In 1889, the Philadelphia architect Charles M. Burns received the commission to rebuild and expand an existing mid-nineteenth-century church at 38th and Chestnut Streets. Devastated by a fire on April 17, 1902, little survived of Burns's church except the asymmetrically arranged bell tower and gabled main façade. The congregation invited Burns to return as architect to rebuild the rugged brownstone Romanesque structure and expand it to a width of 84 feet and a length of 150 feet, making it one of the largest Episcopal churchs in the city.
Charles M. Burns (1838-1922) had studied at the University of Pennsylvania, but the Civil War interrupted his academic career. After the rebellion had been suppressed he returned to his native Philadelphia to launch what would become a highly successful practice specializing in Episcopal churches. Armed with the rich palette of late Victorian tertiary colors, he lavishly orchestrated murals, stained glass, and stenciling.
At the time of its dedication in 1906, the interior - called Norman in style by Burns - had not yet been fully ornamented. According to the Public Ledger, "two rows of polished granite columns, capped with Minnesota limestone, support a Flemish oak roof, whose hammer beams in the clerestory are carved with winged cherubim. All of the woodword is of polished Flemish oak, and the floors are of mosaic."
Soon thereafter the American artist Edwin Blashfield applied the mural decorations, which are generall considered the principal treasure of the church. These murals, Blashfield wrote, present "beauty applied to utility" as "a supreme teacher, through the arts of patriotism, morals and history." Dedicated as a memorial to Anthony J. Drexel, Blashfield's murals occupied the semidome and lower walls of the chancel and consist of a choir of angels surrounding a figure holding the Grail. Eleven figures (at the lower level) holding lilies represent various types of humanity.
The mural dome by Edwin Blashfield (1848-1936) was created in the beaux-art style in 1906 in memory of Anthony J. Drexel. The composition presents a choir of adoring angels surrounding the central angel holding the grail, the cup thought to be used by Jesus in the last supper with his disciples. Below are thirteen cherubs. The color scheme is of golden light, blue amid pale tints, with a flat massing of halos. The planets in nebulous spots of gold and cloud masses suggest the idea of an other-worldly space. The Grail theme suggests that an eternal sacrifice has been made. The harmonious progress of our human race in the past and the hope future progress is all based on the willing sacrifice of innocence for guilt. The lower wall murals behind the altar present eleven figures, various "sorts and conditions" of humanity, holding lilies and turning toward the center and upward toward the Grail in the semi-dome.
The Cathedral has a magnificent collection of stained glass windows dating from the early 1900's. Read more about our stained glass.
The Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral was designated the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1992 by Bishop Allen Bartlett because of its large size, beauty, and location in West Philadelphia.
Each component in the reordered cathedral reflects theology, teaching us about who we are and where we have come from in our Christian journey. The space articulates with clarity the basic elements of Christian liturgy, giving prominence to the four essential aspects—initiation, word, sacred meal, and Episcopal presidency.