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Fishtown’s St. Laurentius church just landed a spot on Philadelphia’s historic register. The building at 1600-1608 E. Berks St. will remain standing for now, despite plans by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to demolish it. The decision by the Historical Commission closes one chapter in the neighborhood’s ongoing fight to save the church.

Friday’s meeting was the last hearing necessary for historic preservation, but if the diocese can prove that the restoration and repairs of the building are a significant financial burden, or if the Department of Licenses & Inspections finds that the building is a public safety hazard, this designation may not mean very much.

For now, the parishioners of St. Laurentius are elated:

St. Laurentius is the first Polish Catholic Church in Philadelphia. It was built around 1890 and designed by legendary ecclesiastic architect Edwin Forrest Durang.

There was no question among supporters that the church would be designated. Its historical and architectural significance has brought a dedicated crowd to the hearings that’s whooped and hollered, sneered and occasionally catcalled during meetings.

Oscar Beisert, 33, is an architectural historian who wrote the designation application for the people of St. Laurentius. “I am in the business of representing buildings that I call ‘friendless,’” he said. “This building is not only significant historically, it is significant now to this community.”

Last year, St. Laurentius was merged with the nearby Holy Name of Jesus Parish. The parishioners of St. Laurentius overwhelmingly refuse to attend mass at that location.

Representatives from the archdiocese and Holy Name of Jesus Parish have made the argument that historic designation represents a significant financial burden for the diocese, and had to be repeatedly reminded during the hearing that the purpose of Friday’s meeting was to determine only the historical significance of the building. In fact, it is not uncommon for the committee to designate buildings that are falling apart. A committee member stated that they have even nominated buildings in that past that were considered “imminent dangers.”

Even though most agreed that the likelihood of St. Laurentius becoming a functioning church again is slim, seeing the city dub the building important brought many tears to the crowd of onlookers.
Father John Sibel of Holy Name of Jesus Parish argued that the money that the parish was going to lose if the building was designated historic would be enough to jeopardize their other operations (like St. Laurentius School.)

The discussion trended toward theoretical at times about what Philadelphia should consider as boosting its character. Is it cultural heritage and old buildings, or is the character of Philadelphia a display of economic success, new development a other signs of growth?

Oscar Beisert, 33, has noticed a lack of preservation in Philadelphia even though it is one of the most historically rich cities in the country. He has been fighting for St. Laurentius because he sees a rare community in strong support of saving it.
When the meeting ended the crowd streamed out praising God, praising the city, and turning a conscious blind eye to the oncoming hurdles in their struggle to save their church.