St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown lives — Historical Commission delays demolition vote

The streets around St. Laurentius Church are blocked due to falling debris and slated demolition. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The streets around St. Laurentius Church are blocked due to falling debris and slated demolition. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The fate of St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown will remain uncertain for at least another month after hours of heated testimony from attorneys, engineers, residents and preservationists over whether the crumbling landmark can be saved.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission decided to push to August a vote on whether to give developer Humberto Fernandini permission to demolish the historical church “due to imminent collapse of steeples.”

The developer’s attorney Matthew McClure of Ballard Spahr had urged the Commission to review a request for a demolition permit on an expedited timeline after a recent engineering inspection revealed a condition that Fernandini described as “beyond renovation.”

Fernandini’s argument was met with fierce challenges. Fishtown residents spoke passionately before and during the hearing about the value of a structure built by immigrants to watch over a neighborhood that has undergone tremendous transformation over the last few decades.

“It’s such a beautiful building,” said Gilberto Gonzalez, who raised his three children blocks away. “If you go to a rooftop, any rooftop in Philadelphia, you can see the churches.”

If the commission does not make a decision by its August 14 meeting and the developer does not take action to secure the building, the church’s fate could be ultimately decided by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections Commissioner David Perri.

“If the hazard to public safety posed by the building is not addressed in a timely manner, the Commissioner of the Department of Licenses & Inspections may order the demolition of the building to safeguard the public,” city spokesperson Paul Chrystie said in an email.

A ‘contentious’ history

The St. Laurentius Church has long depended on the labor of local residents. The building, established in 1882, was funded by Polish immigrants.

More than a century later, Fishtown residents continue to fight for the building despite decades of neglect by three different owners — the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, developer Leo Voloshin who bought the building after the Archdiocese closed the church, and now, Fernandini, who purchased the building from Voloshin in 2019.

The building’s decline put lives at risk last year when a 6,000-pound stone cascaded to the ground in May of that year, prompting a temporary closure of the neighboring St. Laurentius Catholic School.

When Fernandini, a New Jersey developer, purchased the 138-year-old church, he expressed interest in rehabilitating the structure.

“I felt that fresh energy could help save the building,” Fernandini told the Commission Friday, adding that he planned to adaptively reuse the towering church as office spaces or another commercial use.

But the developer no longer feels like that plan is viable after engineering reports he commissioned at the request of L&I revealed expensive structural failings.

Two engineers, Jan Vacca and Mark Coggin, spoke on Fernandini’s behalf after examining the towers’ interiors. Vacca spoke of mortar that had disintegrated into dust. Coggin described bat droppings and bird carcasses that had piled up in one tower.

In her report, Vacca estimated that the steeples hold an “80% chance of collapse in three years and a 100% chance of collapse in 10 years.”

“I just can’t emphasize enough that these towers are in danger of collapse, and they are in danger of collapse imminently,” said Vacca.

Preservationists on the city board challenged those findings with Robert Thomas, an architectural historian and chair of the commission, inquiring about the structural integrity of the church’s main body.

Vacca replied that she never reviewed that part of the building.

Thomas asked whether Fernandini had considered looking into eligibility for tax credits, given he historical significance of the building.

McClure responded that “any sort of historic tax credit … takes time,” adding that the building needed immediate action.

But Justin Spivey, a structural engineer and preservationist, disagreed. Spivey told the commission he’d examined the towers externally, and while he agreed that the building was in desperate need of attention, he didn’t see a threat of imminent collapse.

Residents like Mason Carter challenged the developer with testimony about the building’s role in creating the community’s “sense of place.”

Its demolition “completely wipes away the visual identity of that part of the neighborhood,” Carter said.

As of July 9, the Department of Licenses & Inspections has not categorized the church as “imminently dangerous,” nor has called for any level of demolition, Commissioner David Perri wrote in a statement.

Still, Perri added, the building’s fate is an urgent matter: especially once winter falls, plunging the building into another season of harsh weather.

“We cannot emphasize enough that time is of the essence as this building continues to deteriorate and the latest engineering reports suggest that a failure beyond the loss of facade stone can be expected,” he wrote.

An ‘urgent matter’ six years in the making

The hearing was the latest chapter in a long, tortured redevelopment saga.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed St. Laurentius in 2014 using some of the same arguments as the Fernandini, citing severe damages to the structure. The closure prompted community-led efforts to salvage the church, and by 2015, the Philadelphia Historical Commission declared St. Laurentius as a historical structure. Voloshi, the first developer, told PlanPhilly in 2016 that he intended to “keep it entirely intact, externally.”

Voloshin planned to repurpose the church into 23 apartments. The idea faced strong local opposition from the Faithful Laurentians, a grassroots group that aimed to preserve the church as a place of worship.

By 2019, City Council President Darrell Clarke authored a bill allowing the development of Voloshin’s apartment complex. The bill passed unanimously in City Council. But Voloshin’s housing plans never came to fruition. He put the building on the market after years of costly legal battles and Humberto Fernadini bought the church.

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The ‘fabric’ of a neighborhood

The deterioration of St. Laurentius Church brings back memories for Gilberto Gonzalez. He never attended its services, but raised his three children within its iconic gaze. The church — and its tall, pale blue steeples — served as a landmark in his neighborhood for decades.

The church’s demise isn’t the only one Gonzalez has mourned.

In 2013, Gonzalez joined congregants to protest the closure of La Milagrosa, a chapel perched on Spring Garden and 19th streets. What was once a chapel for the community is, today, a smattering of apartments.

“You know, churches serve a purpose,” Gonzalez said. “They really help build community, they keep people connected.”

Gonzalez has lived in the Kensington area for 40 years. He’s resided in Fishtown for half that time. In the beginning, Gonzalez, who is Puerto Rican, encountered racism in the majority-white neighborhood, but he connected with his neighbors over time, he said.

A unifying factor for Gonzalez and his neighbors? Going to church.

“My neighbors brought food to me. My neighbors took care of my kids when I had to work overtime to try to make extra money,” Gonzalez said. “And that was Catholic faith, that was the church.”

As property values rise in Fishtown, and overdose deaths rise in Kensington, Gonzalez questioned the city’s investment in the area.

“What’s it going to take to bring attention to these communities, and important structures like churches?” Gonzalez said. “It’s destroying the fabric of the neighborhood.”

In June, after the killing of George Floyd catalyzed an international wave of protests, dozens of white vigilantes gathered in Fishtown, armed with baseball bats and golf clubs. The vigilantes threatened Black Lives Matter protesters and assaulted several people — including a WHYY employee who was not working at the time of the attack.

The violence in Fishtown drew widespread attention. But for Gonzalez, that’s not representative of the neighborhood that served as his home for so many years.

“The real Fishtown are the people … that took care of my kids when I had to work when I was a single father,” Gonzalez said. “Fishtown is a Catholic community. And that’s generational. And that’s part of gentrification, is just erasing everything. And pushing people out.”

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