Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The Rev. Francis A. Gwiazda, 72, pastor of St. Laurentius Church.

He fought to keep the church from closing after nearly 140 years.

FATHER FRANK did all he could.

But trying to keep the historic St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown from closing was a lost cause.

It was the familiar story of a changing neighborhood, declining enrollment, financial problems and all the rest. In the case of St. Laurentius, the Philadelphia Archdiocese claimed the ancient building's infrastructure was crumbling.

The empty church with the massive gray stone, the soaring Gothic spires and arched stained-glass windows now sits empty and forlorn at Memphis and Berks streets. Stripped of all sacred objects and holy relics, it echoes with the ghostly tread of generations of parishioners, clergy and nuns.

People stood outside the church that cold day in November when the holy items were carried out and carted away. Many wept.

Father Frank - the Rev. Francis A. Gwiazda - did all he could.

Father Frank was named pastor of the church, the oldest Polish Roman Catholic Church in the Archdiocese, in 1986. He retired in 2013 and died on March 2 at age 72.

Although he couldn't save the church, Gwiazda was instrumental in keeping the church school going. In fact, enrollment is actually growing since students of Holy Name, St. Anne's and other parochial schools closed in the late '90s and early 2000s, and were welcomed at St. Laurentius.

But the church itself, founded in 1882 to serve the large Polish population of Fishtown, was deconsecrated on Oct. 1, officially closing it as a Roman Catholic Church. All services were moved to Holy Name of Jesus Parish on nearby Gaul Street.

A number of parishioners insist that all is not lost. A committee was formed to press the case with the Vatican of reopening the church.

John Wisniewski, a member of the committee and a St. Laurentius parishioner since 1954, said the group denies there is any crumbling infrastructure in the edifice.

"There is no structural damage," he said. "We're waiting to hear from the Vatican."

He said efforts were made to have the church declared a historical site, but that went nowhere.

As for Father Frank, Wisniewski said: "He was jovial. He was proud of being Polish, proud of being a Catholic, proud of his heritage. He kept the church in the black."

"He was a quiet man who exemplified what it meant to be a pastor," said A.J. Thomson, another longtime parishioner. "He ran his parish without frills and on budget for decades while other parishes ran up millions in debt.

"He kept our legacy of Catholic education alive in Fishtown, and we will always remember him for that, along with his service to thousands of families over the years."

Francis Gwiazda was raised in Manayunk, and graduated from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He served a number of parishes before becoming pastor of St. Laurentius, including St. Hedwig's in Chester, St. Adalbert in Port Richmond and St. John Cantius in Bridesburg.

St. Laurentius' history goes back to the late 19th century, when Polish people in Fishtown wanted their own parish. They attended services in the basement of St. Boniface Church at Diamond and Hancock streets for a time. Children received catechism lessons in a blacksmith shop.

The people petitioned then-Archbishop James Wood for their own church. It was established in 1882. At first, services were held in the basement of a building at Berks and Memphis streets. The school was established in 1890, and students were taught by nuns of the Felician Sisters.

The church itself was constructed, and master craftsmen from Manheim, Germany, built the ornate wooden altar, pulpit, statues and cut-glass windows. The church grew from there. In 1919, an elaborate pipe organ was installed.

Over the years, a new school building and convent for the Felician Sisters were built, and other improvements made.

Last March 29, the church building was closed. Engineers for the Archdiocese declared it "in immediate danger of collapse."

Father Frank, who spent his final months enduring severe diabetes and other ailments, moved into Villa St. Joseph in Flourtown, where he died.

He is survived by three sisters, Sister Helen Marie, a Bernardine Franciscan nun; Barbara Esbensen and Theresa Beaver; and a brother, Stanley Gwiazda. He was predeceased by another brother, Henry Gwiazda.

Services: Archbishop Charles Chaput celebrated his Funeral Mass on Saturday at the Chapel of St. Francis Center, in Darby.

Donations may be made to St. Laurentius School, 701 E. Gaul St., Philadelphia 19125.