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They won’t give up on beloved St. Laurentius

Once again, the future of Fishtown's St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church building is on shaky ground.

Two years ago, neighbors successfully fought to have the 19th century, twin-spired brownstone church at Berks and Memphis Streets declared historical.

But that designation only protected the exterior of the church, designed in a Gothic style by the prominent architect Edwin Forrest Durang.

Now, the community that once banded together to fight for historic designation is divided over whether the interior of the church — or at least the 16 murals and three altars — should also be granted historical status.

"The interior of that church is just beautiful," said Venice Nowicki Whitaker. "The church itself is a beacon. You can see it from every aspect of Fishtown."

The murals tell the story of Polish cultural and spiritual history, said John Wisniewski, who with Whitaker is a member of a group called Faithful Laurentians.

The new group broke away from the original Save St. Laurentius group because of a disagreement over the future development of the church.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia merged St. Laurentius Parish with nearby Holy Name of Jesus Church on Gaul Street in 2013.

And despite overwhelming odds, the Faithful Laurentians say they are looking for help at both spiritual and secular venues. "We have appealed to the Vatican to overturn the Archdiocese in closing the church," Whitaker said.

They also plan to ask state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to declare St. Laurentius parishioners as the rightful owners of the property because it was built by Polish immigrants who settled in Fishtown in the 1800s.

"The way the deed was listed — all the immigrants mistrusted authority because they had come from oppression," said Wisniewski, who acted as spokesman for the Faithful Laurentians at a Philadelphia Historical Commission meeting Friday.

The Save St. Laurentius group agreed to a developer's plan to build 23 new apartments inside the church, but the Faithful Laurentians object to that usage.

"Some of us realize that it's the only way to save the building," said A.J. Thompson, a lawyer who led the first group's efforts to get historical status in 2015.

He said that many of the community members fighting for historical status for the interior simply are tired of all the new apartments being built in Fishtown.

"A lot of people are tired of the development that's coming to Fishtown," Thompson said. "They don't want to [worsen] the parking problems."

On Friday, Wisniewski said that the 16 murals inside depict both the cultural heritage and religious history of the Polish immigrants who had the church built to resemble a church in Krakow, Poland.

The merits of the application were never presented however, because the historical commission told the community members it had to submit a new application seeking historic designation for just the interior objects and not the entire interior of the 114-foot-tall church.

Michael V. Phillips, the archdiocese's lawyer, said that developer Leo Voloshin, who has expressed interest in buying St. Laurentius, would likely no longer want to redevelop the church if all of the interior is declared historical.

After the meeting, Phillips said that if the sale doesn't go through, the Archdiocese "would probably seek a hardship" appeal to demolish the church.
Up and down the narrow streets of Fishtown, expensive, renovated town houses and boxy, new apartment buildings are mixed in among traditional rowhomes.

The neighborhood exudes urban cool with art galleries and coffee shops.
Whitaker, a social worker, moved to Fishtown in 2000 before it became one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Whitaker spent much of her childhood in the neighborhood with her Polish grandparents, who took her to St. Laurentius.

"I was baptized at St. Laurentius," she said.

Whitaker said her Polish-German grandfather was in the British Army when he rescued her Polish grandmother from a work camp during World War II.

After they married, they came to Philadelphia in 1957 because they knew about St. Laurentius, the oldest Polish Catholic Church in Philadelphia.

At Friday's meeting, a group of about 25 mostly older Fishtown residents shouted out, "No!" when Wisniewski agreed to withdraw his application for the whole interior declared historical.

But he said he will quickly prepare a new application to have the 16 murals and three altars declared historical.

Wisniewski said he realizes that many think their efforts to save the interior could end up with the whole building being demolished. That's why he will work over the weekend to prepare a new application to preserve just the interior objects.

"My soul is in that church," he said.