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June 23, 2015

Vatican calls Fishtown an area of 'Urban Blight'

Residents express disappointment at Holy See

Neighborhoods Vatican
St. Laurentius  Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown.

The fate of St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown, slated for demolition by the Archdioceses of Philadelphia in March, no longer hinges on the word of the Vatican in Rome, thanks to a pending vote by the Philadelphia Historical Commission in July. 

Yet according to a document from Rome recently made public, it's clear that the Catholic Church's top brass not only disapproves of saving the building,  it also has a dim view of the neighborhood. 

In the document, the Vatican's Congregation of the Clergy, which oversees issues concerning pastoral ministry, officially denied a request to have the Vatican help rescue the church from the wrecking ball from The Committee to Save St. Laurentius Church, which has battled the Archdiocese over the building for two years. 

In denying the appeal, the Vatican cites the financial burden of restoring the church as well as safety issues, both points regularly brought up by the Archdiocese for demolition.

However, also in their denial is a description of Fishtown that is far from complimentary: 

Whereas this Fishtown section served by the former parish has suffered great demographic declines for five decades, losing population and business, and being used as an example of urban blight.

The assessment from the Vatican contradicts what many in the neighborhood, which has recently experienced a boom in local businesses and urban renewal, feel about Fishtown.

"I don't know anyone in Philadelphia who uses Fishtown as an example of urban blight. More often than not we’re described as the next great place to be.” -- Shaun Christopher

Shaun Christopher, president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, expressed disappointment in the Vatican's assessment. 

“If in fact this was part of the reasoning to close St. Laurentius, it's very outdated," Christopher said. "I would hope they would decide to meet with us and see that Fishtown is on the rise, with a drastic increase in both population and local business. I don't know anyone in Philadelphia who uses Fishtown as an example of urban blight. More often than not, we’re described as the next great place to be.”

Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families. He will say mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and millions are expected to flood the city for his appearance. 

Patricia Kinsman, a parishioner fighting to save the church building, said that while the language in the rejection is far from promising for the future of the church, it isn't fatal.

"The outcome we all want is to have it reopened as a church," Kinsman said. "Say that doesn't happen, I'm fine with the consolation prize of the building still standing."

The Philadelphia Historical Commission is expected to vote July 10 on the fate of the church. If designated a historic building, the commission will have to approve any demolition or alterations made to the building, and will work with parties interested in restoring the church, something the committee plans to pursue. 

The cost for restoration is a heavily contested issue between the Archdiocese and the committee. Both parties have hired private engineering firms to assess the cost, and while the committee estimates that restoration will cost around $1 million, the Archdioceses pegs that number closer to $3 million. 

Kinsman noted that not all supporters were on board with moving ahead against the Vatican's wishes. The committee, which only recently acquired the document, is working on a recourse refuting the points made in the rejection.

"This is information that they could have found so easily, and they didn't," Kinsman said regarding the Vatican's assessment of Fishtown.

Ken Gavin, communications director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, declined to comment on the document, but confirmed that the Archdiocese received a formal rejection regarding the parishioners' appeal earlier this year. 

Peter Borre, the canon lawyer assisting the committee in its efforts, confirmed the authenticity of the decree in an email to PhillyVoice. 

The Vatican could not be immediately reached for comment.