The battle over the future of a landmark 132-year-old church in Fishtown took a decisive turn this week when workers began removing icons and other sacred relics from the Gothic structure that was once home to the oldest Polish Catholic church in Philadelphia.
Early Monday morning, residents and parishioners who had worked to keep St. Laurentius alive watched with frustration as workers from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's office of special projects began removing objects including statues, chalices, and other sacred items.
The job continued Tuesday, with the removal of the altar and Stations of the Cross.
"A consecrated space should have all of its consecrated materials in it," Kate Kuenstler, a lawyer practicing canon law since 2005, said Tuesday.
Kuenstler, who represents parishioners and others fighting to keep the church open, said an appeal of the archdiocese's decision was sent to the Vatican last month.
"While recourse is in Rome and no decision has been made, the archbishop should leave well enough alone and not assume what the answers might be," Kuenstler said.
She said what's been happening the last two days is a direct violation of canon law, which forbids objects from being removed from churches for nonsecular use.
A.J. Thomson, a lawyer and Fishtown resident whose daughters attend the school at St. Laurentius, said he was shocked to see items being taken from the church while an appeal to decide its fate was still on the table.
"This is just another example of Pope Francis being undermined by the archbishop and people in our diocese," Thomson said.
The impressive stone structure at Memphis and East Berks Streets has been around since 1882. In March, however, the archdiocese closed the church after an independent engineering firm's inspection of the structure raised concerns about its stability.
After the church's closure, Mass and other services were relocated two blocks away at Holy Name of Jesus Church, East Berks and Gaul Streets, with Rev. John Sibel as pastor. By then, the two congregations had already merged, having done so in July 2013, when the archdiocese consolidated several parishes.
Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin said the decision to begin removing items came after Sibel consulted with the parish council, made up of nonclergy from both parishes.
"Given concerns about the building's stability and the fact that it isn't in use, Father Sibel asked that the objects be moved to a safer location," Gavin said.
Kuenstler said an independent firm her group contacted said the interior of the church did not pose any danger.
"I would never present anything to the Vatican that was not fact," Kuenstler said. "That building is not going to fall down."
Gavin said the church's structural problems are simply a result of time and weather, and that the numbers needed to make the necessary repairs are not a cost the parish could currently bear.
For now, Gavin said the church's future remains at the discretion of Sibel and the parish.
Gavin said the removals should be completed by the end of the week.