St. Laurentius, beloved Polish church in Fishtown, to be demolished

With its vaulted, sky-blue ceiling, and a towering altar screen lined with gilded angels and saints, the interior of St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown had a heavenly look.

But the cracked and ice-damaged brownstone exterior of Philadelphia's original Polish parish has doomed it.

On Sunday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that St. Laurentius, whose Gothic, copper-clad towers have been a landmark in this working-class neighborhood since the turn of the 20th century, would soon be demolished.

Founded in 1882, the church, at Memphis and East Berks Streets, was merged with Holy Name of Jesus parish just two blocks away in September 2013. But the harsh winter that followed the merger accelerated the facade's long deterioration, according to church officials.

Inspections that led to its closing in March 2014 found significant cracks and "heavily deteriorated faces" in the masonry. They would cost as much as $3.5 million to repair, the archdiocese said Sunday, adding that the damage had "put portions of the building in danger of collapse."

The decision to demolish, which will cost an estimated $1 million, was made by Holy Name parish. It acquired St. Laurentius and its assets in the merger, and had operated it briefly as a site for Sunday Masses and occasional weddings and funerals.

Although much of the Polish population it was built to serve has dispersed, St. Laurentius was an icon of "Polonia," or Polish heritage in the city, according to John Wisniewski, who was among the leaders of the fight to save it.

He and others had mounted a fund-raising campaign to save the church, which featured high-quality stained-glass windows, elaborately painted biblical scenes on the ceiling, and the oak reredos, or altar screen, which was made in Germany.

In September, however, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput decertified it as a Catholic church because of safety concerns, and its altar, tabernacle, and stations of the cross were removed. Advocates for saving the church protested vigorously, saying the archbishop's action was premature.

The Rev. Frank Gwiazda, pastor of St. Laurentius from 1986 until his retirement in 2013, died March 2 at 72. As he struggled to keep the church open, a parish committee appealed the closing to the Vatican.

On Sunday, a hand-lettered sign reading "Save Our Church" lay on the front steps, a symbol of that struggle.

"I hope it stays," said Jenny Lee Maas, 32, an artist who works in stained glass who was walking down Berks Street. "It seems Philly tears down too many amazing buildings."

Although she was not a member of the parish, she said, "I admire churches a lot. My dream has been to take over a church that's being abandoned and make it into a multi-arts center."

John Bishop, 38, carrying groceries past the church, said he was "going to start to go" to St. Laurentius last year when he discovered it had been shuttered.

"It's too bad," he said. "There's a lot of buildings in Philly like this that are being closed."

Several passersby said they lived in the neighborhood but did not belong to the parish. Told that St. Laurentius would soon be torn down, three preteen boys cheered, saying, "We hate their students."

The archdiocese said, however, that the St. Laurentius School was not being closed or sold.

"Appropriate measures will be taken to ensure that school operations can continue safely on a normal schedule during the process of demolishing the church building," archdiocesan officials said.

A woman in a house across the street with "Happy Easter" signs glittering in her window said she had heard the news of the impending demolition that morning during Mass at Holy Name parish.

"I was married there. My kids were baptized and went to school there," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "Now they'll probably put up more houses.

 


doreilly@phillynews.com 856-779-3841