Shelter from the Storm

This drawing of the Whosoever Gospel Mission (as published in a 1922 Mission program) shows the expanse of the organization, as it existed at the time, with Chelten Avenue visible at the bottom right corner. The then-new four-story building, which housed a new dining room, dormitory, and “broom shop,” is visible at the center, complete with a roof-top meeting space. Credit: Germantown Historical Society and Historic Germantown.

A historical Germantown Mission continues to support neighbors in need

With the holidays long since passed, the cold, winter months of February and March can sometimes be the most difficult – especially for our food and shelter insecure neighbors. The Whosoever Gospel Mission on East Chelten Avenue is a neighborhood organization that’s critical at this time of year, helping to feed, house, counsel, and support men in the community. As the organization just celebrated its 125th anniversary, it’s a perfect time to look back at its history.

The Whosoever Gospel Mission and Rescue Home Association (later shortened to the Whosoever Gospel Mission) was founded in 1892. Opened at 5602-4 Germantown Avenue by William Raws, a recovered alcoholic, to help “the least, the last, and the lost,” the Mission relocated to East Chelten at the time of its incorporation, in 1895. Judging by its assets published in a 1909 booklet about the Mission, the organization grew quickly. This growth was likely sustained by the Ladies’ Auxiliary, which was founded early on in the Mission’s history.

As the Mission grew, so did its programs and outreach, with the men housed at the Mission making brooms, re-caning chairs, selling firewood, and weaving rugs to help fund the organization. Religious meetings were held in the Mission Room each evening, with services also held each Sunday in nearby Chelten Hall. The Mission’s rapid growth soon led to a new four-story, stone building, which housed a new dining room, dormitory, and “broom shop.” By the mid-1920s, a newspaper article noted that the Mission owned all of the properties bounded by Chelten Avenue, the Reading Railroad, and Stafford and Lena streets.

Another measure of the Mission’s success is the erection of the “electric Gospel sign” which was installed in May 1920. The sign was constructed with movable letters; each week, a new message was placed on the sign. A problem quickly arose, however, as the Mission often did not have enough letters to write complete messages! Additional fundraising was quickly undertaken to address the shortfall. This sign still stands, and today proclaims “JESUS NEVER FAILS.”

The Whosoever Gospel Mission continued its work through the 20th century uninterrupted, and into the 21st, until an arsonist started a fire in one of the organization’s buildings on February 25, 2006. The fire caused over $2 million in damages, and the Mission’s residential facility was closed for over two years until it reopened in November 2008. Since then, the Mission has operated continuously, enduring the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009 and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. With the continued support of the community, this local institution will certainly survive for many generations to come.

Read last month’s Time Machine here.

NOTE: The subject files of the Germantown Historical Society were invaluable resources in the writing of this article. Annual reports, brochures, and newspaper clippings saved within these files documented the breadth and depth of the Mission’s history, and its many roles in our community.

About Alex Bartlett 19 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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