Arch Street United Methodist Church - a reconciling congregation
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Church History

Arch Street UMC History                                    

-Dale Shillito, Church Historian

For decades in the mid-20th Century, Arch Street UMC used as its motto the title of an old hymn, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life”, since the church was so centrally located, one half block from City Hall in downtown Philadelphia. This was not always so. Built as a neighborhood church long before City Hall was completed, we were also built with the vision of greater things to come. The building was constructed in 2 stages. The Chapel was dedicated on July 2, 1865. The Sanctuary was dedicated on Nov. 17, 1870. The building was only the 2nd American Methodist church built in the Gothic style. Defending this ornate design, Bishop Matthew Simpson declared that, “the House of God should always be equal to the grandest edifices built in its surroundings.” The church now architecturally holds its own against the large Gothic structures of the Masonic Temple and City Hall, which were built next to it later. Its façade was constructed of white Italianate marble. This church was the first major project completed by architect Addison Hutton (1834-1916) in his distinguished career. The sanctuary organ was built by John CB Standbridge; his last, in 1870-71. The instrument has 52 registers and 2,322 pipes. One of its first recitals was given in honor of its builder’s lifetime achievements. Much later, another memorable concert was given by the famed organist, E. Power Biggs, after the organ was rebuilt in 1959.

Arch Street ME Church was the home church of Bishop Matthew Simpson and his family, who lived at 1334 Arch St. His successor, Bishop Cyrus Foss had a pew for his family on the center aisle of our sanctuary, which has since, by tradition, been reserved for resident and visiting bishops not seated at the dias. Pew markers in our sanctuary still mark the pews used regularly by Bishops Simpson’s and Foss’s families, as well as over 60 other early member families. Until 1972, at the conclusion of Bishop J. Gordon Howard’s term, the family of each resident bishop became members of Arch Street. Helen Foss Wood, granddaughter of Bishop Cyrus Foss, was mentioned at the 100th anniversary of the founding of the congregation in 1962. She was married here to the son of a prominent church family in 1911, and had been active in our church for 73 years.

The sanctuary is large, seating over 900, and has been packed to capacity on many occasions. 40 annual conferences have been held here over the years. It has witnessed the merging of the Delaware and Philadelphia Conferences to form the EPA Conference in 1968. At an Ecumenical Service on Jan. 10, 1971, the featured speaker was Cardinal John Krol. There have been Conference Ordination and Consecration services, also college graduation ceremonies. The church has been the scene of countless weddings, including that of Bishops and their family members. Bishop Ernest G. Richardson loved Arch Street church so much that when he died in 1947, he left instructions for his ashes to be interred under the platform of the pulpit. In a break from earlier traditions, Arch Street has never had bodies of members buried under the floor of the sanctuary. This was a godsend, since in 1932, the grounds underneath the sanctuary were excavated to create a large basement/hall for church dinners, wedding receptions and various other activities. This meeting room is now known as Nichols Hall in honor of Dr. Milton Nichols.

The baptismal font was created from a section of column taken from the high altar of City Road Chapel, in London, where John Wesley once preached. The Celtic cross, above the altar, was given in 1928, by 2 daughters of Bishop Simpson, who had been members for over 40 years. The egg-shaped spotlights shining down above the altar are a reminder of God’s promise of the renewal of life. Other symbolism, such as the Trinity in various forms, can be found carved or plastered throughout the sanctuary.

Rev. Henry W. Warren was pastor of Arch Street ME Church twice (1871-74 and 1877-80), before being chosen to be Bishop of the Wyoming Conference.  Rev. George H. bickley (!904-10) also  went on to become chosen bishop.  Rev. Alexander K. Smith was appointed to become District Superintendent directly from his pastorate here. Arch Street ME church was the mother church of St. Luke’s UMC (1883) at Broad and Jackson Sts., and former St. Matthew’s UMC (1888) at 53rd and Chestnut Sts.   Arch Street has inspired many to go on to become ordained and lay ministers, missionaries and chaplains in the United Methodist Church. A partial list includes Rev. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. (has served for 47 years), Rev. Arthur D. Mink, Rev. Fred Underhill (served at St. Matthew’s), Rev. J. Swain Garrison (served 35 years), Rev. Eugene Stillman (served 21 years), Rev. James J. Bingham (served over 40 years), John B. Scott, (chaplain), Rev. William Rhoads, George Russell, William P. Clark, and Odin Edwards (local preachers, many more), Carl Rutledge, Sarah B. Turner and Marion Taylor (missionaries). 

Dr. Milton Nichols was pastor 1924-45. He instituted Arch Street’s popular Lenten series each Wednesday at noon in weeks preceding Easter. This tradition has been going strong for 80 years now. Dr. Nichols invited guest speakers such as Rev. Martin Neimoeller, who was sent to Hitler’s concentration camps, and Rev. Ralph Sockman, who came down from NYC to preach every year for as long as Nichols was pastor.   Dr. Nichols helped institute Friendly Hour after Sunday night services in Nichols Hall, for young couples to meet. He also preached sermons over the radio every Sunday morning on WFIL and WDAS. Dr. John McElroy preached 3-hour sermons on the “7 Last Words of Christ” to a rotating throng of 3,500 worshippers on Good Friday for a decade. This series was later published as a book. Dr. Nichols’ nephew, Rev. James Haney, was pastor from 1964-82. Rev. Haney dedicated the church as a local historic landmark during our Centennial year of 1965. He also built up the church’s endowment, which now helps sustain our active ministry as a congregation. For our 125th year in 1987, the sanctuary was painstakingly restored to its original colors and ornamentation.  

Arch Street UMC is the oldest structure in the Center Square area. It is older than the Masonic Temple (1868) and City Hall (1901). It was built when the neighborhood was still residential, and most members lived within a 6-block radius. Located on the SE corner of Broad and Arch Streets, it once overlooked 1st Baptist Church on the NW corner, and Evangelical Lutheran on the SW corner. These churches were razed in 1898 and 1901 respectively, as the area became commercialized, and temptingly valuable. Only through great determination and effort did our congregation keep our church’s door’s open, and turn the loss of our residential base to our advantage, as the area became the transportation hub of Center City. Now, being a commuter church, with high transient turnover of membership, we have learned to appreciate, and pride ourselves on, the diversity that our location demands.

We are a welcoming church, accepting all who want to believe, regardless of nationality, race, political beliefs or sexual orientation. Our clergy have reflected this diversity as well. In 1990, Rev. Susan Cady (now Cole) became our first female pastor. She served here for 15 years. In 1997, Rev. Robert Booker became the first Black associate pastor. Our congregation has remained consistently integrated in all aspects of leadership and activities for decades.  We recognize this diversity with special Sunday programs celebrating African Heritage, Native American and AIDS Awareness. We are always mindful that we are all God’s children as we have worked with local homeless, and through Bread for the World and One Great Hour of Sharing, to end hunger and suffering everywhere. As far back as 1875, we pioneered outreach to the local poor. A women’s visiting committee sought out the destitute to provide clothing. A free sewing school was taught by female members to provide domestic skills to poor young girls. A satellite Sunday school on Green St. provided Christian instruction for poor children without transportation to our church. In the past 3 decades, we have provided 2 locations, (Dignity Shelter and Habitat House) for transitional shelters. We have provided Christmas breakfast and Thanksgiving dinner, plus Sandwich Sunday, where members made 4 to 500 sandwiches assembly-line style for distribution to the poor. We provided a walk-in counseling service, recreational facility (Engagement Center), and Contact, a volunteer emergency phone-in crisis number.

Our chapel is open 5 days/week for meditation and prayer. Free tours are given every Wednesday morning until 1 PM, by the church’s past and present historians. We hope to expand this tour program with the training of more volunteers. The church has a voluminous collection of historic records, including complete trustee records, quarterly conference reports of the pastors, rare historic photographs, 19th century newspaper articles, financial and other committee reports, programs from special services and events, and photographs of all senior pastors who have served with us since 1862. A monthly column by the church historian called “Our History” is now in its 6th year. It strives to focus on all aspects of the church; its membership, its pastoral leadership, its committees and activities, its finances, its architecture, its music, its outreach, and, when known, how we have spiritually brightened the lives of those we serve. We receive much new information from contacts we have with the families of former members who visit or write for genealogical data, and through interviews with older members. Because of the rich storehouse of information in our church archives, we have written nearly 50 articles so far, yet have covered thoroughly only the 1st quarter century of our life as a church. We hope to continue to improve our church history with more information on our church web page, and a permanent display of historic photographs of our 140 years as a church and 143 as a congregation.       Thank you.