Light and Hope in North Philadelphia

What happens when a faith-based, middle school in an under-resourced neighborhood has to close its doors to slow the spread of COVID-19? Like schools around the nation, it sends teachers home and moves to online instruction.

But that’s just the start for St. James Episcopal School in the Allegheny West neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The school also makes sure that all students have laptops or iPads and Internet access so they can continue to receive instruction at home. And recognizing that food insecurity will grow worse, the school’s pastoral care center, the Welcome Table, begins providing students, their families and neighbors with breakfast, a hot lunch and a bag with groceries for dinner, seven days a week.

Six staff members live on campus as an intentional faith-based community, including School Head David Kasievich and Chaplain Andrew Kellner. They manage operations there and in the neighborhood, receiving and organizing food donations and distribution, providing tutoring and visiting families, and all while observing social distancing guidelines.

From an abandoned church to a tuition-free private Episcopal middle school

On his first visit to the property that would become St. James School, David remembers hearing that the school side of the campus was for sale. In a not unfamiliar story, the Church of St. James the Less, an historic Episcopal Church founded in 1846, had closed in 2006, following a long period of conflict between the Diocese of Pennsylvania and the parish.

“St. Mark’s in Center City, which had a long relationship with St. James, was watching all this and felt impelled to do something,” says David. “They said, ‘Let’s not sell the property. Let’s think how it might be used to benefit the neighborhood. Let’s re-think ministry, and instead of focusing on the deficits, find ways to let the many assets on and off the property grow and flourish.’”

In 2008, the diocese agreed to give St. Mark’s two years to develop a plan for the property that would be self-sufficient. Sean Mullen, St. Mark’s rector, and parishioner Dr. Audrey Evans began dreaming big about how the property could be used. Conversations with St. James’s neighbors and an extensive feasibility study pointed to the need for a quality neighborhood school.

Their first on-the-ground effort was a summer camp for neighborhood children. Sean tapped diocesan youth minister, Andrew Kellner, to help lead the effort, and City Camp opened on the property in 2010 with the help of scores of St. Mark’s volunteers. An afterschool program for children in grades three through five opened in the fall, and in 2011, St. James Episcopal School welcomed its first class of fifth grade students from the neighborhood.

“That’s where the school started,” says David. “Over a three-year period, thousands of people volunteered their time to help convert the abandoned property into a beautiful, vibrant community hub and eventually a school.”

At Andrew’s recommendation, Sean and Dr. Evans had recruited David early in the process to serve as Executive Director, and later Head of School and co-founder. “The three of us were sometimes referred to as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” says David. “Dr. Audrey certainly brought the Spirit – and a lot of wisdom!”

His experience in nonprofit management, fund-raising and education in mostly faith-based and urban schools offered a good fit. He remembers that accepting
the position was risky. The fund-raising task was enormous.

“I really had to think and pray about it – and trust,” he says. “And I did trust. From the beginning I knew it was the right thing for me, the right thing for the neighborhood and the right thing for the Church.” He says he felt called to this work, to “open the windows and let the light in, to share the good news of the Church – that it’s not about lawsuits, not about who’s right or wrong. It’s about ministry to those most in need. For me, the Church is at its best when we walk humbly and serve boldly.”

Unlocking the gate and welcoming the neighbors

It was one thing to clean up the abandoned church property and open a summer camp and afterschool program. It was quite another for a largely white group to establish a tuition-free Episcopal school in this primarily African American neighborhood struggling with poverty, poor health, limited education and employment opportunities.

“There was a lot of relationship-building early on,” David recalls, “and one of the answers to our prayers was the president of the RAH Civic Association, Rosalie Cooper, who quickly aligned with Father Mullen, Dr. Evans and myself. She was the one who knew the neighborhood, knew who to talk to and who not to talk to.”

As they met neighbors, they learned that most had never been inside the church or on the grounds. “Many told us that they had been chased off the property when they were children,” says David. “While the church was still open in the 80s and 90s, the gates were often locked to the cemetery and the buildings, so our first campaign slogan was Help Unlock the Gate.

They began unlocking all the gates to everything when they were on the property. “And we had picnics and barbecues,” says David. “We invited the community association to hold their meetings in our schoolhouse once a month; we started worshipping in the church; we had an Easter egg hunt.” And they began to hear from some of the long-time neighbors, people in their 80s and 90s, who remembered that the parish was active in the community in the 50s and 60s. These neighbors talked about the fun, the prayers, the Sisters of St. Margaret and the roller skating parties in the basement. “It brought them back to what it once was.”

In addition to opening the gates, they engaged the neighborhood, going door-to-door to introduce themselves. “I’d take Rosalie with me, and we would start talking up the school and leave flyers,” says David. “Sometimes I’d take some water ice (Philly’s version of Italian ice) and set up on the corner of a block and just talk with people. That’s how we recruited the first class.”

Committed to an expansive mission

That first class of 16 students and their families were real trailblazers in David’s view. “They said yes to a school that didn’t exist. They said yes to a bunch of white people they didn’t know that well. They said yes to an abandoned church that they didn’t know much about. They said yes to a religious school, not knowing how it would work. We had a lot going against us. But we had so much going for us, too.”

The only Episcopal School in the city of Philadelphia, St. James is committed to providing its 86 students in grades four through eight with a top-quality, faith-based, tuition-free education. The school uses the Nativity Miguel model, developed in 1971 by Jesuits working in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Epiphany Episcopal School model, developed by the Rev. John Finley in Boston. These faith-based models include small classes, longer school days and an extended school year. They were schools that never gave up on a student.

St. James also recognizes the need to do still more to help its students learn and grow. Students receive healthy, fresh meals served family style, see an on-site nurse practitioner when they are sick or need a check-up. A visiting dentist sees them twice a year, and on-site mental health professionals and trauma-informed counselors provide counseling and support.

And St. James continues contribute to the life of the neighborhood – hosting Civic Association meetings, Sunday Night Mass and Dinner, pro bono legal support, free space for community needs and celebrations, funeral services, events like the annual fall festival and a summer jazz concert and dinner. The Welcome Table (pastoral care center) offers a range of outreach services from donated food and clothing to spiritual counseling and help with home repairs. Its motto is, “a place where you bring what you can share and take what you need.”

While the school’s mission is the middle school, St. James supports its graduates. “We have 70 now and a team of three employees that work with those students,” says David. “They make sure they’re going to school, getting good grades, see whether they need tutoring. Also, every graduate receives some type of financial scholarship. Even if they go to a charter school, they receive a check in the mail to provide some assistance. We have some who receive three or four thousand a year to attend schools that have high tuition, and now we’re supporting graduates in college.”

Financing the mission

It takes a lot of money to fund St. James’s unique and expansive ministry, and the school’s fundraising efforts are likewise expansive, ranging from scholarship and legacy societies to cash and checks, tax credits and boxtop collections. All gifts, large and small, are welcome, and all givers are thanked and prayed for each day.

Board member Steven Ross and his family worked with the summer camp at St. James in 2010. “Now we’re involved in everything there,” says Steve. “Church on Sunday nights (it’s become our church), and we’re financial supporters too. People that get involved at St. James just want to give. They see the school delivering results, not just throwing money at a problem.”

David says that people ask him all the time how the school raises so much money. “I tell them to get off the screens, leave your offices and engage and build relationships with students and families. I remind myself each day that our donors must become just as transformed, if not more, than even our students and their families. Fundraising in many ways, is a call to conversion. This call comes to both those who seek funds and those who have funds…this conversion means to experience a deep shift in how we see and think and act. From the perspective of the gospel, fundraising is, at least for me, a form of ministry.

“At St. James School, we’re all fundraising together. It’s not just my job or the director of advancement. We’re all chaplains, all teachers, all fundraisers. While we have people that it’s their job, we all lift together here.”

ECF and St. James

St. James School has invested funds through ECF’s Endowment Management Solutions (EMS) since 2018. As Finance Committee Chair, Steve participated in the initial meetings with ECF. “They saw what our needs were,” he says, “and we were able to move quickly to a custom account. They’ve done a good job for us – answering questions, helping us craft our legal documentation. What they’re doing is a ministry.”

David agrees. “Their customer service has been outstanding. It’s really been a great relationship. They keep saying that they love St. James, that the opportunity to support a school that serves students living at or below the poverty level has been important to them.”

What the future holds

The school is well aware that St. James’s neighborhood is changing. From the beginning, they knew that gentrification was inevitable. “We’re not concerned about it,” says David, “but we’re trying to help the neighborhood clarify its identity, so that when these changes happen people know who we are, know the history of this neighborhood, know what it’s about.”

What that means for St. James is that eventually the catchment area will change. “The good news/bad news is that there are so many kids in Philadelphia that need St. James,” says David. He sees future students coming from northeast Philadelphia along Route 1, where the city’s poor are currently moving. And they are thinking that a house or two in that new area could provide space where teachers can live and be a presence in the community.

St. James gates are open and promise to remain open, bringing light and hope to children and families in need in North Philadelphia.

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She was Director of Communications at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” now in its 24th year and published by Forward Movement.