By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Northern Liberities is best known as Philadelphia's growing hipster neighborhood, or, as The New York Times flippantly remarked not long ago, as another seed of the Big Apple, its 'sixth borough.'

Flash back just more than 100 years ago, and NoLibs, now a thriving patch new housing and arty transplants from around the country, was more like Manhattan's legendary Lower East Side, teeming with Eastern European immigrants.

It was a glimpse that old Northern Liberties, in a few blocks just north of Fairmount Avenue, that I and almost 30 other history boffins got to see recently, thanks to a tour sponsored by the local building preservation group Save Our Sites (SOS). The neighborhood walkabout, led on a recent Saturday afternoon by history author Harry Kyriakodis, targeted the remnants of the area's vigorous Orthodox Christian religious communities at Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church and at St. Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church, both historic sites with deep local roots.
Archpriest Vincent Saverino
at St. Michael Church
In between, SOS's founder David Traub regaled the group, which included authors Thom Nickels and Henry Channon, Philly artist Noel Miles, and my son Justin, who trekked up from Washington. Traub was particularly impressed with nearby Bodine Street, a one-block early 19th century cobble-stoned small street that he labeled as a lesser-known Elfreth's Alley.
Enhancing our church tours were in-depth introductions to the spiritual life of each parish by its principal priest, the Rev.Nicolai Buga at Holy Trinity and Archpriest Vincent Saverino at St. Michael.
For preservationists, Holy Trinity, at the corner of Brown and 2nd streets, has particular import as the church building is a legacy of the early 19th century Philadelphia builder, William Strickland, one of the country's first professional architects. Built in 1815 as St. John's Episcopal Church, the church space was consecrated into the Romanian Orthodox faith as Holy Trinity in 1931 and, as Father Buga pointed out, the building itself will celebrate its bicentennial in 2015. St. Michael, at 4th Street and Fairmount, itself has a rich heritage, founded more than 100 years ago in 1909.
In both cases, Orthodox dedication to the wondrous art of iconography was on display. At Holy Trinity, Father Buga took us 'backstage' to see new icon screens, or 'iconostatases,' that are being hand-carved as part of the church's ongoing restoration project. St. Michael's icon marvel was a backdrop as Father Saverino told us about the church's history -- and, offering up bits of church lore, how, interestingly enough, the Orthodox three-crossed crucifix was a truer representation than the single-cross of Western Christian denominations.
More information about the churches is available via and