The charter establishing St. Clement’s Church was granted to “the Rector, Churchwardens, and Vestrymen” on Sept. 13, 1855, and the cornerstone of the church building was laid on May 12, 1856.
William S. Wilson, a Presbyterian and an Englishman, provided the land on which St. Clement’s was built. Wilson, who with his two brothers had come to America and made a fortune as a manufacturer, owned most of the land in the area where St. Clement’s now stands. His interest was in development of a new residential section on what was then a semi-rural edge of the city by building row houses on Arch, Race and Twentieth Streets. He was eager that a church should be built, not so much because of any religious devotion on his part, but because he felt the erection of an Episcopal church would greatly enhance the attractiveness of his residential projects.
St Clement’s was the third Episcopal church to be designed by distinguished Philadelphia architect John Notman. He also designed St. Mark’s Church on Locust Street, the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square and, with Napoleon Le Brun, was associate architect for the Roman Catholic Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Logan Square. While Notman designed St Mark’s for the liturgical worship of a High Church congregation in the Gothic Revival style, he designed St Clement’s and Holy Trinity for typical Low Church Episcopal congregations in the Romanesque Revival style. Like its two nearby sisters, St. Clement’s was built entirely of brownstone. Its bell tower was originally topped by an impressive spire of over 200 feet. The weight of the spire was more than the foundation could support, however, and it was removed from the structure in 1869 in order to prevent damaging the foundation.
When the cornerstone was laid St. Clement’s was almost in the fields. Few houses were near and large tracts of open lots surrounded the ground that had been secured for the church. The grid of streets had hardly expanded westward as far as 20th Street and there was no City Hall in the Center Square. The Pennsylvania Railroad Terminal was located at 11th and Market Streets, and there was a covered wooden bridge over the Schuylkill River.
The building of St. Clement’s Church lasted three years because of recurring financial difficulties. Contemporary evidence indicates that at one time all work was stopped and the building stood roofless for a long period. It was finally opened for services on the first Sunday in January 1859. There is no record of any services for the congregation before the opening of the new building. The Church was consecrated on April 12, 1864.
At St Clement’s the influence of the Catholic Revival, known within the Church of England as the Oxford Movement, began with the election of The Rev’d Herman Batterson in March 1869. Fr. Batterson was a well-known figure in the Church because of his official connection with the Guild of the Holy Cross, a devotional guild, which had as its aim the development of the catholic life among the members of the Church.
A very remarkable mission was preached at St. Clement’s by two priests of the English House of the Cowley Fathers during Lent of 1874. The mission caused a tremendous sensation all over Philadelphia and led to the request the following year that the Fathers, the Society of St. John the Evangelist, should take charge of the Parish.
Brother Maynard, an SSJE lay brother, was with the Cowley Fathers for many years and left as his memorial a wonderful decoration of sunflowers on the ceiling of the Nave, now lost. When confessionals were installed in the Church, Brother Maynard was responsible for their construction. One of the confessionals is still in use in St. John’s Chapel.
Many famous priests from England visited St. Clement's from time to time during the incumbency of the Cowley Fathers, and the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Halifax, both outstanding Anglo-Catholic laymen amongst the peers, were guests in the Clergy House. Crowds thronged the services of the church. Police guards were needed to handle the people. Retreats and Quiet Days were frequently given. And the influence of the parish began to spread throughout the country, until the name "St. Clement's" became a term “with which the Low Churchman expressed his horror and the High Churchman his ideal.”
St. Clement's seems to have been one of the first Episcopal parishes in the country to incorporate the liturgical compositions of Gounod, Mozart, Haydn and other distinguished 18th and 19th century classical composers as settings for the masses, for in many of the announcements of these musical compositions it says, "first time in this country." Then as now, the music at St. Clement's, together with the frequent use of wind, string and brass accompaniments, was an added attraction and increased the size of the congregations.
St. Clement's was, during this period, a center of strife over the place of Anglo-Catholicism in the Episcopal Church. In the 1870's there was a protracted battle between the parish, which largely embraced the high church Anglo-Catholicism of the priests and laymen from the Society of St John the Evangelist, and the Bishop, who consistently sought to inhibit practices which he considered inappropriate, such as daily Eucharists, candles on the altar, the wearing of vestments, use of incense, and the hearing of confessions. Eventually the parish won out, but it required a deal of work for the Society of St John the Evangelist and St Clement's to become accepted in their ecclesiastical world.
Some maintain that the work of the Fathers and the entire St Clement’s community among the poor and needy in Philadelphia may have influenced the Diocesan authorities to moderate their criticism of the “high church” parish. Father Charles Neale Field, one of the Assistant Priests sent to St Clement’s from Cowley in 1882, established the Guild of the Iron Cross for Working Men and Boys during this time, eventually drawing thousands of working men from all over the United States into its membership. His intent was to create a “crusade against Blasphemy, Impurity and Intemperance among working men themselves” and posed the question "Are we by our lives and teachings preaching the gospel to the poor?" The Guild was a recreational as well as a religious association. The jovial cleric from Yorkshire established the Iron Cross Parlor and Gymnasium in 1889, and he often took large groups of boys and men for outings at various parks and places out in the country. St. Clement’s was located near the great Baldwin Locomotive Works on Spring Garden Street and other nearby factories and workshops, so its congregation was surely made up of many working families whose fathers and sons were members of the Iron Cross Guild.
It has also been widely said that St Clement’s was one of the first Episcopal parishes in the city to be integrated. While direct evidence is scanty, it is worthwhile to note that, unlike its neighboring parishes, St. Mark’s and Holy Trinity and numerous other Philadelphia churches, St Clement’s never established a separate “mission church” for African-Americans. Also, Fr. Field had come to St. Clement’s and established his outreach to the working men of the city having already become known for his ministry to persons of color, so the church clearly had a long tradition of tolerance and inclusion.
Meanwhile, one long cherished wish of Father Basil Maturin, Rector from 1881 – 1889, and his assistant Priests was for the establishment of a hospital for adults. Beginning the work by opening a Dispensary in a nearby house in 1885, the plan was to have evening hours so that the working people could benefit. The only requirement for treatment was to be poor and sick. By 1890, the hospital facility had moved to Cherry Street and expanded its services beyond the capacity of the parish to sustain them financially. After a brief period of retrenchment and use of the hospital exclusively to treat epileptics, in 1899 the building was sold to the Community of The All Saints Sisters of the Poor, to be used as a Mission House.
The Cowley Fathers had withdrawn from St. Clement’s in 1891 to focus their American work and ministry in Boston, and in 1895 the Rev’d George Moffett became Rector. His coming ushered in a new era of prosperity for the church. He built the present Clergy House; began perpetual reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the Crypt Chapel; was the first to use the term “mass” officially in the parish; put the first side altar in the church, and moved the Baptistry from the head of the south aisle to the rear of the north aisle. Fr. Moffett served until his death in 1904.
The present Parish House was built in 1906, the new Austin organ installed in 1914 and the east end of the Church entirely renovated and the apse raised by 15 feet to accommodate the great triptych over the high altar. The Lady Chapel (Boudinot Chantry) was also erected in this time.
In 1929, at the beginning of the Rev’d Franklin Joiner’s long rectorate, the City of Philadelphia undertook a project to widen North 20th Street by some 40 feet. St Clement’s was in the middle of the proposed expansion. Facing the prospect of having to demolish the church, the vestry instead embarked on an ambitious project to move the church forty feet to the west. Two properties to the rear of the church having been purchased, the 5,500 ton structure was raised onto steel beams and moved, slowly 40 feet to the west, huge screw jacks moving the building two feet each hour. The extraordinary feat was accomplished in three days without any harm to the property and without any interruption to the church services.
Meanwhile, the beautification of the church continued. The present pulpit and its baldacchino were added. Later, new Stations of the Cross were erected; the stained glass windows installed; the High Altar, pulpit and Stations polychromed and the Shrine of Our Lady of Clemency dedicated (1943). Father Joiner presented the church with the Statue of St. Clement as a thank offering on the silver jubilee of his ordination in 1944.
Following several earlier efforts to remodel and reconfigure the St. John’s chapel, in 1978 a thorough restoration took place. The restored St. John’s Chapel has a fine altar triptych by Davis d’Ambly, a local artist.
On November 20, 1970, St. Clement's Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The latter part of the 20th century saw a significant change in the church congregation as the nearby factories and other industrial and commercial establishments closed, families moved to the suburbs or farther away, and the parish neighborhood changed profoundly. St. Clement’s evolved from a parish church to a shrine church, its outreach and membership becoming more regional and its pews filled on great feast days with worshippers often traveling great distances to partake of the traditional masses that have continued apace. The 21st century has also seen an enormous growth in St Clements’ worldwide ministry, with thousands visiting the beautiful and comprehensive website to listen to the music, sermons and full services, view the lush photographs of masses and processions, and learn more about the catholic faith.
Today, as its parish neighborhood is revitalized and new, young singles, students and families settle nearby, St Clement’s continues as an inclusive community rooted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The church still emphasizes the Episcopal Church’s continuity with Catholicism prior to the Protestant Reformation. St. Clement’s therefore offers lavish worship and music with full Catholic ceremonial, including incense, bells, processions, chanting, and a renowned professional choir. Mass is celebrated daily using the English Missal and the poetic English of the King James Bible, enhanced on Sundays and major feasts with the finest in classical music.
Our growing outreach flows from the Mass, the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, the daily Divine Office. We welcome people of all colors, male & female, straight & gay, single & married with children, rich & poor. So you qualify! No matter who you are, you belong here.
Complied from material by The Rev’d Franklin Joiner, 12th Rector of St. Clement’s; The Rev’d Robert Rea, The Canterbury Project; May Lilly; and the nomination to the National Register of Historic Places