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In Philadelphia's Fishtown, A Fierce Debate Over The Fate Of A Polish Church

For more than a century, the copper spires of St. Laurentius have stood tall over Philadelphia's Fishtown. But the city's oldest Polish church — founded in 1882 — could soon face the wrecking ball.

Former parishioners and other community activists are protesting the building's destruction, and their effort is gaining momentum. On a recent day, dozens of Philadelphia residents who spent their whole lives going to St. Laurentius donned white T-shirts with "Save St. Laurentius" written in bold red letters. Hoping to grab the attention of city officials, they boarded a yellow school bus and headed to City Hall.

"This is heartbreaking because of the community," says Kate Gaber, one of the protesters on the bus. "It's not just a church. It's a community, and friends and families that grew up together ... we don't have that anymore."

Disputes Over Money And Safety

Ever since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed St. Laurentius last year and told parishioners to attend the mostly Irish church just down the street, the question has been asked: What to do with the empty church from the 1880s?

Critics say the church is looking to make money. The archdiocese argues it's dilapidated and not worth saving.

"There's no financial gain to be had by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as an entity if this church building were to be demolished," says archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin.

He says the archdiocese is operating under a nearly $5 million annual deficit and can't afford to maintain the old property. Tearing the building down will be cheaper than repairing it.

And there's another element, he says: "You got the health and safety issue with a building that may fall down without warning, or portions may fall down without warning, and then you have to figure out how the parish is going to be sustainable."

Church officials are now trying to sell the land, but the movement against redevelopment might halt the process.

New Arrivals, Longtime Parishioners Join Forces

The historically Polish Fishtown neighborhood has become one of the trendiest sections of Philadelphia. Most with Polish roots have relocated and many Polish businesses are long gone.

Retired Temple University anthropologist Judith Goode says to the parishioners, saving the church is no longer about preserving the Polish ethnic community.

"It's about retaining an older way of life when they were respected and where they didn't feel that their position in society was so tenuous," Goode says.

And some newcomers to Fishtown have found common cause with the former parishioners: resisting the Archdiocese.

"You got this immigrant community, and they built this beautiful church. The effort and the money that went into that is such a testament to what that community was and what it thought of itself," says William Ellerbe. He and his wife, both young attorneys, recently bought a home near the church and want it to stay out of respect to history.

"It still is such a beautiful building. You can't rebuild 133-year-old buildings," Ellerbe says.

A Showpiece And A Symbol

The building's soaring copper spires — green from decades in the elements — are some of the most visible symbols of Fishtown. The church is central to the city's Polish community, says Aaron Wunsch, architectural history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"This building was really built as a kind of showpiece, or a bulwark, announcing that they had come, and not only come but done well enough to build something like this," Wunsch says.

Over the past five years, church officials have closed nearly 50 parishes across the city.

Wunsch says the diocese won most of the battles over what to do with the vacated properties.

But community activists are hoping this time will be different.

"This is not a building without a group that wants to occupy it," Wunsch says. "This is a building with a group that passionately wants to re-occupy it."

The city's Historical Commission will decide on July 10 whether to protect it from demolition.

Supporters are still trying to find another use for the building. They've raised $500,000 in pledges, but they'd need seven times that to completely restore the church.

Copyright 2015 WHYY