Archdiocese reminds parishes not to cooperate with external preservation efforts

Last week, Catholic parishes around Philadelphia received a note from Monsignor Daniel Kutys, the Moderator of the Curia, who coordinates administrative affairs for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The purpose of the memo was to remind pastors of the Archdiocese’s official policy on historic designation of church property: in short, don’t get involved.

Local historic-preservation ordinances, including Philadelphia’s, give cities some degree of control over what happens to historic buildings, preventing demolition and certain types of alteration. And historic designation of sacred buildings is “a serious problem for many religions,” according to Archdiocese policy.

“Without the consent of the religious community involved, these designations are an undue intrusion of Government into religious organizations, represent a threat to religious freedom and where historical designation does exist can result in a significant financial burden for the property owner,” the policy states.

The policy has been in place for a number of years. So why send the reminder now?

“Over the past several months, nominations have been filed by independent parties against certain parish and Archdiocesan properties, seeking to designate them as ‘historic’ properties,” Kutys wrote in his memo. “Under the law, a property designated ‘historic’ is subject to government oversight and certain legal restrictions on how the property can be altered or repaired. We intend to challenge the current attempts to have various Church properties designated as ‘historic’ because of concerns that designation allows the government to place undue restriction on religious structures and property, which in effect interferes with the free practice of our religion.”

Specifically, the Archdiocese was referring to the battles over St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown, which was deconsecrated in 2014 and locally designated against the Archdiocesan will last summer, and St. Charles Borromeo Church in South Philly, for which a historical nomination is currently pending. Kutys said the Archdiocese intends to appeal the designation of St. Laurentius and is challenging the nomination for St. Charles Borromeo as well as the interior of St. Laurentius and paintings on the ceiling of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on the Parkway.

It’s not clear exactly what legal action the Archdiocese is planning in the short term. The Philadelphia Historical Commission wasn’t aware of an appeal of the St. Laurentius designation. A hearing on the nomination of St. Charles Borromeo was continued last month. The Archdiocese declined to elaborate on what legal actions it’s planning.

“It is important to note that [the memo] does not signal blanket opposition on the part of the Archdiocese to historic preservation,” said Ken Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese. “It was a reminder to all pastors regarding Archdiocesan policy. Should a pastor wish to make an application for an historic designation for all or a portion of parish property, he should work through the Archdiocese as a matter of policy. It was important to issue this reminder as there have been instances over the past several months involving third parties submitting such applications on behalf of parishes.”

Gavin didn’t name the third parties, but it’s fairly clear he’s referring to two specific people: Oscar Beisert, who prepared the nomination for St. Laurentius (and a number of other religious and nonreligious properties over the last year), and Celeste Morello, who has been steadily submitting historic nominations for local Roman Catholic art and artifacts.

Beisert wasn’t available for an interview on Wednesday. Morello, who submitted the nomination for St. Charles Borromeo, said that the Archdiocese has welcomed some of her efforts in the past, and that its preservation policy is inconsistently applied. Just last year, Morello noted, the Archdiocese was boasting that a 19th-century mural at Old St. Joseph Church in Old City was added to the historic register—without giving Morello credit for the nomination.  

Morello said she didn’t think the Archdiocese should be spending money to fight historic nominations when that money could be going to other causes.

“I didn’t know that I was doing something to cause the Archdiocese to make these expenditures,” she said. “… My agenda was scholarship, because the Archdiocese is very backwards, and they could really use some more scholarship on many of their buildings and artifacts, and that’s what I set out to achieve.”

Earlier this week, Patrick Hildebrandt of the Philadelphia Church Project, wrote in a blog post that the Kutys’s memo was “a clear message that [the Archdiocese] want to keep running wild and roughshod over their structural legacy.”  

“… This is a call to arms, plain and simple,” Hildebrandt wrote. “A spiteful declaration of war against their very properties.”

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