Why do we post so much about St. Stephen's past?
Over the last months, I’ve thought a lot about what a church historian contributes. The question is ever present for anyone who studies the past, and there are infinite answers.
The easy response for St. Stephen’s is that we recover a significant--and, if we’re lucky, colorful--past about one community that dovetails with bigger events telling us about a time, place, and mindset. Sometimes that one small community generates something that extends well beyond. And we communicate to you our findings and the process involved. Findings and their communication can make the past real, lived, present across time. And we share the adventure of looking, finding, and thinking in our own moment.
More importantly, we seek the factors that shape St. Stephen’s unique trajectory through changing time; the voice of a historic building with so much experience; and reasons for the peculiarities and power of what’s there now. Above all, we hope to find and communicate meaning for today.
So today, I offer a range of findings and meanings for Scottish-born stone mason-sculptor John Struthers, who died April 30, 1851. We first learned of Struthers as architect William Strickland’s stone mason for the church, one of their many projects together in Philadelphia. Struthers produced the distinctive street-front castle-like façade for this brick structure that was otherwise stuccoed. By the way, the building stone of that west facade, one authority recently proposed, is a light Wissahickon mica schist. And I still haven’t found the often-mentioned cornerstone laid in May 1822. Maybe it was covered by the later additions to the north.
We’ve since found here at least five plaques, tomb slabs, and tablets by Struther’s own hand or by the firm, demonstrating the range of his offerings down to hand-carved and signed projects such as the memorial for the first rector, The Rev. James Montgomery. Soon after the church was consecrated, Struthers executed Strickland’s imposing inscribed Mosaic tablets that flanked the altar (since removed but visible in photographs and a painting); the 1825 grave marker for the Penn med students now on the Parish House portico; and Rev. Montgomery’s 1834 memorial mentioned above, now on the south wall. After his death John Struthers’ son William took charge of building Upjohn’s 1853 Burd chapel. We just found the Struthers mark on the mid-century slab for the Levis family vault in the Furness Burial Cloister.
This abundance in one building over decades suggests loyalty. Yet it also more widely witnesses a booming multi-faceted business that employed many artisans and artists. I’ve found records of sculptors of various nationalities, in Philadelphia and beyond, who cited Struthers as a reference when they applied for ambitious jobs like the Burd Children’s Memorial. The firm also supported far-flung handlers and shippers as Philadelphia grew. Though one of several local masons, Struthers had shops and yards from the Delaware to the Schuylkill. Respected beyond Philadelphia, the Struthers firm produced Henry Clay’s sarcophagus for his burial in Lexington, KY. As canny entrepreneurs, patriots, and fellow Freemasons, they donated new sarcophagi for George and Martha Washington in the family mausoleum at Mt. Vernon.
-Suzanne Glover Lindsay, St. Stephen’s historian and curator