MANY THINGS would be gained by saving the church and parish of St. Laurentius.
If the church is saved, the community wins. This parish was the first incubator for the Polish Catholic community in Philadelphia, and has welcomed and nurtured a mixed community of faithful Catholics.
The urban landscape wins. St. Laurentius, an important landmark in Fishtown, provides both the anchor and exclamation point in a dense sea of two- and three-story, 19th-century brick rowhouses.
But perhaps something even greater would be gained. We live in a society that thrives on instant gratification. Compared with the generations before ours, relatively few of us practice sacrifice, patience and restraint. The people who built St. Laurentius knew the meaning of those words and, their church is what was born from that.
St. Laurentius wasn't built in a day, a year or even two. The founders gathered money and started holding Polish Catholic masses in rented spaces around the Fishtown neighborhood. When a generous donor gave them the means to buy land at Memphis and Berks streets, they moved forward right away with building a foundation for a new church.
They wanted a church that emulated the ornate Polish Catholic churches of their homeland, but they didn't have the means. So they built the basement church that they could afford and then they saved and waited. Five years later, they were able to build the upper church, again with limitations. With long-term vision, they focused on giving this church the beautiful bones that they continued to embellish over time.
And so it was with patience, sacrifice and restraint that St. Laurentius was designed. For generations, the parishioners worked hard, saved and sacrificed to make that vision a reality. And that process by many accounts took about 75 years to complete.
If you have a chance to read the history of the parish, you will learn that one of the biggest single investments to the church building came when the parish added a $22,000 pipe organ, in 1919. In today's economy, that sum would translate to roughly $300,000.
Think about that. Fishtown has always been a proud, working-class neighborhood, and many of these two- and three-bedroom, 800-to-1,200-square-foot row homes housed families with an average of five to eight children. Nonetheless, they believed that their church was so incredibly important, they raised $300,000 to give it a proper organ. Imagine how hard that was for these Philadelphia families to do in 1919, but they did it.
Current parishioners, many of them descendants of the original founders, are carrying on that legacy. They have raised over a half-million dollars among themselves to get the renovations underway. And they have a sustainable plan to generate the additional funds they will need. Every Philadelphian needs to pause and hear this: The parishioners of Save St. Laurentius are not asking for a handout; they are sacrificing their own savings. As a historically important church, they are able to apply for grants for preservation and intend to do exactly that. They know the value of what their forefathers built, and they think it is worth preserving for future generations.
What can current and future generations learn from St. Laurentius? They can come and see what a community can build when they come together with a shared vision and purpose. They can learn what it means to be patient; buildings worth saving are rarely designed and thrown up in a year's time. They can see firsthand how we can affect our cityscape when we eschew current trends of rapid development, mass production and instant gratification, and instead shift our focus toward appreciating true craftsmanship through preservation.
Engineering and architecture students from around Philadelphia could come and learn on site about what it takes to rehabilitate and maintain a century-old masonry church. This process could be filmed, shared and documented to help other communities do the same. Think of the knowledge that could be imparted as eager minds watch experienced engineers, architects and contractors work together to sure it up.
What are we waiting for? Philadelphia is an incredible city with remarkable architecture. It's time to stop the epidemic of selling out. The parishioners of St. Laurentius have the finances to move forward with their efforts to repair and reopen their church. Please support these efforts and sign our petition at savestlaurentius.org.
Jeanne Murphy Curtis