As demolition nears, St. Laurentius supporters seek sanctuary through historic designation

The rezoning bill was introduced by City Council President Darrell Clarke in January after stones fell from the church’s facade and forced neighboring St. Laurentius School to close for three days. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The rezoning bill was introduced by City Council President Darrell Clarke in January after stones fell from the church’s facade and forced neighboring St. Laurentius School to close for three days. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown is inching closer toward demolition, though the final showdown is slated for this summer.

Two developments spell bad news for supporters of the 133-year-old Polish building in Philadelphia: Church officials have applied to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections for a demolition permit. And the Vatican has denied an appeal from church advocates to spare the building from the wrecking ball.

Those two setbacks are according to Ken Gavin, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. 

The city confirmed that the demolition application has been submitted by contractor Geppert Bros.

“A, the building is in sad shape, and the independent reports are saying that. B, the parish doesn’t have the necessary funds to fix the building where it’s going to be stable and stable for a long time. So, C, the decision made at the parish level was to move toward demolition,” Gavin said.

Meanwhile, church supporters are directing their attention to the city’s Historical Commission, which could be their last hope.

Erin Cote with Philadelphia’s Historical Commission confirmed that she received an application to extend a special historic designation to the building.

Two public hearings are scheduled for this summer — June 9 and July 10 — to take up the matter, she said. But until then, St. Laurentius is under the purview of city historical officials — and demolition would require approval from the historic commission.

Even if the commission extends the historic designation to the church, however, the archdiocese can have it demolished if it’s proved that would be in the public interest or if church officials show that rehabbing the building doesn’t make financial sense.

“We understand that there are new layers now that the Historical Commission is involved, and we’re going to work through that process,” Gavin said. “Nobody is going to do anything that is going to supersede that process.”

Two years ago, the Archdiocese merged St. Laurentius with the nearby Holy Name of Jesus parish. It was a move, critics say, motivated as much by money as a desire to protect the public from some crumbling parts of the building.

“The Holy Name of Jesus parish is not a parish that’s wealthy by any means. Right now, they are in a position where they are able to sustain parish life,” Gavin said, noting that the parish is paying for the scaffolding and netting around the St. Laurentius building. “There’s not an overabundance of cash.”

Public records show that the land the church sits on has a market value around $300,000, though Gavin said any money the parish would make on selling the land is not a top concern of church officials.

“The parish is not in a position yet where it’s considering future use of that land. That’s not a discussion that’s seriously on the table,” he said.

Yet, at the same time, Gavin mentioned the archdiocese’s financial woes, saying that selling off the land would yield a profit for the local parish, not the archdiocese.

Church officials have said it could cost up to $3.5 million to restore the Gothic-style building, a figure former parishioners say is grossly exaggerated.

“We’re not in a position where the archdiocese can swoop and say, ‘Here’s an emergency loan for $3.5 million,’ because we’re still running an operating deficit annually of $4 million,” Gavin said.

Jeanne Curtis, spokeswoman for the group Save St. Laurentius Church, said she’s hopeful that experts who will speak on the church’s behalf this summer will persuade the Historical Commission.

“The archdiocese is going to be given ample opportunity to make their case and shoot us down,” she said. “The more St. Laurentius can prove that it’s financially feasible to fix the building and to prove that it’s structurally sound, which it is, the stronger our case will be.”

She said it’s important for Philadelphians to stand up against the building’s demolition.

“This isn’t going to stop, and it’s not going to stop in Fishtown,” Curtis said. “The charm that we have in these neighborhoods is going to be lost.”

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