Church of St. James the Less

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St. James-the-Less Episcopal Church
James the Less HABS.jpg
Location Hunting Park Ave. at Clearfield St.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Coordinates 40°0′14″N 75°10′59″W / 40.00389°N 75.18306°W / 40.00389; -75.18306Coordinates: 40°0′14″N 75°10′59″W / 40.00389°N 75.18306°W / 40.00389; -75.18306
Built 1846
Architect George Gordon Place; John E. Carver
Architectural style Other, Gothic Revival
NRHP reference # 74001801[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP November 20, 1974
Designated NHL February 4, 1985

The Church of St. James the Less is a historic Episcopal church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that was architecturally influential. As St. James-the-Less Episcopal Church, it was designated a National Historic Landmark[2] for its Gothic Revival architecture, which influenced a generation of subsequent churches.


Philanthropist and merchant Robert Ralston wanted to found a church near his land on Ridge Road, but died shortly before this church's founding. His friend Samuel Jarvis had helped found the General Theological Seminary in New York and knew about the Cambridge Camden Society.[3] This congregation was admitted to the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on 22 May 1846 and on 26 September 1846, took the corporate name of "Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James the Less." The new congregation acquired land from nearby Laurel Hill Cemetery and wanted to build a church that could serve not only the wealthy families with mansions overlooking the Schuylkill River or on Hunting Park Avenue, but also working-class people of the nearby industrial neighborhood now known as Allegheny West.[4]

The parish was traditionally High Church. It did not install gas lighting in 1869, but did allow oil lamps to replace the original candles circa 1885. Further modernization occurred in the early 20th century, including not only the tower and chimes (dedicated 1910) but also electric lighting and central heat circa 1913. Documents concerning its Anglo-Catholic practices in the early 20th century.[5]

HABS Front view of the church in 1972


The building was added to the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The National Park Service called it "the first example of the pure English Parish church style in America, and one of the best examples of a 19th-century American Gothic church for its coherence and authenticity of design. Its influence on the major architects of the Gothic Revival in the United States was profound."[6]

St. Michael's Church, now disused, Longstanton, Cambridgeshire, England, the model for St. James-the-Less

The Gothic architecture was nearly accidental. The congregation applied to the Cambridge Camden Society, which in 1841 and 1844 had published a widely circulated pamphlet on modern church design, for a set of approved plans. Originally an organization formed by Cambridge University students interested in gothic architecture, the group advocated combining the piety of gothic architecture with church reform associated with the Oxford Movement. It was inadvertently sent measured drawings prepared by English architect George Gordon Place for St. Michael's Church in Longstanton, Cambridgeshire, built c. 1230, which were then followed in every detail under the supervision of architect John E. Carver.[7] Later American churches on the National Register of Historic Places influenced by St. James' design include All Saint's Memorial Church (Navesink, New Jersey) (designed by Richard Upjohn first President of the American Institute of Architects) and St. Peter's Episcopal Church (Neligh, Nebraska).

Set on the edge of a hill, north of Mount Vernon Cemetery and east of Laurel Hill Cemetery, the setting for the church is no longer rural. West Hunting Park Avenue, a major artery, is just beyond the churchyard's south wall, and industrial buildings lie to the west. Now, however, the shady and quiet churchyard is considered an urban oasis.[8]

The Wanamaker Memorial Bell Tower and mausoleum (1908), designed by John T. Windrim, houses a set of J.C. Deagan, Inc. tower chimes and a chime of bells by the McShane foundry. A parish hall, which later housed the parish school, was built on the opposite side of West Clearfield Street.

Current parish(es)[edit]

The congregation of St James the Less began withholding diocesan payments in protest over the ordination of women. After the bishop refused to renew the preaching license of assistant Rev. Willis in 1999, the congregation attempted to form a nonprofit corporation and transfer the church property into it.[9] In 2001, the diocese initiated litigation to seize its property and two years later the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas ruled that the attempted merger was ultra vires and invalid.[10] The breakaway congregation lost two subsequent appeals, first to Commonwealth Court and then to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.[11] After the Supreme Court's decision, the Diocese assumed control of the St. James property. In 2008 the diocese's Standing Committee voted to allow historic St. Mark's Church in Philadelphia's center city neighborhood to adopt the Church of St. James the Less as a mission. Weekly celebration of Mass resumed on Sundays at 5:00 pm. The breakaway congregation now meets at the Holy Cross Catholic church and is known as the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel.[12][13]


During the controversy, the parish school closed circa 2006. As part of its mandate, Saint Mark's Church began a fundraising effort to open a new parish school to serve this local community. In 2009 and 2010, the St. Mark's congregation (together with St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland) sponsored Vacation Bible School at the historic church school. The following fall a successful after-school program began, staff were hired, and renovations began. In September 2011 Saint James School, covering grades 5 to 8 opened.[14] It is part of the NativityMiguel Network of Schools and The National Association of Episcopal Schools.[2] neighborhood.[4]

Notable interments[edit]

Wanamaker Memorial Bell Tower and Mausoleum (1908), John T. Windrim, architect.

The surrounding churchyard is the final resting place of several notable people. The cemetery is open to the public when the school is in session, generally weekdays from 7am-6pm, and on the weekends during school events.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ National Park Service (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ "St. James the Less - Philadelphia Church Project". Philadelphia Church Project. Retrieved 8 July 2017. 
  3. ^ NRIS section 8
  4. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  5. ^ "Church of St. James the Less - Philadelphia Studies". Retrieved 8 July 2017. 
  6. ^ Listing at the National Park Service
  7. ^ American Architecture: A History, by Leland M. Roth
  8. ^ Kimberly Killeri (22 December 2012). "Philadelphia Cemetery ~ St James the Less". Retrieved 8 July 2017 – via YouTube. 
  9. ^ In re: Church of St James the Less. 953 N.P. 2001. Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Orphans Court Division. March 10, 2003. pp. 13-16.
  10. ^ In re: Church of St. James the Less. 953 N.P. 2001. Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Orphans Court Division. March 10, 2003. pp. 43.
  11. ^ Appeal of the Church of St. James the Less Archived August 23, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.. 47 E.D. Appeal Docket 2004. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Eastern District. December 29, 2005.
  12. ^ "St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Bridgeport, PA - Ordinariate parish in Philadelphia area". Retrieved 8 July 2017. 
  13. ^ "East Falls Church Forced from Property. Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine." The Fallser, February 2006.
  14. ^ "St James School". Retrieved 8 July 2017. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Find A Grave: Saint James the Less Episcopal Churchyard". Retrieved 8 July 2017. 
  16. ^ John R. Goldsborough at Find a Grave
  17. ^ Horton, Loren N. (2003). The Beautiful Heritage: A History of the Diocese of Iowa. Des Moines: Diocese of Iowa. p. 61. 
  18. ^ The Ancestry and Posterity of Matthew Clarkson, by J. R. T. Craine

Further reading[edit]

  • King, Moses. Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians. New York: Blanchard Press, Isaac H. Blanchard Co., 1901.
  • Stanton, Phoebe B., The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840-1856. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968. ISBN 0-8018-5622-1
  • Webster, Richard J., Philadelphia Preserved. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1976. ISBN 0-87722-089-1

External links[edit]