Project taking inventory of houses of worship in Reading

Jul. 11—Lauren Huber and George Wert looked admiringly at the stained glass, rough-faced stone, wide arches and other features of a shuttered church on the northeast corner at Sixth and Elm streets.

The two rapidly scribbled notes as local historian Richard M. Polityka pointed out highlights of the church's Victorian Romanesque design.

Interns at the Berks County Community Foundation, Huber, 24, and Wert, 21, have been tasked with continuing the foundation's Sacred Places Project, an inventory begun in 2019 of Reading's architecturally and historically significant houses of worship.

"Ultimately, I hope what we're doing is useful," Huber said, "and will help preserve Reading's history so people can appreciate it for many years to come."

To jump-start the project, the interns recently joined Polityka, 60, of Reading, area pastors and others on a walking tour of downtown churches north of Penn Street.

On hold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the inventory is being conducted under the direction of Kevin Lugo, energy and environment program officer for the community foundation, and in partnership with the Philadelphia chapter of Partners for Sacred Places.

The nonsectarian, nonprofit organization promotes the stewardship and active community use of older religious properties in the U.S.

"With so many congregations facing challenges and churches across the country being abandoned or destroyed, the community foundation wants to know the state of Reading's historic churches and help preserve these iconic buildings," Lugo said.

The interns' work this summer will help the foundation better understand the history, status and condition of the city's religious buildings, he said.

Churches, mosques, chapels, synagogues and other places of worship often have historical, architectural or artistic value and are a high priority for preservation. But many of the city's mainstream religious congregations are facing decreased attendance and resultant financial troubles. Some have been shuttered, and others are in danger of closing.

"As many know, churches are closing rapidly around the country, especially after the pandemic," Huber said. "This includes many historically significant buildings, whose church members have had a hard time maintaining their old structures."

A number of churches in Reading are suffering in terms of attendance, Wert said. Among the reasons, he said, are an aging population and higher levels of secularism among young people.

Wert of Lower Heidelberg Township said the team is also looking at the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's important to understand analytically how these past two years have affected religious congregations," he said.

Wert, a senior at the Catholic University of America in Washington who is considering becoming a priest, has an interest in faith trends.

Touring churches and speaking with pastors has been eye opening, he said.

"We want to understand the history and future of religious buildings and congregations in Reading," he said. "By meeting with pastors and learning about how their congregation was founded and where they are right now, we're able to get a better sense of where they're headed."

Huber of Exeter Township earned a Bachelor of Arts in history and Spanish with a minor in anthropology from Albright College in 2020.

She plans to attend graduate school at American University in Washington this fall and will focus on early American history and women and gender studies.

The project, which involves elements of historic preservation, local history, Spanish language and Latino culture, hits several of her areas of interest.

"I also get to see beautiful old churches, which is an added bonus," she said.

The former Grace Evangelical Congregational Church, 301 N. Sixth St., was one of 10 churches visited by the group led by Polityka.

Designed by Reading architect Alexander Forbes Smith, it was begun in late 1896, Polityka said.

Forbes Smith, a native of Scotland was lured to Reading from Harrisburg by George F. Baer, an attorney for and later president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, who admired the architect's work.

"Alexander Forbes Smith was proud of the fact that he managed to get so much church onto a modest sized lot," Polityka said.

As the historian pointed out the church's features, a rock dove glided to a landing on the sill of a partially boarded window. The bird, commonly known as a pigeon, paused for a moment, then popped inside through a hole in the shattered art glass.

Owned since 2003 by the Faith Temple United Holiness Church, the building is in disrepair and appears unused.

A representative of the church could not be reached for comment.

Other churches visited were in better shape.

Christ Episcopal Church on the northwest corner of Fifth and Court streets, for example, is in fine condition, well attended and still occupied by its original denomination.

The group learned some of its history from Wayne Fanning, the church's vestry junior warden.

Founded in 1753, Christ Church has the city's oldest English-speaking congregation. The earliest section of the building, the church's nave, dates to1826.

Outside, Polityka pointed to the red sandstone façade and its 200-foot tower, added between 1861 and 1867. These later features were designed in the Gothic Revival, or pointed, style by New York architect Edward T. Potter, whose most famous surviving building is the stick-style home of Mark Twain in Hartford, Conn.

At Charis Community Church, 123 N. Sixth St., the Rev. Abraham Robles, who co-pastors the church with his wife, the Rev. Jocabed Robles, welcomed the group inside.

The congregation bought the building, originally St. Paul's Memorial Reformed Church, earlier this year.

Huber, Wert and others marveled at the highly ornamental interior, which features some late19th century wallcovering and stenciling.

Built in 1871, the church is generally in good shape with some water damage to the plaster ceiling evident and a few cracks in the stained glass windows.

Identifying such maintenance and repair needs is another goal of the survey, Lugo said.

The community foundation in partnership with Sacred Places can help direct congregations with architecturally or historically significant buildings, such as Charis, to possible grant sources for the planning and execution of urgent capital projects, he said.

In addition, the survey can help to identify vacated religious buildings that could be repurposed for nonreligious uses, Lugo said. Such buildings in other cities have been converted for community-focused uses, such as health care, senior or after-school centers.

A recent study by Sacred Places of older churches and synagogues in New York, Philadelphia and other large cities showed that nine out of 10 congregations with pre-1940 buildings already provide space for community activities, such as soup kitchens, food pantries, youth programs, and music and drama activities.

A typical city congregation supports four or more ongoing programs that serve people in need, the study found.

Seeing how involved some congregations in Reading are with outreach and helping others, both within the city and abroad, was enlightening, Huber said.

"This project will help see how Reading's congregations are doing and how we can ensure the city's places of worship are being preserved," she said, "but also that they are being used to their fullest potential by the community."