For now, St. Laurentius is safe from destruction

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St. Laurentius church in Fishtown. (VIVIANA PERNOT/Staff Photographer)

In a decision that will protect Fishtown's St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church from demolition - at least temporarily - the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted overwhelmingly Friday to grant the 19th-century building historic status.

Cheers erupted after the vote, which followed a lengthy and emotional hearing that pitted parishioners, neighborhood residents, preservationists, several Polish heritage groups, and even Poland's honorary consul against the church hierarchy. Because St. Laurentius is Philadelphia's oldest church built by Polish immigrants, the community considers it a cultural touchstone.

Officials from Holy Name of Jesus parish, which became responsible for St. Laurentius after a 2013 merger, did not dispute the building's historic significance, or Fishtown residents' attachment to the twin-spired brownstone church at Memphis and Berks Streets. But they argued that they could not afford to maintain the building, which has been cited repeatedly for code violations and was shuttered in 2014. Rather than make repairs, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in March that St. Laurentius would be demolished.

Shocked by that decision, St. Laurentius' supporters organized a fast-track effort to have the building declared historic.

"There is no doubt that this is a historic building," A.J. Thomson, the Fishtown lawyer who led the campaign, said after the vote. "Fishtown is a changing neighborhood, with many new people, and they need to know that immigrants built this place."

Parish lawyer Michael V. Phillips attempted to sway the commission by arguing that the structure, designed in 1882 by noted church architect Edwin Forrest Durang, was too far gone to merit historic designation.

"The property presents significant public safety issues," he said. "That it holds an important place in people's hearts cannot trump logic and reason."

There is little disagreement, even among St. Laurentius partisans, that the church needs substantial repairs. Its facade is cracked and flaking, and the structural integrity of the spires is of concern.

But under Philadelphia's preservation law, a building's historic importance does not depend on its condition. Otherwise, as several commission members noted, some of the most significant and beloved structures would fail to make the cut.

The law does allow owners of historic properties to petition for relief by showing that repairs would result in a financial hardship. Minutes after the vote, Phillips said he would immediately begin preparing a case.

St. Laurentius' supporters have severely criticized the parish for pushing demolition as the first option before making an effort to sell the building.

At Friday's hearing, parish officials acknowledged that they put the church on the market only three weeks ago. They testified that developers were interested in acquiring the building for reuse if they could have it free.

Given the differences between the sides, it seems likely that St. Laurentius will be tied up in litigation. Since demolition plans were announced in March, the St. Laurentius supporters have questioned who is its real owner.

The church was built privately by the Polish immigrants, who collected nickels and dimes to pay Durang's fee and finance the construction of the Gothic revival interior.

"This is the oldest and most prominent symbol of the settlement of Polish Catholics in Philadelphia," said the honorary consul, Deborah Majka.

At some point, the church property and adjacent school were absorbed by the archdiocese. After the parish consolidation, Holy Name claimed ownership.

The confusion prompted commission member Robert P. Thomas to ask Phillips, "Who is the owner?"

Phillips said ownership varied, depending on the jurisdiction. Under civil law, it is owned by the archdiocese in trust for Holy Name. Under canon law, Holy Name is the owner.

Thomson, formerly an assistant district attorney, disputed that interpretation and said he planned to file a title challenge to regain control of St. Laurentius. Phillips called that effort frivolous.

At the same time, St. Laurentius' defenders are exploring possible reuses. They have been supported throughout their fight by City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who sent a letter to the commission urging preservation.

Thomas and other commission members said the designation would be helpful in obtaining tax credits and other subsidies to help in the church's conversion.

Susan Feenan, a Fishtown architect who attended the hearing, said it was crucial for the neighborhood to hang onto St. Laurentius because it is one of the neighborhood's few surviving great public buildings. "I have no delusions about this building being a Catholic church again," she said, "but a neighborhood without old buildings is like a child without grandparents."


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