Parishioners intent on saving St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church won a key point Tuesday in their quest for historical designation for the soaring Gothic structure in Fishtown.
A committee of the Historical Commission ruled unanimously that the property and building at 1600-10 E. Berks St. be considered for formal historical designation when the full commission meets July 12. That could spare the structure from its planned demolition.
But if the designation is won, the cost of restoring the weather-beaten stone exterior could complicate the preservation efforts.
St. Laurentius was merged with Holy Name of Jesus parish in 2013, and that parish is legally responsible for the church structure going forward.
"The parish does not have the financial resources" to repair the church, said Holy Name attorney Michael Phillips. If the historical designation is made, he said, Holy Name will have to file a financial hardship application and an eventual appeal that could end the preservation effort.
The recommendation for historical designation came after the panel determined that St. Laurentius meets five of 10 qualifying criteria. Parishioners applauded, their hopes rekindled for preserving a symbol of the city's Polish community, built in 1882 with immigrants' nickels and dimes.
Some recalled their engagements, baptisms, and their parents' marriages at St. Laurentius. Others, including representatives of the Polish American Congress, described the Polish historical significance of the church.
John Wisniewski, 61, who was baptized there in 1954, lamented that few Polish relics, particularly churches, are preserved in Philadelphia. He said he was "ecstatic" over the decision.
Wisniewski has fought to save the church, known for its ceiling painted with elaborate biblical scenes, stained-glass windows, and the German-made oak reredos, or altar screen.
The church at Memphis and Berks Streets is Philadelphia's original Polish parish. It was deconsecrated in October at the request of Holy Name.
Church officials said harsh winters have hastened deterioration of the brownstone exterior, leaving parts of the building in danger of collapse. Repairs could cost $3.5 million.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in March that the church would be demolished at a cost of $1 million.
"The archdiocese firmly maintains the position that it is not feasible to properly repair the building, as Holy Name of Jesus could not bear the financial burden without jeopardizing the future stability of the parish itself," said spokesman Ken Gavin in a statement.
"The building is the property and responsibility of Holy Name, and the archdiocese is not able to provide funds to have the building fixed."
Gavin said Holy Name must pay for safety measures at St. Laurentius as proceedings move forward.
Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams said L&I has told the archdiocese that St. Laurentius is considered unsafe rather than imminently dangerous.
Estimates for the repairs and demolition are from the Philadelphia engineering firm of O'Donnell & Naccarato. Other engineers, including Rick Ortega of Ortega Consulting, told parishioners that repairs might cost less, while demolition could cost more.
The archdiocese has said Holy Name was the one that chose demolition, not the archdiocese.
St. Laurentius' school is still open in its own building at 1612 E. Berks, and Holy Name has no plans to close it, representatives said.
Tuesday's decision is "one small step" in a longer process, said A.J. Thomson, the attorney for Save St. Laurentius. But it is a relief, he said.
Holy Name representatives told the committee that the archdiocese shares its safety and financial concerns about St. Laurentius. Phillips said he hoped the commission would recognize those issues July 12.
Thomson and other St. Laurentius supporters dispute the claims of Holy Name and the archdiocese that St. Laurentius is a threat to public safety. If collapse were imminent, Wisniewski said, "Do you think they would have schoolchildren walk by every day?"
Architectural historian Oscar Beisert, who wrote the 46-page appeal to the commission, agreed. St. Laurentius "would already be gone" if there were any imminent threat, he said.
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke's office expressed support of parishioners, saying St. Laurentius' "architectural and cultural significance" justify designation in July.
"When you see the spires of St. Laurentius, you know exactly where you are," Wisniewski said. "You see it from 95, you see it from Berks Street, you see it from the El; everyone knows the pride of St. Laurentius are the spires.
"There's no objection from anyone in the neighborhood for saving that building. They'd rather see that building there than some modern building that doesn't fit in the neighborhood."