Still We Rise

This Resurrection Sunday, a renewed Prince of Peace congregation worships in a new Philly sanctuary


by Vernon Clark, Inquirer Staff Writer, Posted: April 23, 2011


First came the fire. Now, the water.


For the Rev. Robert V. Shipman and the 200 members of his North Philadelphia church, this Easter will be rich in religious symbolism as well as the power of faith and determination.


“Both fire and water speak of renewal,” said Shipman, pastor of Prince of Peace Baptist Church in the Strawberry Mansion section.


He and his flock are all too familiar with the ravages of fire. Renewal will come Sunday, when the church opens its $6 million new high-tech home, with a glass-covered stream of water running down the center aisle of its sanctuary.


“It's been three years almost to the day, and it is gratifying to see the process come to an end,” Shipman said of the rebuilding.


On April 30, 2008, a fire sparked by faulty wiring destroyed the Prince of Peace Baptist Church at 32nd and Berks Streets.


The midweek blaze at 8 a.m. at the church, in a former school that had been its home at since 1977, damaged four nearby homes and raised a plume of smoke that could be seen from New Jersey. In just three hours, the 44,000-square-foot Classic Revival structure, built in 1906, was consumed.


This Sunday, the congregation will worship in the same block, inside a 22,000-square-foot gray brick church wired with computers and speakers in nearly every room.


The money came from insurance payments and donations from individuals and churches throughout the state, Shipman said.


The sanctuary, with seating for about 400, features rows of purple upholstered pews. Its two large wall-mounted TV monitors and massive audio system are controlled from an adjacent, computerized audio-video room.

There are six classrooms for Sunday school, each with interactive whiteboards; a large dining hall with a full-service kitchen; a computer lab; a soundproof choir room; and a print shop.


This week, workers were putting finishing touches on the “stream” that will run down a glass-covered, two-foot-wide trench in the center aisle and connect to a baptismal pool below the altar.


The idea for the stream, Shipman said, came from a young visiting minister from West Virginia, who saw a plumbing trench being installed in the center aisle and commented, "It would be nice if there was a stream in here."


Said Shipman: “The actual foundation for the idea comes from a Biblical passage from Revelation, which talks about a river that flows down the streets of a new Jerusalem in heaven.”


“We kind of use that to symbolize two things: the all-pervasive presence of God, and that water in the Bible is a symbol of new life. That's what we're moving people toward: new life,” Shipman said.


Mary Beale, 71, a neighborhood resident and longtime member of the church, said the fire and subsequent rebuilding had strengthened the congregation. “I believe the Lord knew what was going to happen before the fire,” Beale said. “After the fire, it brought us all closer together around our pastor.”


Shipman said that during the church's rebirth, only a few members left the congregation. Shortly after the fire, the church held a Sunday service under a large white tent “right in the middle of Berks Street,” said Valerie Allen, assistant to the pastor.


The church then temporarily held services at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church at 29th and Diamond Streets, Allen said. For most of the time since the fire, the church has been housed in five trailers at 31st Street and Montgomery Avenue.


Shipman said he never had a doubt that the church would establish a new home.  “From the moment that the fire began . . . to the moment that our people got on the street, from my perspective as a pastor, there was a resurrection happening within our congregation,” Shipman said.