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St. Laurentius in Fishtown deemed ‘precarious’ days before Council vote to expedite redevelopment

L&I said that it may ultimately have to order the demolition of the north towers in the interest of public safety.

Pictured in 2015, St. Laurentius Church was built in the 19th century as the first Polish Catholic church in Philadelphia.
Pictured in 2015, St. Laurentius Church was built in the 19th century as the first Polish Catholic church in Philadelphia.Read moreBEN MIKESELL / Staff Photographer

The stone facade that covers the towers of the historic St. Laurentius church in Fishtown is expected “to fail at an accelerating rate,” Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections said in a statement Tuesday, citing a recently filed engineering report that assessed the nearly 130-year-old church’s condition.

The assessment, completed by the Philadelphia-based structural engineering firm Joseph B. Callaghan Inc., determined that “although there has been little movement of the north towers as a whole,” the situation at St. Laurentius is “precarious and continuing to deteriorate,” the L&I statement said. Joseph B. Callaghan was hired by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia after five or six stones dislodged in January from the church’s facade and crashed through the scaffolding below. The engineering firm was tasked with conducting a visual inspection, as well as a 3D laser scan.

“Fortunately the fallen stone was contained within the fenced safety perimeter, and there were no injuries,” the L&I statement said, adding that the stones that dislodged weighed approximately 700 pounds.

But, L&I continued, “continued delays in finding a suitable reuse of this local landmark may, at some point, put rehabilitation financially out of reach. The department may soon be compelled to order the demolition of the north towers in the interest of public safety.”

For years, the fate of St. Laurentius — the city’s first Polish Catholic church — has riled Fishtown, which has long disagreed over what should happen to the property. Most agree that the building, which is listed on the city’s historic register, should be saved, and developer Leo Voloshin has proposed to turn it into 23 apartments. But a group of opponents named the Faithful Laurentians have blocked Voloshin with a series of lawsuits, arguing that Voloshin’s plans would destroy the church’s interior and murals.

Last month, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the Faithful Laurentians did not have legal standing. Hal Schirmer, an attorney for the group, did not immediately respond to a question Tuesday about whether an appeal is planned.

L&I’s statement on the church comes just two days before City Council is expected to vote on a bill to move Voloshin’s plans forward. The legislation, drafted by Council President Darrell Clarke and introduced by Councilman William K. Greenlee, would rezone the area around St. Laurentius.

A Council committee advanced Clarke’s bill late last month.

Voloshin said Tuesday that he intends to pursue the project but is awaiting his engineer’s update on the cost of remediating the church’s facade. Nearly 2½ years ago he estimated that structural restorations would approach $1 million.

“We are hoping that once the zoning ordinance passes, we can move forward with the project,” Voloshin said.

As a result of Joseph B. Callaghan’s findings, the archdiocese agreed to conduct additional inspections and safety measures, L&I said, including completing drone inspections every three months and a 3D laser scan every six months. The church also agreed to replace the existing scaffolding with corrugated steel planking and secure the fencing around the building to prevent any entry.

The archdiocese moved to close and deconsecrate St. Laurentius in 2014. It has been vacant ever since, with an “unsafe” designation from L&I.