Holy Philadelphia highlights region's religious diversity
By Mary Eileen O'Connor
The new original WHYY production debuts November 25 on WHYY-TV on WHYY-TV.
Independence Hall might be the best-known architectural landmark in Philadelphia, but some of the city's most significant structures are its sacred places--the churches, synagogues and temples where people come together to worship and strengthen community bonds. These sacred places are the inspiration for Holy Philadelphia, an original WHYY production debuting on Saturday, November 25.
Produced by WHYY's Ed Cunningham, the program explores the people and places that make up the area's rich spiritual tapestry. Holy Philadelphia highlights places large and small, from the grand Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, to intimate gathering places such as the Arch Street Friends Meeting House. The program also looks at the varied religious beliefs of the people who worship in these sacred places.
"Philadelphia is unique because it was founded to be a haven for those who were oppressed," Cunningham says. Because of William Penn's desire to create a place where people of all faiths could freely worship, there is great religious diversity throughout the region. Guided by Partners for Sacred Places, a local organization dedicated to the preservation of America's religious properties, Cunningham says the featured sites were chosen based on their historical and architectural importance, with an effort to encompass the area's "mosaic of religious expression."
The program examines the architectural beauty of institutions such as the Beth Sholom Synagogue in Jenkintown (shown on cover), one of the few structures in this area designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The little-known histories of churches such as Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Rittenhouse Square are also discovered. The Christmas hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was written at Holy Trinity in 1868.
The traditions of the people in the region are as diverse as their beliefs. Viewers will get a glimpse at how Jewish people observe the High Holy Days at a small synagogue in Vineland, NJ. One in a cluster of small, rural synagogues founded by Russian Jews escaping religious persecution in the late 19th century, it opens only once each year to observe Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur.
Cunningham says that some of the most interesting stories did not come from outwardly religious institutions. One of the most unique places featured is the Toviah Thrift Shop at 42nd and Chestnut Streets. There, Minister Larry Falcon uses money raised from the shop to prevent kids in the West Philadelphia neighborhood from turning to a life on the streets. Every Friday night in a small chapel in the rear of the thrift shop, he conducts a religious service for local youths. "This type of story restores your faith in people," Cunningham says.
Despite their great historical significance, he noted that many of the featured institutions are more than just stops on a tour map. They are really places of living history, where people carry on Penn's dream of a refuge from religious persecution. A spiritual gathering place for the country's forefathers, Christ Church at 2nd and Market Streets houses William Penn's own baptismal font, which today is still used for infant baptisms.
These sacred places remain at the core of people's everyday lives because, Cunningham says, people still seek "spiritual sustenance" and a sense of community. Whether a prominent part of the landscape or tucked away in a small corner of the city, Penn's dream lives on in each of these places, through the immense faith and devotion of the people of the Delaware Valley.
Holy Philadelphia debuts on WHYY TV12 on Saturday, November 25 at 8 p.m