Historical designation saves St. Laurentius

 Supporters of St. Laurentius Church crowd the Philadelphia Historical Commission meeting room hoping to save the structure from the wrecking ball. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Supporters of St. Laurentius Church crowd the Philadelphia Historical Commission meeting room hoping to save the structure from the wrecking ball. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Historical Commission has voted to list St. Laurentius in Fishtown on the city’s Historic Register, safeguarding it from demolition. The move was celebrated by former parishioners and other community activists who have rallied around saving the old church. 

Among those who spoke to the commission about the church’s historical significance was Deborah Majka, Poland’s consul for the Philly area.

“Constructed between 1885-1890, the building stands as the oldest and most prominent symbol of the immigration an settlement of Polish Catholics in Philadelphia,” Majka said.

And the Commission agreed.

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“I feel like it’s the birth of my child. It’s just so wonderful,” former parishioner Kate Gaber said. “We will get the money. We will find ways to get the money.”

Gaber said now that it’s protected from being knocked down, an investor might step forward to help with the next stage of redevelopment. 

But the closed church has already been listed for sale. Real estate broker Brendan Flynn said at the meeting that five developers were interested in proposing a plan for the building.

“The general consensus was that if a historical designation was approved, these groups would not have an interest,” Flynn said.

A number of design requirements aimed at preserving the physical character of the building are triggered with a historical designation. Some developers say the guidelines are rigid and often too expensive to accommodate.

On top of that, attorney with the parish Mike Phillips said the church’s full restoration would cost more than $4 million.

He says the indebted parish spends $42,000 a year just on maintaining the site.

He likened St. Laurentius to another Catholic site on the Historic Register: Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street. The crowd didn’t like the comparison.

“I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination would that property reflect the strength of the economy of the city of Philadelphia. It certainly doesn’t foster a sense of civic pride,” Phillips said. “It is a blighted, abandoned property, with missing windows, holes in the roof.”

The comment was met by boos and hisses.

The parish, which controls the empty church, is planning to appeal the designation under a “financial hardship” application, basically arguing that attempting to repair the church is not economically feasible.

But the Commission has reversed its designation just a handful of times in the last decade. 

In the meantime, supporters face three main obstacles. First, enough money must be raised to restore the site. Secondly,  a developer must sign on to take on the costly remodeling. And perhaps the tallest order of all  the parish must be persuaded to relinquish the property, since its officials are dead-set on demolishing and selling the land.

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