Its size sometimes makes people ask, “Is St. Philip’s a real church?”
Oh, yes. Dubbed “the little church that could” by some of its parishioners, St. Philip’s not only could and would, but has been and intends to keep on serving Bucks Countians for generations.
Small is a big part of the church’s gestalt. There is an intimacy to worship at St. Philip’s that is evident the moment you step through the door.
The interior of this Episcopal church is Quaker-like in its simplicity, and it looks like the one-room schoolhouse it once was, from 1810, when the building was erected, until the Phillips School closed in 1919 due to falling enrollment. The building was acquired by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1921.
As its location on Chapel Road in Solebury Township suggests, St. Philip’s began life as a chapel – officially a “mission” – becoming a fully-fledged church in 1958. By long tradition, all pledging members are part of a nonprofit corporation called The Friends of St. Philip’s and pay dues of $1 a year, typically collected at the church’s annual meeting.
In 2013, The Friends of St. Philip’s oversaw the erection of a separate parish house a quarter of a mile up Chapel Road, where the current rector, the Very Rev. Michael Ruk, lives. (By somewhat shorter tradition, the rectors of St. Philip’s are generally called by their first names: Kyle, Peter, Michael…)
The church’s name has historical as well as ecclesiastical significance. St. Philip’s is a stone’s throw from the Inn at Phillips’ Mill and sits on land the Phillips family donated to the school. The decision to name the church after Philip the Apostle, therefore, was a no-brainer.
A small icon in the back of the church depicts St. Philip holding the two barley loaves from the feeding of the 5,000 as told in John 6:7. A fitting patron for a church that has a mini food pantry in its parking lot, open to all 24/7.
Except for the addition of a patio, the church building has kept its original footprint – a fact that has mostly served it well, as many mainline churches have sagged under the weight of large and aging structures. With the arrival of COVID-19, however, St. Philip’s modest square footage became a challenge when the number of worshipers was capped in the low double-digits to keep people six feet apart. At one of St. Philip’s Christmas Eve services, the Eucharist was celebrated outside in the rain to avoid turning anyone away.
Since the start of the pandemic, St. Philip’s has held most of its regular services, and not a few of its special ones, outside on its seven-circuit labyrinth, designed and installed by late longtime parishioner Elizabeth Bowman. Many people come to sit quietly in St. Philip’s meditation garden or walk its labyrinth, especially on World Labyrinth Day.
In addition to its in-person services, St. Philip’s live-streams its 8:15 and 10:15 a.m. services on Facebook – a practice it will continue post-COVID to ensure it serves as many people as possible.
The church takes its motto seriously: “All are welcome. And we really mean it.”
St. Philip’s founding year, 1921, had a lot in common with this one. The 1918 flu pandemic was a recent memory (indeed, many people still suffered sequelae and mourned loved ones). The stock market was headed for giddy heights; many ordinary people struggled. And the Tulsa Race Massacre, which left as many as 300 Black Tulsans dead, made a mockery of the guarantee of equal protection under the law.
A lot has changed since then, too, much of it for the better. The Episcopal Church – and St. Philip’s with it – has leaned into the struggles of the poor and scorned, the marginalized and “othered.” Inevitably, this work-in-progress has been imperfect, uncomfortable for some.
On this late April day, however, the church is focused on upcoming plans to celebrate its 100th birthday. In the coming weeks and months there will be the return of St. Philip’s original bell, a new banner and a visit by the bishop – joyous but muted events in keeping with pandemic-tide.