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June 09, 2015

Historical Commission moves St. Laurentius step closer to salvation

Committee will recommend nomination for designation, full vote in July

Religion St. Laurentius
St. Laurentius  Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown.

A committee for the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted unanimously to nominate St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown as a historic site after a meeting with those attempting to save the parish on Tuesday.

The seven-member Committee on Historic Designation will now send its recommendation to the 14-member governing body of the commission, which will review the merits of the nomination and make a decision on July 10.

The vote marks a step forward for the Friends of St. Laurentius, a group that has battled with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for nearly two years after their parish was closed and subsequently targeted for demolition in March due to safety concerns.

EARLIER STORY: Fate of Fishtown church spurs holy war of words

"I'm happy it was recognized for its historical, cultural, and religious significance to Fishtown and Philadelphia at large," said Megan Thomson, a parishioner of Holy Name Parish, which merged with St. Laurentius after the latter's closure in 2014. "We have a lot of energy now, and I think it will help reinforce some people who were wary."

Thomson, a member of the Friends of St. Laurentius, noted that support among some of those who support saving the church had waned as the group's efforts had stalled recently. 

If the building is approved for designation by the full commission, 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, in this case the Archdiocese, would have to show that it made a reasonable attempt to sell the building before going through with demolition.

The commission will also work with parties interested in trying to rehabilitate the building and find new uses for it, something the Friends of St. Laurentius group has been adamant about pursuing in order to save the church.

Ken Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese, stressed that Tuesday's vote was a recommendation, not a final decision. He also said that it would be counterproductive to speculate on the process until the full commission hearing in July.

The Archdiocese has argued that the safety and financial issues surrounding the church made demolition over preservation the best decision. Gavin told PhillyVoice in May that those issues should be taken into account if historical designation is considered, and he reinforced that argument on Tuesday.

"The building is the property and responsibility of Holy Name and the Archdiocese is not able to provide funds to have the building fixed. It remains a public safety issue of great concern," Gavin told PhillyVoice. "While these proceedings continue to unfold, the parish will continue to burden the cost of preventative safety measures."

The Archdiocese pegs the cost of restoration at $3 million, while the Friends of St. Laurentius believes it will cost around $1 million or less. Both hired private engineering firms to assess the structural integrity of the building, and competing conclusions were reached. Gavin has referred to the group's lower estimate as a "Band-Aid fix."

The nomination that was approved by the committee Tuesday cited the building's deep Polish roots and its significance to the neighborhood's Catholic culture. To read the full nomination, click here. For a history of the attempts to save the church, as well as the competing claims of the cost and resources needed to save the building, click here