the current photos below. Even more significant, however, are the changes that the church experienced in terms of its congregation. The church thrived for the first 20 years but, over time, parishioners moved from South Philadelphia to West Philadelphia and to the western suburbs and many found new churches closer to their homes (Hammonds 68).  Due to a decreased membership, the First Italian Presbyterian Church and the South United Presbyterian Church (established 1899 and located at 17th and Snyder Streets) agreed to merge their congregations in 1972.  This merger became official on March 25, 1973 and the church was renamed Christ’s United Presbyterian Church.  The church continued to struggle with problems of low membership and, in 1990, Christ’s United Presbyterian Church had only 86 reported members and 59 church school pupils.  In 2005, Christ’s United Presbyterian Church, led by Pastor George Aiken, reported 78 members. Due to an increase in Asian population in South Philadelphia, Indonesian and Vietnamese language services are now offered on Sundays.

 

 

Christ's United Presbyterian Church, photograph taken December 11, 2005 by Jamie Barbaccia.
Christ's United Presbyterian Church, photograph taken December 11, 2005 by Jamie Barbaccia.

 

Evolution

The timeline below highlights key dates in the history of the First Italian Presbyterian Church.  Throughout its history, the church has served the same South Philadelphia neighborhood at 10th and Kimball Streets.

Late 1890s -- Open-air and tent services were held at the southwest corner of Tenth and Kimball Streets.

1903 -- Italian worshippers petitioned the Presbytery to organize them as the First Italian Presbyterian Church.

1908 -- Building designed by Charles S. Hillman erected at 10th and Kimball Streets at a cost of $38,000. 

1973 -- The First Italian Presbyterian Church and the South United Presbyterian Church merged their congregations and the church was renamed Christ’s United Presbyterian Church.

2005 -- Christ’s United Presbyterian Church holds Indonesian and Vietnamese language services to accommodate the growing Asian population in South Philadelphia.

 

Urban Context

The First Italian Presbyterian Church has undergone many changes since it first began serving Italian immigrants in South Philadelphia in the late 1890s, but through them all, it has remained in the same location at 10th and Kimball Streets.  The church building has evolved from a tent, to temporary structure, to a permanent building.  The church has merged with another struggling congregation, South United Presbyterian Church, and has been renamed as Christ’s United Presbyterian Church.  In addition, the church has adapted to meet the needs of the changing South Philadelphia neighborhood in which it is located.  It no longer serves only the Italian community, but has reached out to the growing Asian community in South Philadelphia.

 

References for research on the First Italian Presbyterian Church:

Bailey, George W.  Letter to the Superintendents of the Presbyterian Sunday School in Philadelphia and Vicinity.  March 23, 1905.  The Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia.

Campbell Collection v.71, p.107, 229-230.  Newspaper clippings The Public Ledger, November 21, 1908; The Bulletin, October 1, 1909 and The Philadelphia Record, October 19, 1913 which discuss the First Italian Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Gara, H. C.  Circular No. 7.  4/11/1905.  The Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia.

Gara, H. C. Circular No. 8. 1905. The Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia.

Gennaro, Lorraine.  "Christian Churches."  The South Philadelphia Review, March 17, 2005. http://www.southphillyreview.com/view_article.php?id=3106

Hammonds, Kenneth A.  Historical Directory of Presbyterian Churches and Presbyteries of Greater Philadelphia.  Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1993.

"The Installation of the Reverend Michele Frasca as minister of the First Italian Presbyterian Church at 10th and Kimball Streets, Philadelphia, PA."  Pamphlet, 1946.  The Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia.

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