Fishtown’s St. Laurentius has seen better days. The 130-year-old-plus former Catholic Church is surrounded by a scraggly fence. Scaffolding wraps around its base, and black strips of netting covers stretches of its exterior to catch falling debris.
“The church right now looks like it’s in shambles,” said Joe Beck, a lifelong Fishtown resident who lives on this block of Berks Street. “The deterioration on the front of the building, the façade, looks worse than it has … it looks horrible.”
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia deconsecrated St. Laurentius and tried to demolish it in 2015. Neighbors fought back, winning historic protection for the building. Then, almost two years ago, local developer Leo Voloshin presented a plan to renovate the church to accommodate 23 apartments.
Beck said he isn’t closely monitoring the internecine struggles over the fate of the church, but he knows that a group called the Faithful Laurentians was formed to stop the housing plan.
And thus far, it has succeeded. Last August, the group’s case was thrown out of Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, but they appealed the ruling to Commonwealth Court, keeping the church’s future in limbo.
Now, 10 months later, there appears to finally be movement on the case. One of the leaders of the Faithful Laurentians, Venise Whitaker, has asked that her name be removed as a “Trustee Ad Litem” of the group.
In a letter to Commonwealth Court, Whitaker says that she has not been affiliated with the group since July 2017, and that she is “unsure if the Faithful Laurentians are still an active group that could be an appellant in this case… I do not support the appellants in this matter.”
“This appeal was filed without my knowledge, approval, or consent,” the letter reads, although in August 2017, Whitaker told PlanPhilly that the Faithful Laurentians planned to appeal the Common Pleas Court decision.
When contacted last week, Whitaker would not speak on the record about the case.
On June 22, the City of Philadelphia and lawyers with the Mattioni Law Firm filed for relief, asking that the case be thrown out in response to Whitaker’s letter.
Hal Schirmer, attorney for the Faithful Laurentians, has 14 days to respond to the motion, and he confirmed in an email to that he intends to do so.
“Well, actually it seems to be good for [Faithful Laurentians] membership, for finding new trustees, and for exposing the campaign of harassment against my clients,” Schirmer said in the email. He went on to say that his clients, formerly including Whitaker, had been subject to harassment by neighbors who want to see the church preserved through the apartment plan.
Schirmer refused to put PlanPhilly in touch with any current members of the Faithful Laurentians, saying that Whitaker had warned them months ago the publication was “consciously slanting the story to favor our opponents.”
Schirmer also refused to name any current members of the Faithful Laurentians or confirm how many members the group has. (The one other individual appellant, besides Whitaker, named in the appeal is Carolyn Bechta Devine.)
Early in their struggle to preserve the church, the Faithful Laurentians enjoyed a committed membership and held meetings. They argued that turning their neighborhood house of worship into apartments would effectively privatize an important community icon. The group promoted turning the structure into a public library or community center, although it did not get as far as presenting details for an alternative to Voloshin’s plan.
One former group member, Linda Jakubowski, said she is unclear what the group’s status is anymore.
“I don’t see anybody because we don’t have any more meetings or anything, so I don’t know what’s going on,” said Jakubowski, who still opposes the apartments, even if that means the church will be demolished.
Increasingly, that looks like a real possibility. The city’s Licenses and Inspections commissioner, Dave Perri, said the engineering firm hired by the property’s owner has determined that visual inspections are no longer sufficient to gauge the safety of the structure. The owner will now need to use laser-based LIDAR technology to monitor movement of the façade, which Perri said will create an unreasonable financial hardship.
“It is in the best interests of all of the stakeholders to decide quickly on the fate of this building,” he said. “Every week that goes by without action is bringing us closer to the point where L&I will have no choice but to order demolition.”
Back on Berks Street, Joe Beck said he hopes Voloshin gets the go-ahead for the apartments as soon as possible, so he can start fixing up St. Laurentius and preserving it for future generations.
“I can’t support their campaign,” said Beck. “As a resident of the block and a former graduate of St. Laurentius school, someone who’s been married in the church, the last thing I want to see is this church being torn down. Given the two options, I’m for the development of this church.”