Officially known as the George W. Smith Memorial Church of the Advocate, the stunning North Philadelphia Episcopal sanctuary was built between 1890 and 1897 and funded by the estate of George W. Smith. From the time of its construction, the church has been dedicated to inclusion and fairness. The church played an active role in the civil rights movement and hosted both Black Power and Black Panther conventions. The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.
Following the death of successful merchant and Philadelphia County
treasurer George W. Smith, his wife commissioned a church in his memory in the single largest act of religious philanthropy in the city's history. The
church, designed by Charles M. Burns, was built in the French Gothic style,
complete with flying buttresses and large stained glass windows. It took seven
years to build—from 1890 to 1897.
From its inception, the Episcopal church was committed to serving its
parish and to making no distinction between rich and poor. Accordingly, the
Church of the Advocate ended the old practice of renting pews, which it
believed made the church accessible to all.
When the church was built, its North Philadelphia neighborhood was
largely made up of working-class, white people. Over the years, however, the
demographics of the area changed and the Church of the Advocate adapted. As the area became predominantly African American, the church made noteworthy efforts to be more representative of its neighborhood, particularly under the leadership of Father Paul M. Washington. In the 1970s, Washington commissioned a series of fourteen murals in the nave depicting African American history. Underneath each mural is a passage from scripture that likens the struggle of African Americans to that of the ancient Hebrews. The murals remain one of the church's most striking features.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the church also took a an active role in the civil rights movement. It welcomed civil rights groups that were not welcome in other venues and hosted the Third Annual Conference on Black Power in 1968. Two years later, the church hosted the Black Panther Convention.
The Church of the Advocate was also ahead of its time regarding the ordination of women as priests in the Episcopal Church. Eleven women (known as the Philadelphia Eleven) were ordained in the church in 1974, two years before the national church voted to approve women as Episcopal priests. The church is considered the first site in the country to ordain women as priests.
Continuing in the Episcopal Church's tradition of social justice as well as the activist model established by Father Washington, the Church of the Advocate continues to actively serve its community. The church provides free lunches every weekday at the Advocate Cafe. The Advocate Center for Culture and Education offers numerous classes and workshops.
The Church of the Advocate is a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the Pennsylvania Inventory of Historic Places and King's Handbook of Episcopalian Churches.