The Descent of Philadelphia's Abandoned Ascension Church
The Ascension of Our Lord Parish was founded in 1899 in a temporary chapel inside a former candy store. Construction on a permanent site on land used for a peach orchard began that same year. Built for $75,000, the church was dedicated in 1900 and served 1,100 worshippers. The parish quickly outgrew this church and a little over a decade later plans were already in place to build a bigger, better church. The basement chapel for this church was completed in 1914 but due to the recession and World War I, it took until 1924 for the permit for the upper chapel to be granted and the exterior wasn’t completed until 1926. The interior was completed two years later.
By 1922 Ascension was the third largest parish in Philadelphia but the decades following the 1960s were not kind to the Cathedral of Kensington, nor to the neighborhood. In 1980, 17% of the population was living below the poverty level, and that number mushroomed to 41% by 2010. With significantly lessened income, the upper church deteriorated. In 2012, with repairs to the church estimated to be around $3 million and mass attendance of 188, Ascension was closed for good.
By July of 2017 the Kensington area, known by then as the “Walmart of Heroin”, boasted one of the nation’s largest open drug markets and equally large homeless encampments. That year a Philadelphia Inquirer article about Ascension revealed that the church had become a ‘shooting gallery’ for heroin addicts. Needles littered the building, feces and used condoms were in the confessionals – so many people squatted inside that their numbers were compared to those of Mass. Unsurprisingly, in December 2017 Ascension burned. Nobody was hurt, but the church was ruined.
The old church still stands, blackened by fire, at it appears to be well-sealed. Like so many Philadelphia churches, it will likely wind up vacant until the value of the land that it sits on increases enough for it to be torn down. It’s a sad system, one that is leaving the city’s historical and architectural record in tatters.