St. Laurentius: Seeking the Wisdom of Solomon in Fishtown

As Fishtowners mull the residential redevelopment proposed for St. Laurentius Church, Faithful Laurentians are hoping for a different plan that requires less alterations of the building. Community ContributorFishtown native, and longtime PlanPhilly advisor Michael Greenle makes the case for compromise, fearing that prolonging the wait could mean a worse fate for the historic building.

When it comes to dreaming big about civic life and what communities can achieve, no one wants to be a doubting Thomas, especially me.  I was raised in Fishtown, a community of underdogs, born to question authority, see every battle as a test of self-respect, and, above all, never give up. I know from watching and participating in projects over the last ten years in Philadelphia that the benefits of dreaming big almost always outweigh the risks: a bold vision raises expectations, draws interest and resources and helps a community blossom. Look no further than the Race St. Pier, the Schuylkill Trail and the reuse of the Divine Lorraine for examples.  However, sadly, that approach doesn’t work when a vacant building has an owner who impatiently will seek any opportunity to dispense with liability and avoid investment to stabilize the building.

Now that St. Laurentius Church has been spared from by-right demolition, Fishtowners are faced with a hard choice about the closed Catholic church’s future. On Tuesday, September 20, Fishtown Neighbors Association will meet to hear a proposal to convert St. Laurentius church into a 23-unit apartment building.  The proposed reuse would preserve the exterior of the building but render the interior unable to be seen as a whole ever again. A group, the Faithful Laurentians, opposes the plan, instead advocating for alternative uses which would keep the building’s spectacular interiors more intact. But dissent and delay in reuse is more threatening to St. Laurentius than repurposing the interior – it could create the conditions for the eventual demolition of the church and the loss of its presence on the local skyline forever.

My advice: Don’t miss the opportunity to keep St. Laurentius as part of the Fishtown fabric by waiting for the perfect reuse which will likely never come. Waiting means giving the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (AOP) more opportunities to demolish the building.

St. Laurentius (2015) | Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
(Kimberly Paynter / WHYY)

I don’t come to this decision lightly: As a former St. Laurentius student, altar boy and all-around nostalgist, I will miss the interior.  It was awe-inspiring to me as a child, and its vaults, murals and paintings are what I think of when I hear words like ‘celestial’ and ‘firmament’.  It gave me an appreciation for architecture and taught me that, in the tight fabric of row homes, warehouses, and factories, some buildings could be more than utilitarian, and impart beauty that inspired the viewer.  

In many ways, the situation at St. Laurentius reflects the changes we’re experiencing across Fishtown, and these changes are testing our ideas of what preserving neighborhood heritage means, and how communities pass history and values to future generations.  I can only imagine what the Fishtowners who created Palmer Cemetery, Penn Treaty Park, Penn Widow Home, Cramp’s Shipyard and the Kensington Soup Society thought as the neighborhood shifted in the 19th century when St. Laurentius was built, and I can only imagine that some didn’t appreciate the evolution.  But healthy cities are never static, so I’m hoping we as a neighborhood can be open-minded, acknowledging that neighborhood context changes, and that it’s our responsibility to draw on our collective wisdom for how to leave important touchstones to tell our story to future generations.

When I think of St. Laurentius, I recall morning masses in Polish, May processions, Christmas choirs, epic 40 hours devotional masses. These touchstones were taken away by changes in the congregation’s composition, the Archdiocese’s methodical dismantling of its urban parishes, as well as changes in the way people choose to worship. I’m sorry to know that future generations of kids won’t get to experience the church as I did, or the Fishtown of my childhood – my neighbors sitting outside nightly on their stoops, in beach chairs and even on piles of bricks, talking for hours while we played on the street. Fishtown has changed over the last couple decades, mostly because the world, and its opportunities and challenges, has changed.  I’d give anything to feel a warm summer night playing on the street again, hoping not to be called in by my parents. But as surely as I will never serve a Polish mass again, I won’t have the opportunity to control how Fishtown feels for newer residents, only to try to impart some of the loveliness that I feel when I think about the neighborhood.  

The Faithful Laurentians admirably hope to find resources to turn the church into a non-profit event space and cultural center. (Helpful background and explanation of the angles can be found in reporting by the Spirit Newspaper.)  The community, led by the Save St. Laurentius group, which fought against long odds to succeed in designating the church as historic, faces a choice requiring the wisdom of Solomon: fight the reuse proposal (which requires zoning variances) and risk the destruction of the church, which is still owned by a parish run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, an owner who has previously sought permission to demolish the building.  

I agree that the ideal solution is a use that would allow for the exterior to be preserved and for the interior to be able to be viewed as a whole in the future. However, as a risk-averse pragmatist, I hope the plan for apartments moves forward.  My sense is that the only way for the interior to be preserved would mean its conversion to a single residence; bar, restaurant or nightclub; an open floor plate office space; a gymnasium or recreation space; or of course, another church. Some on that list are ‘sordid uses’ that are deed restricted by the AOP, and support from near neighbors for any of the above uses without parking is a major obstacle.  I don’t know of anyone who could afford to maintain the building as a single residence, and an office use would seem to be unlikely considering that commercial office space can be had much more cheaply without the upfront costs of repairs. Mothballing the church for an appropriate reuse later would be wonderful if we had infinite resources to ensure its integrity (a fantastic and fantastical idea for hundreds of significant threatened buildings in Philadelphia), but I don’t know where the resources would come from.

My instinct is that the sooner St. Laurentius is reused, the more likely it will stand for future generations. Time is our enemy. I’m not concerned that the church will fall down – my fear is that the decision-makers at the AOP and inspectors for L&I (who have already cited the building) don’t have the interests of preserving St. Laurentius at heart. Even though the building is now designated as historic, the Historical Commission has issued decisions over the last few years which don’t bode well for stemming off demolition once fear of collapse (regardless of reality) and financial hardship become factors.

The Faithful Laurentians’ plan is laudable in intent but illogical in potential for success.  In a city with thousands of nonprofits (including several Polish heritage organizations) struggling for foundation support, individual donations and sustainable revenue sources, the prospects are dim for an event and cultural center which won’t have immediate financial growth.  It is especially daunting given that the new owners would need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars immediately to repair the edifice and stop deterioration. It would be irresponsible to bank on being able to raise that funding, and it could lead to a situation like that of the Church of the Assumption, where a failing non-profit abandoned it to subsequent owners who have sought to demolish it despite its historic designation.

To me, the developer, Leo Voloshin, has a plan which seems appropriately balanced between altruism and profit motive; he likes the building and wants it to stand, and has created a plan necessary to make his proposal pencil out and actually be implemented. Voloshin will spend at least $750,000 at the outset to repair the building’s deterioration, the premise for the AOP’s argument for demolition.  His plan for 23 apartments is reflective of a two floor development, bisecting the windows for each floor, providing light and air for each apartment.  My understanding is the size of the apartments is intended to attract singles and couples less likely to need cars and avoid families who would require parking.

Voloshin is an outsider by Fishtown standards, having lived here for only a decade or so (it take a lifetime or generations even to feel like a native), but I’m reminded that the Poles who built the church were once outsiders as well, as were the Catholics who settled in Fishtown and Northern Liberties only to suffer persecution from Nativists, even having their church, St. Michael’s, burned in a riot.  

In this Solomonic choice, the main factor for us to consider is that the owner of the church, the Holy Name parish and Archdiocese of Philadelphia (AOP), would seem to be more than happy to split the baby, having already sought to demolish the church. Given more opportunities to delay, the AOP may get its chance.  The site would be a prime asset in Fishtown’s robust real estate market.   

It’s important to remember that any reuse of a church is difficult; my guess is that an equal challenge to supporting interior alteration will be convincing near-neighbors that risking fewer street parking spots is worth ensuring the church building continues to stand. I am hopeful that Fishtown residents will be able to see that St. Laurentius, standing as a monument to those who came before us, is more important than waiting for a better offer. Inspiring buildings like St. Laurentius will not be made again.  Preserving an important piece of Fishtown’s historic fabric depends on our collective wisdom: let’s strike the right balance and not risk an opportunity to leave a legacy by holding out for a better, offer which may never come.  The story we tell the next generation of Fishtowners depends on it.

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