Every school day, nearly two hundred children make their way to St. Laurentius School on Berks Street in Fishtown. Most walk, some are dropped off, but the ritual has been the same for generations. St. Laurentius School and the former St. Laurentius Church building next to it are keystones of the neighborhood. Together, they form a connection to Fishtown’s past while continuing to build its future.
But change is inevitable. The former St. Laurentius Church building, no longer viable as a place of worship, must be adapted and re-purposed if the history of the church is to be preserved and the future of the school is to remain as bright as the smiles of the children who walk through its doors each day.
Since 2014, St. Laurentius Church has been closed and deconsecrated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In 2015, the church rightfully received a historic designation from the city, but that designation only prevents its demolition if the building is deemed safe by the Department Licenses and Inspection.
The renovations needed to keep the building safe are a costly endeavor for a building of St. Laurentius’ scale. Proposals to adaptively reuse the church building into residential housing, while preserving the historic exterior, present the most viable path to ensure that the building’s history continues.
There are those, however, who cling so tightly to the church’s past that they are threatening to destroy it. Frivolous lawsuits, like the one brought on by the Faithful Laurentians, do nothing do nothing to solve the issue at hand. The Faithful Laurentians, a local group whose membership remains unclear, demand preservation of the church interior without regard to the tremendous cost of repairing and maintaining the structure. If we as a community want to keep the St. Laurentius building as part of our community, then development of the interior of the church is the only realistic way forward.
Pragmatic proposals — such as the one approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals in 2016 to adapt the interior of the church for residential housing while maintaining the existing structure — present the best way for the history of the building to continue.
Caught in between this argument over the future of the church building are the children of St. Laurentius, who simply want to go to school each day. On January 24, several large stones fell from the church building, which necessitated closing the school for three days as a safety precaution, disrupting the students’ lives and education. These children want to run and play at recess outside the school, without the metal fencing erected to protect the public around the church blocking their path. As parents, we want to return to helping St. Laurentius School while watching our children’s education thrive, not dealing with closures due to structural issues at the church building next door.
To continue the history of St. Laurentius Church and the small miracle that is St. Laurentius School, we plead that the lawsuit preventing its development be dropped. Considering the seriousness of the danger, we also ask Council President Clarke to continue to pursue immediate legislative action to see this to a proper resolution if the Faithful Laurentians do not desist in their suit. We support the remapping proposal he plans to introduce to help resolve this issue by allowing the historic church to be redeveloped, if it ensures the preservation of the St. Laurentius Church building and the uninterrupted operation of the School next door.
Every day of inaction and delay, the risk to our neighborhood’s historical fabric, our institutions, and our children grows.