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Fishtown's historic Catholic church gets preliminary landmark approval

St. Laurentius, the oldest Polish Catholic Church in Philadelphia and the first Catholic Church in Fishtown, was recommended for landmark status on Tuesday.
St. Laurentius, Philadelphia's oldest Polish Catholic church, at Memphis and Berks stCharles Mostoller

A Philadelphia Historical Commission committee voted to approve the application for landmark statusof St. LaurentiusChurch, which has been closed, de-consecrated, seen its relics removed,and scheduled for demolition by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Now the application will go before the full Historical Commission for a vote on July 10.

"Today's recommendationwas very positive for St. Laurentius," said Michael Blichasz, president of the Polish American Cultural Center.

Built in 1882, the church was closed in July 2013 and merged with Holy Name Parish -- which sits just one block away.

But supporters say St. Laurentius is irreplaceable andhas historic value.

"That church was built byimmigrants who came from Poland," Blichasz said. "They built it with their own nickels and dimes."

Blichasz, who attended St. Laurentius School from grades 1 through 8, and whose family all attended services at the church, questioned theArchdiocese'sestimatethat the full repair of St. Laurentius would cost $3.5 million, while demolition onlycosts $1 million.

Fishtown plumber Tim Breslin, who recently passed away at 52, had estimated that $600,000 would be enough to put the building in perfect condition, Blichasz said.

"It's not in danger of imminent collapse. The steeples are in wonderful shape. It will outlast all of us," he said.

The Archdiocese maintained after the Historical Commission sub-committee's votethat St. Laurentiuspresents a safety concern.

"The Archdiocese firmly maintains the position that it is not feasible to properly repair the building," said spokesman Ken Gavin. "The Archdiocese is not able to provide funds to have the building fixed. It remains a public safety issue of great concern. While these proceedings continue to unfold, the parish will continue to burden the cost of preventative safety measures."

Gavin said the committee that approved St. Laurentius' application did not consider the safety issues or the substantial costs that repairs would require.

But St. Laurentius supporters said that the church occupies land in Fishtown, one of the city's hippest neighborhoods, which could be valuable if developed for residential use.

"They want to see this turned into homes so they can see a little bit of profit,"said A.J. Thomson, a Fishtown resident and member of the Save St. Laurentius Committee.

"They're claiming economic hardship, it would cost too much to fix this. If they want to claim that, we demand to see the Archdiocese' books. ... You can't just claim you're broke, show it."

Gavin called those claims untrue.

"His claim that we are going to sell off the land to build houses and realize profit for the Archdiocese is ridiculous and ill informed," Gavin said.Hesaid Holy Name of Jesus Parish, not the Archdiocese, owns the land on which St. Laurentius sits.

Additionally, the Archdiocese publicly posts its audited financial statements every year, Gavin pointed out.

"The Archdiocese has been very transparent about its finances," Gavin said. "The Archdiocese is currently running an annual operating deficit of just under $5 million. All of that is very public knowledge. For Thomson to claim otherwise is disingenuous at best."

An appeal to the Vaticanof the St Laurentius' closure is still pending, Thomson said.

This story was updated to reflect additional comments from the Archdiocese.

 
 
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