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July 10, 2015

Commission designates St. Laurentius as historical site

Church will be spared, for now, from demolition

St. Laurentius Buildings
St. Laurentius  Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission has designated St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown as a historical site. 

The designation follows a two-year long battle between former parishioners and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over the closed church, slated for demolition in March.

Now that the building has been designated, any plans for alteration or demolition would have to go through the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Also, the commission's financial hardship clause means that the owner of the building would have to show a reasonable attempt was made to sell the building before going through with demolition.

The St. Laurentius parish was merged with nearby Holy Name parish for financial reasons in 2013 and the church was closed to the public in March 2014 because of safety concerns, causing former parishioners to rally in an attempt to save the structure.

"We're all cautiously optimistic," said Patricia Kinsman, a member of the Committee to Save St. Laurentius, which submitted the application to the Philadelphia Historical Commission. "We've won a major battle, but the war isn't over yet."

Kinsman believes the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will attempt to use financial hardship as a recourse to maintain its position, claiming the parish owns the church despite the archdiocese carrying legal responsibility for the property. 

"If the archdiocese has to open their books to prove financial hardship," Kinsman said, "that would be more difficult for them to do than to say the parish can't afford to renovate."

Ken Gavin, archdiocesan director of communications, provided the following statement to PhillyVoice:

"Today’s ruling by the historical commission did not take into account vital factors such as the public safety hazard presented by the former Saint Laurentius Church building and the inability of the local parish, which owns the building, to afford the necessary repairs.

"We firmly maintain the position that it is not feasible to properly repair the building as Holy Name of Jesus Parish could not bear that financial burden without jeopardizing the future stability of the parish itself. Neither the parish nor the Archdiocese has the funds to fix the building. It remains a public safety issue of great concern as the condition of the building will further deteriorate with the passage of more time. The parish will continue to burden the cost of preventative safety measures for the benefit of the surrounding community.

"The building was placed on the market over a month ago by the parish in an attempt to find a buyer who might save the structure and repurpose it. No potential buyer came forward who was willing to do so. At this time, the property will remain on the market with the caveat that any buyer would need to assume all liability for the hazards posed by the condition of the building. Concurrently, the parish will prepare and submit a financial hardship application."

The Philadelphia Historical Commission will now work with parties interested in restoring the building, an avenue that interests those trying to save the church.

"That would be ideal," Kinsman said. "If the archdiocese was a reasonable entity, that would happen, but they have been unreasonable and vindictive throughout this process." 

The Committee to Save St. Laurentius is in the second stage of appeals with the Vatican after a first attempt to have the church consecrated was denied. The group has a lawyer filing a response to the Vatican's denial at the Signatura, but the chance of reconsideration is not very high at this stage, Kinsman said. 

Those trying to save the church have cited its deep roots within the city's Polish community and importance to the Catholic religion in Fishtown as reasons to keep the building.

Estimates to restore the church depend on who you ask. Proponents of saving the church say it should cost around $1 million while the archdiocese pegs it at $3 million. Both sides cite conflicting engineering reports.

According to Philadelphia property records, the church has a certified market value of $1,938,400. Its owner is listed as Rev. Dennis J. Docherty (in trust), who served as Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1918 until his death in 1951. It sold for a price of $4 on January 1, 1943.

PhillyVoice staffer Michael Tanenbaum contributed to this report.