Linda Jakubowski took a 10-foot banner off her porch and shoved it into a blue plastic bag. At 9 a.m. on Tuesday she was in front of St. Laurentius Parish on the corner of Berks and Memphis streets in Fishtown wearing a newly printed white t-shirt showing off a red graphic of the church’s spires and the message, “Save St. Laurentius.” Jakubowski, 62, and about 20 of her fellow parishioners crowded into a yellow school bus and headed to City Hall.
“I’ve never been to one of these,” said Jakubowski. “I have no idea what it is going to be like.”
Their church is in danger of being demolished. The group convened to show the city’s Historical Commission that there is a community behind St. Laurentius— that it is not just a 127-year-old building with two looming spires and a few loose bricks. To be fair, an engineers report from earlier this year described the building as “in imminent danger of collapse.”
If the congregation could get the commission to add St. Laurentius to the city’s historical registry, parishioners could potentially avoid what they see as a “vindictive” and “disingenuous” ploy on the part of the Archdiocese to sell the land.
They would be greeted with a favorable ruling. The committee unanimously voted to refer them for a formal hearing.
But they did not know that yet.
Why St. Laurentius Church is in danger — and may be dangerous
The building, which was built and blessed in 1890, was the first Polish Catholic Church in Philadelphia and it has been closed to devotees since March. Two-and-a-half years ago, the parish council merged the St. Laurentius congregation with the nearby Holy Name Parish. The St. Laurentius School, which had its Kindergarten graduation today, was almost closed in 2011. Their convent was sold earlier this year.
Earlier this year, the Archdiocese announced that due to the $3.5 million estimated cost of renovating the building, an estimate made by an engineer working for Holy Name, the building would be demolished. The engineer who did the estimate said that the church could be dangerous for passersby. He estimated that the demolition would cost $1 million and that just repairing the spires, the problematic area of the building, would cost $2.5-3.5 million.
“The condition of the building is not relevant,” said Justin Spivey at the hearing, a senior associate at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. hired by the Friends of St. Laurentius to assess the building. They say he was not allowed inside. “It either is or it isn’t historically significant,” he said.
Support for St. Laurentius goes way beyond Fishtown
“It is very emotional,” said Kate Hogan, 70, a professional cook who works on the Main Line, and was still nursing facial burns from a microwave explosion. She was married at St. Laurentius, as were both of her children. She will not go to Holy Name on Sundays. Most of the St. Laurentius parishioners feel the same. They say that Holy Name is “white washed.” The inside is particularly uninspiring compared to their beloved cathedral. They also do not go on principle. Hogan says she watches mass on TV these days.
Regina and Ed Mccloskey, both 78, said that St. Laurentius was their second home until they were barred out. “When you are in the church, it feels like you are in Rome,” Ed said. He says there was no committee to talk to them about the disrepair of the church, no consultation at all. It was all very sudden for Ed and Gene. From one day to the next, they were not allowed to go to their church.
The group waited for their hearing for a half an hour, fanning themselves with laminated pictures of the church. Chatting like they were on the corner of Memphis Street, the aging crowd was shushed every five minutes by attendees inside the session preceding their own.
When it was time for the St. Laurentius hearing, the crowd could barely fit into the room. Oscar Beisert, a young preservationist who wrote the 46-page application for St. Laurentius to be considered for the historic register, began his presentation to the committee. The group of parishioners grumbled that he was not pronouncing St. Laurentius (Law-ren-shus) correctly.
“This is a building that represents a community,” Beisert said in his presentation. “And that community is still intact.”
Irene McAdams, 62, had never protested anything before. Her voice was on the verge of breaking as she appealed to the committee.
“I’m sure you have things, customs that you have had in your family for generations,” she said. “That’s what St. Laurentius is.”
She said her friend in Lake Worth, FL has a “Save St. Laurentius” sign in her window.
The next step to save St. Laurentius
The committee voted unanimously to recommend that St. Laurentius have an official hearing to be put on the historic register. The Archdiocese lawyers will be able to appeal on the basis of the financial burden of maintaining the space. According to the Inquirer, the Archdiocese has been making major moves to raise revenue. Since 2010, the Archdiocese has been reviewing the efficiency of his parishes. Many of the properties deemed “unneeded” end up on the market. In January, at least 85 former church properties were on the market. The Archdiocese continues to review over 125 parishes in Philadelphia.
The protesters gathered have no doubt that the land under St. Laurentius is in imminent danger of being flipped. Michael Phillips, the legal representative for Holy Name (who basically played a stand-in for the archdiocese) said that the plan for the land after the demolition was going to be a playground. The crowd burst out in laughter.