A canon law attorney who has practiced internationally will be lending her hand to the former parishioners of St. Laurentius Church in a bid to protect the shuttered church.
St. Laurentius will be de-consecrated, effective Oct. 1, via an Archdiocese of Philadelphia decree announced over the weekend.
On Monday, Sister Kate Kuenstler, sent a letter of appeal to Archbishop Charles Chaput and to the Vatican in Rome on Monday.
"We have appealed to the Vatican, to the Congregation for the Clergy, to take recourse against the decree that the Archbishop published," Kuenstler said.
Kuenstler, who is based in Rhode Island and has represented numerous parishes in 18 dioceses across three countries, questioned the Archdiocese's decree coming just days before de-consecration was made effective.
"This timing, of publishing the decree with five days allowed until it takes effect, is extremely unusual," said Kuenstler, who was retained by the Save St. Laurentius committee.
But Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin disagreed, pointing out that Father John Sibel at Holy Name Parish - which merged with St. Laurentius in April 2013 -- said he would seek such a decree in July after consulting parish councils.
"There is nothing unusual or surprising about the timing of the decree," Gavin said in an email.
Kuenstler said the church can not be touched while the appeal, which asks Chaput to reconsider his decision, rescind the decision or change the effective date of deconsecration, is pending.
"Nothing in civil law can happen concerning the demolition of the church or the property or any action regarding St Laurentius until the appeal has been decided," Kuenstler said.
De-consecration means the church has been relegated from sacred to "profane but not sordid use," and thus could not be sold to a buyer who would use it for a brothel, gentleman's club or abortion clinic, for example.
St. Laurentius, the oldest Polish Catholic church in Philadelphia, was built in 1882.
"The people that built the church are the people that went there. There's a lot of investment in it," said Don Geiger, 58, who lives near St. Laurentius. "This church has been here a very long time. It's a church. Spend the money. It's not falling down. Fix it."
The Archdiocese has estimated that full repair of St. Laurentius, located at Berks and Memphis streets, and its 100-foot high spires, would cost $3.5 million, while demolition would cost about $1 million.
In the rapidly developing neighborhood, rumors are flying that the church will soon be demolished and sold off.
"The future of the church building has not been definitively determined at this point," Gavin said.
But neighbors have claimed that they have seen demolition already underway at the church.
"Parishioners have been watching truckloads of debris being hauled out of the church," Kuenstler said. "That's an invalid and unlawful act on the part of the Archbishop."
Gavin said the Archdiocese only started removing relics sacred objects from the church in spring because of structural and safety concerns in the church.
"The church building was closed for imminent safety reasons and a fear that portions of the building may collapse. Given those facts, it is sensible to be sure that the sacred objects are removed so as not to risk their destruction," Gavin said.
St. Laurentius is not the first historic parish to be de-consecrated.
All Saints Parish in Bridesburg, founded in 1860, was merged with St. John Cantius Parish last year, and de-consecrated in March.
After All Saints was put up for sale by Berkshire Hathaway Fox & Roach, an agreement was reached to sell the church, convent, rectory and school to Pennbrook Partners for development into residential units, according to a church bulletin.
Confirmation was not immediately available from the Archdiocese as to whether the sale had gone through.
The church's cemetery will not be sold will remain the property of St. John Cantius Church. Many of the relics of All Saints were removed after deconsecration and given to other churches, according to a former member.
"The All Saints/St John Cantius community has already gone through what the St Laurentius/Holy Name community is experiencing," said Michael Finn, a former member of All Saints Parish, in an email. "As far as I know, we were the first parish merger that had to lose its worship site and that fact seems to have been underreported."