IN THE DAVID vs. Goliath battle pitting former members of St. Laurentius parish against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I don't understand why the Archdiocese wants so badly to demolish the church.
I get that the Gothic-spired, stained-glass, brownstone Fishtown church with a three-nave sanctuary designed by Edwin Forrest Durang has structural problems. In October 2013, Licenses and Inspections deemed the 130-year-old building "unsafe," prompting the Archdiocese to close it and erect safety nets to catch any loose debris. But L&I commissioner Carlton Williams assures me the building, though deteriorating, is not in danger of imminent collapse, as the Archdiocese claims.
The Archdiocese says it would cost $3.5 million to stabilize the church or $1 million to tear it down. So in March, it announced demo plans.
Former church members and supporters calling themselves "Save St. Laurentius" say they can save the Archdiocese the demo cost if the Archdiocese would just give them the building. Or they'd be willing to buy it for $500,000 - money they've collected in pledges from supporters who want to see the building rehabbed into something wonderful for the neighborhood.
An arts center, for example. Or a performance space and gallery. Maybe a farmers market.
None of the uses would be religious - the Archdiocese "deconsecrated" the church in October - but former parishioners would get to hang on to a building that is meaningful to them. Even area non-Catholics want to save magnificent St. Laurentius for the graceful counterpoint it provides to the old rowhouses and new construction.
"This church means a lot to a lot of people," says former parish member Maggie O'Brien, a leader of Save St. Laurentius.
The Archdiocese is unmoved.
Spokesman Ken Gavin says the group's offer of $500,000 isn't very "viable" and will take a long time to materialize. But in 2013, the Archdiocese gave developer Aquinas Susquehanna a two-year option to decide if the purchase of empty Holy Name Convent, around the corner, was viable.
Why not cut the same slack for the people whose Polish ancestors built St. Laurentius? Who wed there, baptized their kids in the font, committed their deceased loved ones into the eternal hands of God?
What's really going on?
Church supporters might finally find out, thanks to the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
Last month, Save St. Laurentius submitted an application to the commission, asking that the church be designated a historic site. The application (supported by a Change.org petition with 2,700-plus signatures) was accepted, giving the commission temporary jurisdiction over the building. So for now, the Archdiocese cannot so much as wiggle a brownstone out of St. Laurentius, which sits sentry at the corner of Berks and Memphis streets, without commission approval.
On June 9, the commission will hold a public hearing on the matter. The community is expected to argue the church's historic and cultural importance; the Archdiocese will argue the untenable cost of preserving it. On July 9, the commission will announce its decision.
The hearing will itself be historic, since archdiocesan decision-makers haven't made it a habit to meet, in public or private, with those whom their decisions directly affect. I've always said that when the archbishop decides to close a church, he owes it to parish members to look them in the eye as he does it - and then to sit still while they tell him what they think of his decision.
With great power comes great responsibility to suck it up.
And make no mistake: The power here is with the Archdiocese, not with Holy Name, the local congregation into which St. Laurentius parish operations were merged in July 2013.
Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin said the decision to demolish St. Laurentius came from Holy Name, led by its pastor, the Rev. John Sibel. But when I asked Sibel to comment on the demo of St. Laurentius, he referred me back to Gavin, saying, "That's not my responsibility."
Maybe, at the Historical Commission hearing, those who love St. Laurentius can finally learn who, precisely, is pulling which strings.
By then, Save St. Laurentius will surely know an important piece of new information.
In December, the group petitioned the Vatican to save St. Laurentius. On Easter Sunday, Sibel announced that the request had been denied, but Save St. Laurentius has yet to receive formal notice from the Vatican.
When they do, they'll have 60 days to file an appeal. During that time, the Archdiocese may not demolish the church. Save St. Laurentius has hired a well-regarded canonical adviser, Peter Borre.
I hope they save St. Laurentius, because it is so much more than a gorgeous church. Susan Feenan, a Fishtown resident and architect, explains why:
"This building is a treasure that belongs to all of us who value history, beauty, the dedication and sacrifice of our immigrant forebearers, for those who value the redemption and potentially vibrant second act of this architectural paragon," wrote Feenan in a passionate letter to the Spirit newspaper.
"Make no mistake," she said of the Archdiocese's determination to destroy St. Laurentius, "we are all being robbed."
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly