Parish Vs. Archdiocese Vs. Public Good In Catholic Preservation Fight

January 22, 2016 | by Thomas Rzeznik


St. Bonaventure | Photo: Bradley Maule

St. Bonaventure at 9th & Cambria Streets presided over the skyline in Fairhill for 124 years. The church was demolished in 2013 | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Catholic Church has been the creator and custodian of some of the greatest artistic and architectural treasures of the world. What would Rome and Paris be without St. Peter’s or Notre Dame? In Philadelphia, Catholic churches have come to define—and indeed dominate—the skyline and physical landscape of many neighborhoods. Residents of all stripes, whether Catholic or not, have come to regard these buildings as civic treasures that bear witness to the faith commitments of Philadelphia past and present. They are both repositories of history and agents in the ongoing social regeneration of local communities. The city would be socially and spiritually impoverished without them.

It seems strange, therefore, that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia would oppose efforts to ensure the preservation of its architectural treasures. Yet, this past week, on January 7 the archdiocese released a statement, signed by Monsignor Daniel J. Kutys, instructing pastors and property managers “not to seek or cooperate with the historical designation of any Church property” without archdiocesan consent. This reaffirmed an earlier policy that directed against involvement with “the historic land marking of any buildings” of the archdiocese or its parishes.

The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron recently reported that the immediate impetus for the policy statement seems to have been triggered by the preservation efforts of Oscar Beisert, Celeste Morello and others who, on their own initiative, have sought to attain historical designations for Catholic buildings and artwork. Their actions have been viewed by the archdiocese as an unwelcome intrusion.

The Friends of St. Laurentius has been fighting for several years to secure landmark status from the city for the Fishtown church, which was approved by the Historical Commission in June 2015. The group is now concerned about the fate of the church’s interior elements, which include an elaborate high altar and panels depicting scenes from the history of Christianity in Poland. The archdiocese has fought their preservation efforts tooth and nail, arguing that the building is structurally unsound and that cost of repairs would be prohibitively expensive. They ordered the removal of sacred objects and artifacts from the church in 2014, a decision that can hollow out the historical and cultural integrity of a space and greatly diminish the intrinsic value of a church. A nomination to designate the St. Laurentius’ remaining murals, frescos, and interior architecture has been filed with the Historical Commission. The nomination goes before the Committee for Historic Designation on March 17.

The Church of the Assumption at 12th and Spring Garden Streets. Saint Katharine Drexel was baptized there and it is thought to be the oldest surviving work of architect Patrick Charles Keely. Today it sits in heavy disrepair. Owner and developer John Wei has been planning to demolish the church since 2013 | Photo: Bradley Maule

More often the concerns are purely financial. This is especially the case when parishes merge and closed buildings fall under the care of the new parish, as church policy dictates. In my home town, Conshohocken, for instance, where in 2014 four parishes were consolidated into one, the restructured parish is responsible for the cost of maintaining the other buildings and their physical plants. Even if structures are in good shape, the cost of heating and regular upkeep alone can impose a significant burden. For parishes already struggling to make ends meet, the expenses associated with preserving unused buildings strains treasuries even further.

In the case of St. Laurentius, the congregation’s new parish, Holy Name of Jesus Church, did not dispute the historic significance of the building when the nomination went before the Historical Commission. However, parish leaders argued that the shuttered church had become a serious financial burden. The building has been cited by L&I for a number of code violations since its closure in 2014. The archdiocese–which announced in March 2015 that St. Laurentius would be demolished rather than repaired and placed on the real estate market–has generally accepted financial hardship claims when parishes have sought to sell or raze properties under their care.

The desire of individuals and groups to secure historic designation for neighborhood churches is hardly surprising. In recent decades, Catholics in the archdiocese have witnessed the closure of dozens of parishes in Philadelphia, with more expected in the coming years. While some sanctuaries have been maintained temporarily as worship sites, most have been shuttered, stripped of sacred art and artifacts, and sold off. Not all have been maintained by their new owners, and several, including the Church of the Transfiguration, in West Philadelphia, and St. Boniface, in North Philadelphia, have since been torn down. Those that have not found buyers have often faced demolition by neglect. The Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street, for instance, has seen damage due to neglect so extensive that repair may be financially impracticable.

As a result, efforts to pursue legal protection partly reflect Catholics’ frustration with the way that parish closings have been handled. Recent preservation disputes are, in a large sense, a proxy battle for parishioners who have found themselves locked out of planning discussions or who feel that they lack due process in closure decisions. For them, landmarking offers to put in place a set procedural safeguards to protect beloved churches from demolition should they be shuttered. Those who worry that their parish might be next on the chopping block similarly look to historic designation as a way to forestall the possibility of closure. It is their hope that placement on the local register will not only draw attention to a building’s significance, but bind the hand of church officials as well.

The battle to save St. Laurentius in 2015 was an emotional one for parishioners and neighbors. Against the wishes of the archdiocese, the church was approved for landmark status by the Historical Commission on June 9, 2015 | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is not alone in working to restrict preservation efforts. In Chicago, a city with a rich architectural heritage and an active preservationist community, Catholic church officials have likewise opposed landmark designations. In 2003, a battle over the fate of one South Side church, St. Gelasius, prompted debate over whether religious institutions should continue to remain exempt from the city’s landmark statutes. The Archdiocese of Chicago and other religious communities fought efforts to amend those ordinances, recognizing the restrictions they would impose. Similar disputes have played out in Cleveland and Springfield, Massachusetts, among other cities. Even the Archdiocese of New York, which has agreed to the landmarking of some of its churches, has, alongside other religious groups, long sought to secure exemptions for houses of worship from preservation laws.

In defending its stance, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has latched onto the issue of religious freedom. Archdiocese officials contend that historic preservation “allows the government to place undue restrictions on religious structures and property, which in effect interferes with the free practice of religion,” according to the January 7 edict. This appears to extend their concern from merely blocking “nonconsensual” applications to precluding any and all participation in historic preservation efforts on the grounds that it will violate the separation of church and state. But one might make a similar argument about zoning codes and other land-use regulations already in place that restrict the way the Archdiocese uses its property. The argument then would also appear to preclude the possibility of any sort of philanthropic partnerships, since granting agencies might attach their own strings. Indeed, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has cast doubt on claims that preservation laws interfere with religious free exercise, since these and other laws of “general applicability” hold all parties, religious and secular, to the same standard and seek to promote preservation rather than “the suppression of religious conduct,” as the statement from the archdiocese claims.

But even if the archdiocese were amenable to the landmarking, it’s important to recognize that historic preservation could restrict a parish’s capacity to evolve and adapt. Protestant congregations, which generally possess greater freedom in seeking landmark status for their churches, have at times felt this tension. Custodianship of historic structures can limit a congregation’s adaptation and responsiveness to changing needs. Historic Christ Church in Old City, for instance, under an agreement struck with the National Park Service in 1949, is required to maintain the building in its original condition. Even though Christ Church remains an active, vibrant, and independent congregation, it has also become a museum piece of sorts, confined to colonial appearances.

Catholic officials might rightly worry about similar consequences, particularly in regard to interior designation. Even though Philadelphia’s historic designation regulations deal predominantly with a building’s exterior, artwork and other semi-permanent “public interior” elements of a building may be subject to landmarking. Were such restrictions applied to houses of worship, they would limit a church’s ability to refashion its space to reflect new modes of worship, liturgical practices, or religious aesthetics. For Catholic parishes, the types of alterations carried out in response to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which saw some sanctuaries radically reconfigured, might have been hindered or halted.

Underscoring this debate, however, is a larger question of who can make claims on a building, sacred or otherwise. The lines are not always clear. When it comes to Catholic churches, the property belongs to the parish, but falls under archdiocesan jurisdiction, creating two competing authorities. Historic preservation efforts extend that debate further, adding government and civic claims to public good to the mix as public officials seek to safeguard the city’s cherished religious spaces and structures. It’s a custody battle that has left churches caught in the middle.


About the Author

Thomas Rzeznik Thomas Rzeznik is an associate professor of history at Seton Hall University.


  1. Davis says:

    “The group is now concerned about the fate of the church’s interior elements, which include an elaborate high altar and panels depicting scenes from the history of Christianity in Poland. ”

    These elements have been advertised for many months by King Richard’s an architectural salvage outfit in Georgia.

  2. James says:

    The problem is who owns the property – Archdiocese or parishioners? Who pays for the repairs and maintenance – Archdiocese or Parishioners? In both questions, the Archdiocese is the legal owner of the properties even though parishioners may donate money to help retire the debt of a newly constructed church. When they close a church, they remove all antiquities that are left in the building. They put it in storage and other parishes inquire about the antiquities in storage. The Archdiocese does not simply give the antiquities free to parishes that inquire about them as they have to recoup the value of the antiquities and apply the money earned from the sale of those antiquities to the willing parish to defray expenses incurred on the closed church.

    Those who want to preserve a church are not aware of the costs incurred in keeping the church alive for future generations to enjoy. How are they going to raise money for repairs and subsequent maintenance? Leave a bucket at the door and hope people donate money? Once the church is off the hands of the Archdiocese during a direct sale between buyer and owner, the Archdiocese is no longer responsible for the care and maintenance of the former church.

    It is very hard to sell a closed church as many developers will buy one to demolish. Very few churches are sold to be reused by other religions as churches. Then the parishioners become red under the collar and do everything possible to forestall demolition until the courts allow the building to be demoed. Yes, there are developers willing to buy and renovate a closed church into professional officers or apartments. We had this happen recently in South Philadelphia where a black owned church was saved from demolition and sold to a developer for conversion into professional offices.

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