Save St. Laurentius Seeks Aid From Embattled A.G. Kane in Hopes of Ensuring Future For Fishtown Church
The dispute between former parishioners of St. Laurentius Church and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (AOP) regarding the future of the Fishtown church took a strange and unexpected turn this week.
Members of Save St. Laurentius (SSL), a community group fighting for the preservation of the historic place of worship, have sent a number of letters and documents to the office of embattled Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, which detail the group’s desire for Kane’s help in taking the AOP in court.
The move is one of a few “Hail Mary” efforts by SSL to take control of the church’s future. The group is still waiting to hear back from the Catholic Church’s supreme court at the Vatican, the Apostolic Signatura, to see if they will hear an appeal of SSL’s case on the grounds of canon law violation.
The letter to Kane’s office, however, comes on the heels of what appears to be a multifaceted charitable trust violation claim by SSL against the AOP. The SSL committee states in the letter that: “the building was left forever in trust for the Roman Catholic Congregation of St. Laurentius. Subject to a mortgage debt of $5,000. This language is significant and not typical of most Roman Catholic churches deeds.”
The Pennsylvania General Assembly defines a “Charitable Trust” succinctly as “a trust, or portion of a trust, created for a charitable purpose.” But according to a number of legal definitions, a court cannot rely on the view of the settlor in the case of Save St. Laurentius to ensure that the trust is in fact charitable. This may call into question the validity of SSL’s charitable trust violation claim by lawyers of the AOP, as well as judges presiding over any possible case.
SSL’s letter to Kane concludes that the group seeks guidance on how to best pursue a path of legal action against the AOP in court when it comes to a “charitable trust” violation dispute regarding St. Laurentius.
In an interview with Spirit News, Save St. Laurentius committee member John Wisniewski elaborated on the multiple ways in which he believes the AOP violated the “charitable trust.”
“They violated the trust by selling the St. Laurentius Convent and not letting us use that money to fix the church, which they could have done,” Wisniewski said. “They violated it by not meeting with (the parishioners) during this whole time that our church has been closed. Those are just a few of the ways the trust was violated.”
Ken Gavin, Director of Communications for the AOP, said that he “would not speculate on potential legal matters”.
According to Wisniewski, Kane’s office appears to be interested in advising members of the SSL committee on how to pursue a trust violation case.
“The woman I spoke with in Kane’s office on Friday was exceedingly helpful and we spoke for about 45 minutes,” Wisniewski said. “So the fact that they did not turn it down right away, saying you’re crazy, go away, is a really good sign. But still it is yet to be determined how much they will help us.”
The initial receptiveness from Kane’s office regarding SSL’s letter may come as a surprise to some given the ongoing “Porngate” scandal threatening Kane’s position as Attorney General.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a more likely future for St. Laurentius on the horizon. Developer Leo Voloshin has signed a preliminary agreement with the AOP to turn the interior of the church into apartments. This agreement is pending contingencies partly related to the fiscal viability of the project and the developers ability to obtain a zoning variance.
“We are really not trying to make a lot of money on the church. This is definitely not a charity, but at the same time it is not going to be a very lucrative deal for anyone,” Voloshin said. “I am personally interested in pursuing this because I think it will add value to the community to the preserve the church”
To that point, Voloshin, the owner of the Kensington-based textile design company Printfresh Studio and Paper Box Studios on North Hancock Street, says he will keep the exterior of the structure “entirely intact.”
This potential adaptive reuse has since divided some opinions within the community on how to best secure the church’s future. During a meeting last Tuesday, February 23 at the Shissler Rec Center, a few community members previously supporting the actions of SSL walked out after Wisniewski explained his support for the adaptive reuse of the church.
“Unless we win the appeal in the Vatican’s supreme court to get our church back — which I don’t think it going to happen — it looks like repurposing may be the best option,” Wisniewski said. “Looking at it from a logical perspective with all the variables impacting this situation in mind… it would at least save the external integrity of the church.”
Transcending these barriers of opposing opinion is a new fence that was erected around St. Laurentius on Monday, February 29. According to members of the SSL committee, Father Sibel of Holy Name of Jesus Parish made an announcement at mass about the fence this past Sunday. Members of SSL in attendance reported Sibel stating to the congregation that engineers and Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections (L&I) have insisted that a safety fence go up around the church. Community members have told Spirit News that the church faced a daily fine of $3000 for not having a fence, others have expressed their disdain at the number of parking spots the fence will remove from the street. Spirit News reached out to L&I for comment, but has not heard back regarding any alleged fines.
Ken Gavin, director of communications at the AOP, confirmed the existence of the new fence with a statement sent to Spirit News.
“The work taking place right now is to provide additional safety and to bolster additional scaffolding,” Gavin said. “A piece of the scaffolding blew off during one of the recent storms. Everything is being secured.”
Subsequent reports on the ongoing situation involving St. Laurentius will be published in the weeks to come.