Sacred place or desecrated space?

Posted: April 07, 2014

ANOTHER YEAR, and the feisty members of Fishtown's St. Laurentius Catholic Church are going toe-to-toe again with their oft-nemesis, the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

First came word in 2012 that the archdiocese would shutter the parish school, even though its enrollment was increasing. A fight ensued, led by passionate well-organized parish families, and St. Laurentius prevailed (the school is doing well, by the way.)

Then the archdiocese announced in 2013 that St. Laurentius would merge its parish operations into Holy Name Church, a few blocks away. Parish members weren't thrilled, but at least St. Laurentius stayed open as a worship site.

Both battles had the faithful of St. Laurentius accusing archdiocesan leaders of being more focused on dollars than on devout worshippers committed to keeping a Catholic presence in their neighborhoods.

I advocated strongly in this column on St. Laurentius' behalf, as I did for other Catholics whose schools or parishes were to be closed for reasons that were questionable to anyone who bothered to pull them apart.

Now there's a new survival battle going on at St. Laurentius, but it gives me pause. This time, the foe isn't archdiocesan bean counters, but the church building itself:

Last week, the archdiocese closed it until further notice, citing its physical condition.

Anyone with eyeballs can see that the place is deteriorating. Its walls have cracks and loose or missing stones and bricks. Last October, Licenses & Inspections deemed the structure "unsafe, in whole or in part" and in danger of collapse. Scaffolding and netting now surround the church as a precaution, but the cruel winter heaped more abuse on the 132-year-old building.

On March 19, L&I reiterated its October findings, giving the church 30 days to eliminate the dangerous conditions. The archdiocese must decide by April 18 whether to restore the building or take it down.

Losing the place would be a heartbreaker, says Fishtown native A.J. Thomson, who lives around the corner from the church and whose daughters attend its school.

"This church was founded by Polish immigrants who used their own money to build it," says Thomson of the smallish church with a glorious sanctuary and majestic spires that anchors its humble Berks Street corner. "People worked hard to keep it open. I don't want to be part of the generation that says, 'This time it's too difficult. We can't save it.'"

Thomson and those who have started the Save St. Laurentius Church Committee aren't so blinded by sentiment that they advocate keeping the building open even if it jeopardizes the neighborhood safety.

"You choose human life over a building, any day," Thomson says.

But the archdiocese has a history of being less than forthcoming when it comes to closing churches and schools, offering reasons that don't jibe with finances, enrollment and attendance. As a result, the people of St. Laurentius can't help but wonder if this time, too, there's a hidden agenda.

For example, the archdiocese has said that it would be expensive to fix. A contractor has provided repair estimates ranging from $1.2 million to $3.4 million, and a demolition estimate of $1 million.

However, says parishioner Tim Breslin, "We got our own estimates," from an engineer and contractor who preserve historic churches - "and we were told that repairs can be done for $691,000."

Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin says the archdiocese has not spoken with Breslin, who is preparing the report, including a funding plan.

"That's a lot of money," says Breslin, "but it's still less than the million dollars the archdiocese will pay to take the building down."

Unless - ahem - the archdiocese plans to sell the church and leave the demo to a developer. L&I spokesman Carlton Williams told me that St. Laurentius doesn't need repairs or demo actually completed by April 18, "but we'd need to see a plan."

I don't pretend to know the answers here. In my next life, I'll be a construction engineer. But I know that the archdiocese has stonewalled on enough church-closure decisions that the suspicions of parishioners are understandable.

I also know that if St. Laurentius were to collapse in its densely populated neighborhood, the catastrophe would be deadly.

Is it time to let the church go? Or to give it one more chance?

I wish I knew.

But at least Breslin is certain.

"This isn't a factory," he says. "It's a sacred place. If we can, we should save it."


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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