Editor’s Note: On January 7, 2016, Monsignor Daniel Kutys, of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, issued an edict to Philadelphia’s priests and other religious officials ordering them not to cooperate with anyone proactively working to place a church building on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The edict states that Archdiocese officials plan to sue the Philadelphia Historical Commission over nominations of St. Laurentius, St. Charles Borromeo, and murals inside the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on Logan Square to the Philadelphia Register, thereby protecting them from demolition or alteration. Placement of these buildings and others on the Philadelphia Register, the Monsignor asserts in the letter, infringes on “the free practice of our religion.” The letter is a clarification and stiffening of longtime Archdiocese policy against historic preservation; it comes immediately after the inauguration of a nominally pro-preservation mayor (and Catholic) Jim Kenney and after a lengthy battle to protect and save St. Laurentius, in Fishtown, waged by parishioners and members of the community. The author of this “Soapbox” is Patrick Hildebrandt, who celebrates Philadelphia’s Catholic churches in his blog, the Philadelphia Church Project. A version of this article originally appeared on that site.
For most of my nine long years reporting on and cataloguing Philadelphia’s historic churches, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s interest in preservation could be charitably deemed as lying somewhere between disinterest, disgust, and “What? We still have a parish open there?”
That changed suddenly and decisively a few days ago. A stern commandment from on high (linked above, in the Editor’s Note) was mailed to every parish pastor on January 7, instructing them on the evils of historic preservation and ordering that they both avoid and report on any such activities.
The handiwork of Monsignor Daniel J. Kutys, Moderator of the Curia, the letter makes special mention of the current cases involving St. Laurentius, St. Charles Borromeo, and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, all of which they plan to appeal. However, the tone makes it clear that the directive goes beyond these three particular churches. The letter’s appendix (Read it HERE), an updated copy of the Archdiocese’s policy on preservation, is nothing less than a warning shot across the bow of all parishes. The appendix states:
The nonconsensual designation of churches and other religious property as land mark or historic property, or as part of a historic district, is a serious problem for many religions. Without the consent of the religious community involved, these designations are an undue intrusion of Government into religious organizations, represent a threat to religious freedom and where historical designation does exist can result in a significant financial burden for the property owner. Many denominations, including the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,desire exemption from these nonconsensual designation through legislative action or, if necessary, litigation from the courts.
In order to avoid any problems or misunderstandings in the pursuit of such remedies through the legislature or the courts, all Pastors, Directors and Administrators are requested not to become involved with or participate in the historic land marking of any buildings of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and its parishes, either individually or as part of a district or accept offers of technical assistance and / or funding for such purpose, no matter how well-intentioned by offerees. Moreover, reports should promptly be made in writing to the Office of the Vicar for Administration whenever any attempted or proposed historic land marking and / or offer of technical help or funding become known.
The policy, it’s worth noting, was not cooked up just for this occasion. Some variation of it has been on the books for a long time. Yet, bundled as it is with this urgent message, it is clear that the powers-that-be want to start enforcing it with all of the vigor they can muster.
Certainly, there is a legitimate case to be made for the burdens that historic designation can, in some cases, place on the owners of property, but I don’t believe that sincerely applies here. I can’t think of any major historic designation projects that have taken place without a parish’s support. In the case of St. Laurentius, the pursuit ultimately sought to keep the Archdiocese honest in their machinations.
That’s really the key purpose of historic designation. It’s not about imposing a set of Draconian regulations on poor, unsuspecting, virtuous church leadership. It’s about holding said leadership accountable and making sure they can’t just rush in and demolish or strip important buildings on a whim. It’s about oversight and transparency–two things the Archdiocese fears more than anything.
What their counterarguments amount to, instead, is a clear message that they want to keep running wild and roughshod over their structural legacy. Cloaked in a fabricated argument about religious freedom and big government, in essence this is the Archdiocese standing up and saying, loudly and proudly, “We want to continue to destroy and desecrate the institutions you hold dear and we don’t want anyone who might otherwise hold us accountable to be able to get involved.” Sure, the letter makes a point of saying that only “non-approved” designation is off-limits, but come on–do we honestly trust the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to make that call on their own?
This is a group whose past behavior includes ignoring sanctuaries until their roofs are collapsing, closing healthy parishes in hot residential areas and trying to sell their bones for a profit, taking hatchets to building interiors without regard for their inherent artistry, and steamrolling the wishes and desires of the faithful.
This directive by the Archdiocese is a call to arms, plain and simple. It is a spiteful declaration of war against their very properties.
The directive doesn’t just apply to institutions like the Philadelphia Historical Commission, mind you. It also includes any studies, technical assistance, fundraising, or other activities which might conceivably lead to historic designation down the road. As such, it blocks crucial organizations like Partners for Sacred Places, which has arguably done more for this city’s churches than anyone, and who has excelled at helping parishes find renewed vigor to stay afloat, or new life even after their doors have closed (Disclosure: a cousin of the author, Rachel Hildebrandt, is a staff member of Partners for Sacred Places–and a Hidden City Daily contributor). The Archdiocese’s stifling top-down management means that Catholic parishes, by and large, haven’t benefitted from this as much as their Protestant brethren, but at least it was, up until three days ago, a possible avenue for discussion. Now, Catholic parishes have nowhere to turn to for insight and advice. In the absence of true leadership on the issue, Partners for Sacred Places is as close as it gets to the real deal and to shut them out of the process entirely will only doom more churches to decline and destruction.
I discovered long ago that this game was mostly rigged. Archdiocese leadership will never officially embrace the kind of property stewardship they needed to, and a good deal of closings have been unavoidable because of that. Yet, I still took solace in the few parish leaders I found who sincerely understood the situation at hand and truly saw their buildings for the treasures they are. Those who truly wanted to do right by their worship space and the people who loved them so much. They’re the beacon of hope that has kept me, and the Philadelphia Church Project, going for so long, because, while the Archdiocese was an indifferent landlord, they weren’t an openly antagonistic or cruel one.
Like a lot of people in the preservation community, my blood is boiling. And some forces, both public and private, are already mobilizing to bring this to light and try to stop it in its tracks. I hope you will do the same. Call your local civic leaders, call the Archdiocese, support the preservation projects already in progress, and help start new ones. Refuse to quietly walk in line and stand by as the Archdiocese callously demolishes the hallmarks of your faith and your community, one brick at a time. If there were ever a time to say “enough” to this foolhardy, tone-deaf, mean-spirited administration, it’s now. If this policy takes hold, there won’t be a need for a Philadelphia Church Project because we won’t have many churches left to save.
About the author
Patrick M. Hildebrandt is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer. A proud Philadelphia native and current Point Breeze resident, he’s the founder and proprietor of the Philadelphia Church Project, which since 2007 has chronicled this city’s religious buildings.
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