Fishtown residents, former parishioners rally to save St. Laurentius [photos]

Some 100 Fishtown residents and former parishioners of the St. Laurentius Church crammed into a preschool room at the Shissler Recreation Center Thursday night to muster strength against what seems to be the looming demolition of the beloved 133-year-old Gothic church.

Community member A.J. Thompson, a trial lawyer by day, has made the fight with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia nearly a part-time job. He led the meeting, summarized the well-reported dispute, then went on to say that all options are not yet exhausted.

Supporters of the oldest Polish Catholic church in Philadelphia shouldn’t release all hope yet, Thompson said.

He wouldn’t get into specifics, only saying that if church officials file a demolition permit with the city’s department of Licenses and Inspections, there would be resistance.

At the end of the meeting, Thompson urged supporters to send Save St. Laurentius postcards that they’ve made to Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke, who has already backed the preservationists, asking church officials to “hold off” for now. 

A canon attorney brought on to assist with the community’s squabble has filed an appeal to the Vatican, but there’s no deadline for a response.

The canon attorney who prepared the appeal, Kate Kuenstler, said in a phone interview that if the building is taken down, asbestos removal will be costly.

What’s more, the demolition would cause “massive construction for months, brick by brick, hand by hand, basket by basket,” she said. 

The appeal to the Vatican should theoretically halt the tear-down timeline, but it’s toothless.

“They should not be able to sell the building, or tear down the building until the appeal is finished,” said Kuenstler.

Some observers say that church officials are aiming to flatten the church before the Pope visits Philadelphia in September. Asked about this, the Rev. John Sibel, who leads the merged congregations of St. Laurentius and Holy Name, declined comment.

Last March, city officials declared the building unsafe, saying if repairs aren’t made, it should be torn down.

Community members say they have cash pledges totaling $480,000, which they contend would at least cover the violations the city noted. Yet church officials say fixing the building could exceed $3 million.

Demolition, the church says, would be the most cost-effective strategy at about $1 million, according to their estimate.

William Ellerbe and his wife, Brenna Kelly, bought a home near the church last fall. They came to the Thursday meeting to see how they can join the movement to protect the building, out of respect for history and the community’s heritage, they said.

“You got this immigrant community, and they built this beautiful church. The effort and the money that went into that is such a testament to what that community was and what it thought of itself. It still is such a beautiful building,” Ellerbe said. “You can’t rebuild 133-year-old buildings.”

Kelly said since moving into the community, the church has been both a guidepost and a charming sight.

“When you’re driving down I-95, you see the building. I certainly, as a new member of the community, use its green spires to orient myself as I’m walking about Fishtown,” she said. “I would love to see the church adaptively reused, as a community center, or interdenominational worship place.”

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