This article was submitted by Libby Browne of the St. Peter’s History Committee.
St. Peter’s Church has been involved in reaching out to its community since its earliest days, especially after 1832 when it became independent of Christ Church.
In the years before the Civil War, the surrounding neighborhood became home to Irish immigrants fleeing famine; after the Civil War and the end of slavery, freed blacks came north to start new lives, then Jews came, fleeing oppression in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It was a volatile mix of competition for jobs and housing as people were crammed into the old houses since residents, many of them members of St. Peter’s, had moved away from the area. Many churches in this situation followed their congregations but the St. Peter’s leadership, especially their wives, saw that their church had a mission to care for the new arrivals and help them as they tried to adjust to their new life.
The church opened its first mission of many in the city in 1869, a chapel on the upper floor of the Head House at 2nd and Pine – going to where the people were when they went to market. In 1871, the first St. Peter’s House opened at Front and Pine Streets, in two houses, one of which Rev. William White had lived in earlier. Here many women of the parish provided services to the poor, struggling immigrants; in time it became a settlement house with a live-in staff. Its vicar, Rev. Bernard Schulte, said they were fighting “ignorance, intemperance, gambling, idleness, lust and pauperism.” The mission carried on there until the 1920s, when due to rats attracted to the neighboring poultry houses, the taking on by public agencies of many of the services St. Peter’s House offered and a decline in immigration due to quotas established by the US government, the House was closed. Some activities such as the St. Peter’s Guild for Girls and the St. Peter’s Guild for Men continued at 323 Lombard Street, next to the school (started by Bishop White in 1834 to educate young children).
In 1923 the church acquired 313 Pine Street to continue its outreach, but in just one townhouse instead of two. Church membership declined in the following years and by the 1960s the church used the parlor for gatherings and the Rector Joseph Koci, his wife and two sons lived upstairs. His office was in the school, which the church still ran. As the redevelopment of Society Hill took off in 1960s, prosperity returned to the neighborhood and the church grew in numbers to the degree that we now have outgrown that one townhouse, but like our predecessors, the desire to respond to the needs of the surrounding community and the wider city continues with great spirit. It’s part of our DNA as a parish.
Note: This article comes from Chapter 8 of St. Peter’s Church: Faith in Action for 250 Years, written by my co-authors Cordelia Biddle and Alan Heavens. Do read it for much more interesting detail. The quote from Rev. Schulte is on page 110. Books are available in the office.