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Holy Secular Decrees: St. Laurentius Designated a “Historic Structure,” Cue the Next Chapter in Saga of Ownership of Fishtown Church

The Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) designated St. Laurentius Church a “Historic structure” on July 10th. In the midst of a packed and emotionally charged conference room, the decision brought a sigh of relief to those fearing the building’s previously impending demolition.

This decision marks the start of a new chapter in the two year long battle over the fate of this Fishtown church. The church’s uncertain future has pitted The Archdiocese of Philadelphia (AOP) and Holy Name of Jesus Parish against  Save of St. Laurentius (SSL), a community group striving to save the structure.

“Thank you all for your patience and for your time; the motion has carried and the building is designated historic,” Sam Sherman, the Chair of the PHC, told those in attendance, announcing the committee’s decision.

After hearing the announcement, St. Laurentius supporters erupted in a collective force of pent up jubilation, filling the room with claps, screams and tears of joy.

“We had full confidence that the Philadelphia Historical Commission would do the right thing,” AJ Thomson, a lawyer and leading member of the Save St. Laurentius group, said.

However, not all in the room were pleased with the decision and outcome.

“I understand the people in the community speak with passion and fervor,” Michelle Phillips, a Representative for Holy Name and the AOP, said. “This was their church and it holds a very important place in their hearts. But that passion and fervor can not cloud logic and reason. There just is not the money to restore this church and to make it a safe building and a building that would meet the discretion of the commission to designate it as historical.”

Throughout the nearly two hour hearing, the PHC did not seem to lend credence to this line of argument. The purpose of the hearing was to discuss whether or not the building was in fact a “historic structure” so the commission saw any discussion on fundraising and money as irrelevant.

“The nomination process, let me be clear … we are considering whether or not the building meets the criteria laid out in the Secretary of Interior’s standards,” Sherman said. “That does not take into consideration the existing condition of the building or its financial viability, it’s the resource itself that is considered.”

Even still, some community members supporting the argument of the AOP and Holy Name found the structural and fiscal matters to be the only relevant issues in deciding the church’s fate.

“You have said that the economics should not be in this discussion but your decision makes it an economic issue. The reality is that we have been getting notices and fines from another department of the city (Philadelphia L&I). If you decide to make this building historic they are going to be abated or deferred,” said one community member in opposition to historic designation. “We as a parish do not have the money.”

Oscar Beisert, the man who nominated St. Laurentius to the PHC, attributes the value of preserving the church as historic to something for “the common good,” not necessarily always seen as economically viable but important nonetheless.

“Is it economically viable to provide housing to people who can’t afford it? Is it economically viable to put in a park. I mean really…,” Beisert said.

So what’s next in this saga and debate?

The AOP and Holy Name still have options to explore in order to present their fiscal concerns for the church to the PHC. Holy Name will most likely apply to have a financial hardship hearing to persuade the PHC that, due to the parish being financially destitute, there is no possible way to pay for the numerous costs. Failure to pay these cost may impede on the viability of St. Laurentius’ historical merit.

If a court finds that Holy Name is the true owner of the property and grants financial hardship to that parish, Holy Name may be granted the ability to continue with demolition plans.

If that is the case, SSL may file a civil suit to contest the legal standing of Holy Name’s ownership claim of St. Laurentius. SSL cities a land deed left “in trust” to the deceased Cardinal Dennis Dougherty and the people of St. Laurentius as the main piece of documentation to prove that they own the church.

Patricia Kinsman, a leading SSL member and the group’s financial advisor, believes that the prospect of Holy Name and the AOP proving financial hardship could be difficult given this complicated ownership dispute.

“It should be interesting to see if they can claim financial hardship, since technically the AOP owns the church, not Holy Name,” Kinsman said. “[The AOP] keep[s] saying that it’s Holy Name that owns it but that is legally not true. So, I think that in order to claim financial hardship the AOP will have to open their books. They will attempt to keep spinning this as a parish responsibility and they need to be called out on that.”

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