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History

Multicultural roots grow deep at St. Paul’s Elkins Park.

The oldest church in the Cheltenham area, it was started in 1851 and built in the early 1860s by the generous vision of financier and abolitionist, Jay Cooke. Quaker social activist, Lucretia Mott was a good friend, and was a member of Jay’s weekly bible study group. Lucretia and Jay had been hiding escaped slaves at an Underground Railroad Station on his estate for years. When St. Paul’s was built, they continued their work using a new Station, in the basement of our church.

Meanwhile, Jay Cooke was asked by the government to find a way to sell bonds to pay for the Union Army. In his success as financial savior of the Union, around three billion dollars in bonds passed over his desk, which now sits in the entrance to our church. During this time, our church held the only regular worship services at nearby Camp Willian Penn, where African-American troops were trained for the Union Army. Jay Cooke’s mausoleum is in our churchyard.

The Rev. Marjorie Farmer, noted Philadelphia teacher and Episcopal Priest, and wife of Clarence Farmer of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, served as assistant Rector of our church; as did the Rev. Emmanuel Chemengich, founder of Mwamba Ministries in Kenya.

Civil rights, anti-poverty, and antiwar activist, the Rev. David Gracie, was Rector here; as was the Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon, now Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, and the Rev. Marissa Herrera, from Cuba. Our present Rector, the Rev. Paul DeWitt Reid, was born in Illinois, and lived in Europe for 16 years, where he worked in both urban and rural community development. His wife, Anne, was born and grew up in Scotland.

There is much, much more to the history of our church; we can only tell part of the story here. During the Gilded Age (around 1870 to 1912), the Widener and Elkins families were active members, as were many other “society names,” and our church was expanded by noted Philadelphia architect Harvey Trumbauer. Artist Louis Tiffany designed and produced 13 of our glorious stained glass windows; including two for George and Harry Widener who went down in the Titanic. If you are old enough to remember the 1950s and 60s, the old premier Philadelphia Top-40 AM radio station with call letters WIBG (often pronounced “wibbage”), started as a religious radio station in the basement of our church! Our deepest multicultural roots have to do with our name – Saint Paul himself invented inclusive multiculturalism!