Possible Compromise Delays Potential Historic Designation of St. Laurentius Interior
The fate of St. Laurentius Church was delayed last Friday when, at the last moment, the nominator of the church’s interior, John Wisniewski, withdrew his nomination at a Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) meeting. The move initially confused many involved in the nearly three-year-long saga to preserve the church.
Wisniewski nominated the interior of church last month in a bid to support efforts by community groups Save St. Laurentius (SSL) and Faithful Laurentius (FL) to preserve the inside of the church. These groups see the church as important both culturally and historically to the legacy of Polish Catholics in Philadelphia. Established in 1882, St. Laurentius was the first Polish-American Church built in Philadelphia.
On Sunday, January 8th, Wisniewski sought to amend his historic nomination for the interior of the church. In an email to PHC Executive Director Jon Farnham obtained by Spirit News, Wisniewski stated he wanted to change his nomination “from the entire interior to the following 19 objects (3 altarpieces and 16 murals).”
The specific items within the church that Wisniewski sought to nominate were stated in the email:
1.The main wood carved altarpiece, and the east and west altarpiece.
2. The arched oil on canvas paintings that line the east and west sides of the nave (6 on each side)
3. The oil canvas paintings at the north ends of the east and west aisles- one on each side
4. The oil on canvas paintings in the choir loft east and west sides.”
This email and its implications for the possible interior designation of the church were the subject of much debate during the PHC meeting. Farnham explained that Wisniewski’s email had broad implications for the viability of the church’s interior nomination, as constituted at the time.
“He has essentially withdrawn his interior nomination, but we are in a place we have never been before,” Farnham said, inferring that there was a lack of precedent for the St. Laurentius case. “Mr. Wisniewski did amend his historic nomination and he never used the word withdraw. I used that word because when he amended his nomination to exclude [the interior] he essentially was withdrawing that aspect of the nomination. I apologize if there was confusion here.”
Farnham and other members of the PHC later concluded that it would most likely be best for Wisniewski to go back and renominate only the objects within the church as a separate nomination, rather than include them in the interior nomination that was before the commission on Friday.
The PHC also raised concerns to the community that if the interior of the church as a whole were to be designated as historic, it could risk blocking current developer Leo Voloshin and his plan to adaptively reuse the church’s interior as 23 apartments.
SSL is open to Voloshin’s proposed adaptive reuse, whereas FL are opposed to any reuse of the building that seeks to alter elements of the building’s interior.
In February 2016, Voloshin entered a preliminary agreement to purchase St. Laurentius Church from the Holy Name of Jesus Parish. This agreement is supported by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (AOP).
Additionally, the PHC recognizes that demolition could be the ultimate outcome following a potential historic interior designation if a financial hardship application were to be approved later. If Holy Name Parish, the AOP, or developer claims financial hardship on the historic site, demolition could still occur.
“The PHC is keenly aware of this possibility,” said Farnham. “Designating the interior and thereby perhaps preventing the current redevelopment project would potentially place the entire building at risk.”
The AOP concurs with the PHC’s assessment.
“If the interior nomination were to proceed it would put a wrench in (Voloshin’s Plan),” Michael Phillips, a representative of the AOP and Holy Name of Jesus Parish, said. “So with that in mind, I respectfully ask that the commission refrain from addressing the merits of these objects at this time.”
A “wrench” in Voloshin’s plan is certainly something that FL would breathe a sigh of relief for. The group does not subscribe to the belief that interior historic designation could more than likely lead to demolition.
During the meeting, members of FL sought to make their support for the full interior nomination of the church known to the PHC. FL also attempted to have PHC hear their alternative plan for the church.
In recent months, members of FL have attempted to take matters into their own hands by creating an alternative plan they view as a means to “save the entirety” of the structure. Their two-part plan would create a non-profit 501(c)(3) group called the Faithful Laurentians Institute. The new organization would be charged with writing grants, seeking donations, doing public outreach and setting up educational programs to teach people about the church.
The plan’s second facet would include a cooperative business arm called the St. Laurentius Polish Cultural Center, which would be heavily engaged in event planning, hosting weddings, corporate events, community functions, concerts and other events. However, there are no available funds for such a plan at this point in time.
“I have here a copy of our business plan and we want to preserve the church for the community,” Venise Whitaker, leading member of FL, said. “This church is a charitable trust and it belongs to the parishioners. There is an appeal still at the Vatican to reopen the church and we are also in talks with the AG’s office to return the deed of the church to the parishioners.”
Spirit News has reported in the past that the Vatican appeal has already been denied. Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s office could not confirm or deny to Spirit News that FL had been in talks with the office.
In response, PHC members stated in clear terms that it was not the purpose of the meeting to entertain alternative reuses for the church, or legal and ecclesiastical avenues to return the church to former parishioners. However, PHC did later shift the meeting’s main focus outside its prescribed boundaries when discussing how to work out possible coordinated preservation and transfer of items inside the church between Wisniewski and the AOP.
Emily Cooperman, a member of PHC, recommended that there be newfound cooperation between everyone with an interest in the church.
“It was abundantly clear to us (at the PHC Committee hearing last month) that these are (historically) significant objects. But I am also of the opinion that historic designation is not necessarily the right tool here,” Cooperman said. “I think it should be our due diligence to figure out a path to a solution and I personally would like some assurance that that can happen. Otherwise, I believe we do have to continue down the path of historic designation.”
Both Wisniewski and AOP Attorney Michael Phillips professed their desire to start negotiations, arbitrated by a yet-to-be-identified third party. The stated goal of this dialogue would be to facilitate the preservation, and transfer of the historically nominated items within the church to a safe and agreed-upon location.
Farnham went a step further than Cooperman: He advocated for the AOP to state their full intentions for the church on public record.
“Would the AOP be willing to agree here, on the record, to not make any changes or alterations and to not remove the objects in question (from the building) for 120 days… unless you have an agreement with Mr. Wisniewski?” Farnham directly asked Phillips. “During that 120 days you could work towards a compromise for a solution.”
In response, Phillips stated that he didn’t “have the authority to state that right now.”
“What I can say is that these objects will be preserved,” Phillips said.
“Some of these objects are 15-foot-tall murals that are at the top of the arch of a 50-foot building. So nothing is happening to these objects right now.”
He concluded: “You can have on the record our commitment to continue to engage in a discussion and dialogue to find an appropriate home for these objects. We will not do anything to adversely affect these objects in the interim [before an agreement is reached or objects in the building are potentially designated as historic].”
After nearly hour and a half of discussion regarding the church and immense confusion as to whether that nomination of the interior was still on the table, Wisniewski officially withdrew his nomination of the church’s interior.
He plans to submit a new nomination for the 19 objects within the building’s interior to the PHC in time for it to be heard at their next meeting in early February. Wisniewski also maintains that in the interim he will diligently pursue an agreement with the AOP regarding preservation and transfer of items inside the church to an agreed-upon location.
Spirit News caught up with Wisniewski on his way out of the meeting. We asked him about the potential of obtaining an agreement with the AOP, an organization he very recently described as “truly evil.”
“I will work through this with Michael Phillips. He knows how I feel about the AOP. I was honest with him about that. I said to him, ‘You want to work with me on this.’ I did not believe him [at first],” Wisniewski said. “What happened [at the meeting] technically leaves the interior open for modification, but that would be big-time bad press if (the AOP) did that. So when I get a clearer path delineated by talking to (Phillips), we will move forward with this process.” •