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Last spring the Philadelphia Historical Commission overturned by a single vote a previous decision that had placed Christian Street Baptist Church on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
I wanted both to pay homage to our lost church back home in Pennsylvania and to investigate what connections the Protestant Episcopal Mission might have to this tucked away in the far north of Italy.
My husband and I drove the winding roads up to the Val de Funes, a verdant valley tucked into the magnificently craggy Dolomites, in a region the mostly German-speaking residents still call “Sud Tyrol” as opposed to the Italian “Alto Adige.” That “Sud” will be about as close to South Philly as things get up here.
I happen to be living in Italy this fall, just an hour and a half journey from St.
Johann in the Dolomites, or Chiesetta di San Giovanni in Ranui, as it’s known in Italian.
But I’m intrigued by the possibility that Watson was attempting something even more nuanced and sophisticated.
When L’Emmanuelo was built in 1891, the Sud Tyrol was part of Austria, not Italy.In fact, their size is part of their charm and power.Is “the striking visual affinity” Beisert and his anonymous donor noted more than a coincidence?L’Emmanuelo was not a conventional immigrant church.Its origins and history, as chronicled in the nomination Beisert submitted to the PHC, reveal a fascinating, very American tale of displacement, adaption, and reinvention.While the ethnic Catholic churches, like Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi built in 1851, reinforced ties to the Old Country, the Episcopal mission offered a bridge to assimilation.Zara, the first pastor, embraced the mission with zeal.The sounds of a gurgling stream and the gentle clang of cowbells accompanied us as we approach the church by way of a narrow path, roped off to prevent tourists from trampling the working pasture.Surrounded by a broad carpet of green and dwarfed by a breathtaking panorama of spired Dolomites, the chiesetta is touching in its delicacy.For Beisert, it’s the archetypal forms and details Watson chose that matter.The classic Renaissance proportions and geometry, the rosy quoining (in brick, not paint or granite) would have been comfortingly familiar to the Italian immigrants who formed the first congregation of the Protestant Episcopal Mission of the Emmanuel (or L’Emmanuelo), a taste of home in a strange new world.