Former parishioners work, pray to save doomed St. Laurentius

St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown was shut down in March. Archdiocese officials say the 129-year-old structure is unsafe to remain standing. Parishioners are hoping money can be raised to save it.
St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown was shut down in March. Archdiocese officials say the 129-year-old structure is unsafe to remain standing. Parishioners are hoping money can be raised to save it. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 31, 2014

Neighbors are working hard and praying, sometimes en masse, in an effort to save a historic Catholic church in Fishtown that was shuttered in March due to safety concerns.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed St. Laurentius Church on March 28, after an engineering study found the 129-year-old brownstone structure unsafe.

Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said repairing the church, which was founded by Polish immigrants, would be prohibitively expensive. It will likely have to be torn down, he said.

Many parishioners are not ready to accept that finality.

"It would be devastating to lose this church," Patricia Kinsman, a parishioner and parent of a third grader at the adjacent St. Laurentius School, said last Friday. "It would not only be devastating to Catholics in the neighborhood, but to non-Catholics. Nobody wants to see a historic church torn down."

A.J. Thomson, a longtime member of the church, at Berks and Memphis Streets, said many in the neighborhood were working and praying to have the church reopen.

Looking onto Berks in front of the edifice with its two large towers, Thomson said: "We had almost 200 people out here about 10 days ago, praying the rosary to try to save this church."

He said about 300 people attended Mass at St. Laurentius every Sunday. It was the first Polish Catholic church in Philadelphia, he said.

Last summer, the archdiocese merged St. Laurentius parish with Holy Name Church about two blocks away but kept the venerable church building open as a "worship site." The change had meant St. Laurentius would no longer exist as a parish, but its church could be used for Sunday Mass, baptisms, funerals, and other sacraments.

Gavin said an initial inspection of the church last fall found a number of exterior problems, including vertical cracks in the brownstone and signs of deterioration in the church's two large towers.

In October, the city Department of Licenses and Inspections examined the church and ruled it "unsafe."

Scaffolding and netting were then put up around the exterior to protect pedestrians from falling debris.

Gavin said an additional inspection by a structural engineer in March, after winter's snow and rain, found the deterioration had accelerated, forcing the archdiocese to immediately close the church for safety reasons.

Gavin said it could cost $2.5 million to $3.5 million to repair the church, while demolition would cost $1 million.

Furthermore, the building is owned by the parish, not the archdiocese, and the parish is responsible for it, Gavin said. The archdiocese, because of its financial condition, "does not have the money to provide to the parish, even on a loan basis," he said.

Thomson, and other members of a group known as the Save St. Laurentius Church Committee, said a structural engineer they enlisted said the repairs could be done in phases at a far lower cost.

Thomson said the engineer said the first phase would "structurally secure" the building at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000.

He said that the group had pledges totaling about $50,000, with about $38,000 in hand, and that more fund-raising was planned.

"We're hoping that the archdiocese can work with us," Thomson said.

Susan Phillips, a neighbor and lifelong member of the church, said: "I was christened here. I was married here. . . . I am true-blue St. Laurentius. For my house, it would be terrible" to have the church demolished.


vclark@phillynews.com

215-854-5717

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