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Holy Resurrections: St. Laurentius is One Step Closer To Historic Status That Would Prevent Demolition Indefinitely

Unresolved disputes over the structural integrity of St. Laurentius Church persist between the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (AOP), the Save St. Laurentius group (SSL) and structural engineers. More than a year after these disputes began—its future still uncertain—the church remains standing.

Tuesday, June 9th, may mark a turning point in the future of the Fishtown church. During a hearing in room 678 of City Hall, a committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission (known from here on out as “the committee”) voted unanimously in support of a recommendation to nominate St. Laurentius Church as a historic site. With the Archdiocese targeting the building for demolition, historic status would protect the space for years to come.

“Our responsibility is to determine the historical importance and significance of the building, therefore I move that we, as a designated committee, designate for the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s register that the building at 1606 and 1608 [Berks Street] be designated historic,” said a ranking member of the Historical Commission’s Advisory Committee.

Following that statement were cheers, claps and screams of joy from members of SSL, who packed the small city hall conference room wearing “Save St. Laurentius” T-shirts.

AJ Thomson, a lawyer and leading member of SSL, felt that this was a good first step in a much longer process to ultimately gain historic protection status from the full Historical Commission. The vote on a final decision regarding St. Laurentius is set for July 12th.

“Obviously, it’s a historic structure, and the historic commission as a whole should and will do the same thing,” Thomson said. “Whether or not the Archdiocese is going to cry poor or cry nonsense, that’s for someone else or a court of law to decide.”

In support of SSL were professional architects, the Honorary Consul of Poland in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a representative from the Polish American Cultural Center and more. A representative from City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office also stopped into the meeting to deliver a letter from Clarke in support of the historic designation of St. Laurentius.

In opposition of SSL was the AOP and the parish of Holy Name of Jesus church. The AOP had merged the parishes of St. Laurentius and Holy Name following the closing of the former. The parish of Holy Name has since assumed all debt of St. Laurentius. During the at-times heated hearing, representatives from Holy Name, Michael Phillips and Father John Sibel, cited lack of funds to fix the church and its structural integrity as things the committee should have taken into account when evaluating the merits of whether St. Laurentius should be recommended for historic status.

“A recommendation to designate it historic is the first step in going down the line of another Church of the Assumption and that is just the reality,” said Michael Phillips, a representative from Holy Name of Jesus Parish, who was referencing another Philadelphia church that had been closed in the late 1990s and is abandoned.

“There are public safety issues and there are issues relating to the condition of the building. That is relevant because if the building were to collapse, how does that serve the public? How does that serve the community?… If the building can not be maintained and the building is in a deteriorating state that creates a public safety issue that also compromises the integrity from an aesthetic standpoint of the building. If there is brownstone crumbling and falling to the ground, there is an issue with that.”

Some who spoke in favor of designating St. Laurentius as a historic site downplayed the notion that the building presented the kind of danger implied by those representing Holy Name, The AOP and an engineering representative from engineering firm O’Donnell & Naccarato.

The committee felt it was presumptuous for those representing Holy Name and The AOP to assume that the Historical Commission would not grant a building historic status due to the church’s structural deficiencies.

“Your observation of what the Historical Commission would do or wouldn’t do is premature because the Historical Commission may allow a lot of remedies for a historic structure and we don’t know what that will be,” said a member of the Historical Commission’s committee.

In addition, the committee laid out precise criteria when they unanimously voted in support of the church’s historic designation. As it stands now, St. Laurentius meets much of the criteria, which is what ultimately allowed the committee to recommend to the Historical Commission that the church receive historical designation.

Much of the criteria for a historic site centers around the idea of cultural and communal significance, that the building in some way exemplifies the neighborhood in which it stands. With all of these criteria to take into account, the Committee’s Chair, Richardson Dilworth, found that there were certain elements that stuck out more than others.

“What was particularly significant in the Berks Street nomination was its role in the Philadelphia Polish Community, especially around the turn of the 20th century, and how that has sustained over time,” Dilworth said

The recommendation by the committee may have been cause for celebration by Save St. Laurentius, but it is just one small step in a lengthy process for the building to receive the historical protection status that would prevent demolition indefinitely. Even if St. Laurentius does gain protected status at the July 12th hearing those within Holy Name and the AOP could still appeal that decision citing safety concerns. The effects and merit of such an appeal are purely speculation at this point and may even be called into question by those involved in the review process.

“If you believe there is danger to people there are opportunities for city inspectors,” said one member of the committee.

A few in the room offered alternative perspectives and solutions to the problems cited by those in the community moving forward with the church, regardless of what the historical commission decides in July.

“I think the Archdiocese should establish a new paradigm and come to the rescue of these very important churches throughout the Archdiocese,” said one supporter of Save St. Laurentius at the hearing. “So it would be a shift in their point of view and I think that is what is needed because this is not going to be the last instance of a church that is going to have to be saved.”

Save St. Laurentius also may need to recognize that due to the stark differences between their view for the future of the church and the AOP’s stance to demolish it, it is unlikely that the church will ever be a beacon of the Catholic faith within the Archdiocese again. That being the case, there is a possibility that the church may end up being repurposed for community use if saved—something those at Save St. Laurentius have become comfortable with.

“There could be an adaptive reuse of this church and we are fully for that and we know it may never be a church again,” Thomson said.

“We want to see the church saved whether or not it functions as a place for mass anymore or just functions as a place for people to look at, recognize and congregate in. That’s what it’s about, it was built for people by people for usefulness… and that’s what it can continue to be.”

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