(Photo credit: L. Blanchard)

Posted by Ellen

Sadly, this is a "before" picture: the big American Elm tree in the courtyard of Shiloh Baptist Church in our neighborhood has been diagnosed with Dutch Elm Disease and is about to be cut down.

I'm told this tree made a cameo appearance in The Sixth Sense, a Bruce Willis movie shot in the neighborhood, but I can't confirm or deny. There's a pivotal scene near the end of the movie in which the boy and his mother sit talking in the car, which is stopped near the scene of an accident; there's a tree outside the car window on the boy's side, but all the camera shows of this tree is its lower trunk, which is not sufficient for a positive ID.

Anyway, the church building and probably also the tree date back to the 1860s, when the Church of the Holy Apostles was built to serve a neighborhood rapidly filling with immigrants from Ireland. Numerous annexes and additions were required, as the parish exceeded 10,000 by 1910. But by 1940, descendants of the Irish immigrants were leaving the neighborhood, and descendants of African slaves from the American South were pouring in. The church complex was sold to a Baptist congregation and renamed Shiloh.

Today, Shiloh's congregants have mostly left the neighborhood, replaced this time by newcomers who mostly grew up in middle-class suburbs; one long-time resident described the new neighbors to a newspaper reporter as "white people with big dogs." Churchgoers who've moved away return to Shiloh on Sunday mornings, causing traffic jams and parking conflicts. There is no church parking lot; for the church's first hundred-plus years, people got there by walking.

The congregation is shrinking fast and is already far too small to maintain the huge church complex. The elm will come down in the next few weeks; the building, designed by the iconic Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, may not be far behind.