The first Italian Baptist work in America began in 1887 in Newark, NJ, and didn't come to Philadelphia until 1891. Our first pastor, the Rev. Alberto Chiera, was called in 1907 by the Baptist City Mission Society to work among Italian immigrants in South Philadelphia. On May 4, 1909, Rev. Chiera organized a small group of converts into a Baptist church, housed in the Olivet Baptist Church at 6th & Federal Streets. When Olivet closed its doors and was sold to the Philadelphia Electric Co., Rev. Chiera and his congregation moved to The Settlement House at Federal Street & Passyunk Avenue.
This church began because others were willing to open their doors and hearts to those of another nationality and language. We thank the old South Broad Street Baptist Church, which was located on the SW corner of Broad & Reed Streets, for opening their chapel from 1914 to 1921 to allow the growth of our church, then led by the Rev. Angelo di Domenica. Sunday School classes, along with instruction on the English language and American Citizenship, continued in The Settlement House until 1921, when our present building was purchased at 13th & Tasker Streets by The Baptist Union. This building was the former site of the Reformed Episcopal Church and was purchased for $45,000. Another $10,000 was invested to remodel it into a Baptist church. This building was rededicated as The First Italian Baptist Church of Philadelphia on March 22, 1921. In 1923, the house next door was purchased for $10,000 with another $10,000 added to renovate and adapt it for a medical clinic and other activities of our Christian Center.
Our Christian Center, besides the medical clinic, included many industrial classes such as sewing, crafts, woodworking, and many other offerings designed to give families things to do, as well as train them in practical skills. It also opened up a door for witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
During these early years the Baptist church here was under a lot of persecution by the local Catholic church. The priests wrote a series of articles in their church paper against Protestant ministers. Nuns very often stood on the opposite corner from the church to dissuade children from entering.
Rev. di Domenica worked on, and had published, a hymnal in Italian and English in 1935, in hopes to appeal to a second generation of Italians who learned and understood more English than Italian. After a lot of controversy and prayer, a second service, all in English, was started with a service in Italian following. This now met the needs of both generations and kept them united in the church.
In 1944, there was a mortgage burning service, and the name of the church was changed to St. John's Baptist Church in 1948, in an ever increasing attempt to show that we are not a closed group of believers, but open to all.
Another change came in 1953, when the Rev. Anthony Vasquez became the third pastor of St. John's Baptist Church. In 1956, after President Eisenhower made a plea to the American people and all people of good will to pray for peace and brotherhood among all nations, St. John's Baptist Church gathered information on different nations. They wrote to each nation asking for a flag and a letter from the then Head-of-State. These were displayed, and St. John's Baptist Church was dedicated as "A House of Prayer for All People" on February 17, 1956, "...in order that the people of any nation might feel at home there and be inspired to pray for peace and brotherhood."
The Rev. David M. Powles became the fourth pastor to serve at St. John's Baptist Church in September of 1989. He is the first non-Italian pastor the church has had and continues there to the present. Though the congregation's make-up is still largely Italian, we are seeing more and more non-Italians join our family because of our openness and God's Love.
St. John's Baptist Church continues to reach out to all people through community programs such as our year-round Nursery School, Youth Activity Center, Recovery groups, Martial Arts classes, Bible Studies, and other various social events throughout the year. We began by meeting the needs of the Italians in South Philadelphia and will continue to meet the needs of all who venture into our community, always with the Gospel of Jesus Christ on our lips and in our hearts.