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February 11, 2017

How potential legislation could have big impact on historical Philly churches

Politics History
St. Laurentius  Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown.

A Western Pennsylvania lawmaker wants to introduce legislation that could have significant consequences for efforts to preserve historical churches and religious buildings in Philadelphia.

State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Allegheny, sent a co-sponsorship memo to his colleagues Friday, announcing his plan to propose a bill that would require the owners of churches to sign off on historic designations by municipalities. In Philadelphia’s case, that would mean essentially stripping the autonomy of the historical commission and handing more power to local congregations and religious leaders.

Reschenthaler wrote in his memo that while he believes in the importance of historical preservation, historical designations have in some cases "caused charitable, religious entities to incur significant legal, engineering, and other expenses while an uninvited nomination takes years to wind its way through municipal processes and the judicial system."

"Freedom of Religious Expression includes that a religious entity should not be forced into keeping and maintaining a building which does not advance its religious mission," Reschenthaler wrote. 

"Churches should be free to devote their assets for a religious use of their own choosing, and they should never be placed in a position where they cannot alter or sell an unneeded building because of a freeze created by a municipal historic nomination or designation."

Reschenthaler's words may sound familiar to anyone who has followed the case of St. Laurentius in Fishtown, the centuries-old Polish Catholic church that's been the center of a designation battle for four years after the church was closed and slated for demolition.

The exterior of St. Laurentius was designated as historical in July 2015 after a group of parishioners fought tooth and nail with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for two years. The archdiocese had argued that the building was structurally unsafe and presented an unnecessary financial burden to maintain, but the parishioners, who worked under the moniker Save St. Laurentius, presented conflicting engineering reports about the building's structural integrity and said there were ways to use the building and preserve its history.

After the historical designation, the parishioners were seeking an outside buyer to save the building, which could have still been demolished (with the historical commission's approval) if a use for it wasn't found. Developer Leo Voloshin stepped in and proposed apartments for the building, a plan that was endorsed by Save St. Lareuntius. 

Those plans were halted when a new group, dubbed the the Faithful Laurentian, formed and opposed the apartments plan, instead fighting to preserve the interior of the building as well. According to a recent report from Star News, the new group has been asked by the historical commission to present a new application for designation of specific interior objects, not the entire interior, meaning the process to determine the church's fate will be dragged out even longer.

But this entire saga likely never would have played out if Reschenthaler's proposed law had been in place. When St. Laurentius was closed in 2013, under archdiocese policy, ownership of the church was passed on to the congregation that St. Laurentius merged with, nearby Holy Name of Jesus Parish.

The archdiocese has said that decisions with what to do with closed churches are made by the parish's council — made up of lay parishioners — and priest, as the churches are technically owned by the merged parishes.

Holy Name's parish council and priest had approved the demolition of St. Laruentius, but members of Save St. Laurentius often complained that they were left out of that decision-making process. It was the historical commission’s independence to designate buildings as historical, and therefore retain ultimate say as to what can be done with the building, that saved the church from the wrecking ball.

The archdiocese has shuttered a number of churches over the past few years because of a declining Catholic population and financial hardship; four were closed just this past December and another three were closed in August. In January 2016, an internal memo leaked that showed the archdiocese was preparing to fight future designation efforts by parishioners.

Reschenthaler's memo is just that for now: a memo. The legislative process is incredibly cumbersome, and bills often get stuck in committee, never seeing the light of the house or senate floor. But if the legislation picks up steam, preservationists like those who fought for St. Laurentius will likely have a fight on their hands.