Church Preservation Battles Heat Up in Pennsylvania

It's not a match made in heaven: Religious institutions and preservation groups are repeatedly clashing in Pennsylvania over what to do with unneeded or crumbling churches of historic significance, even as experts say the trend nationally has been toward greater collaboration.

Church leaders argue that preservationists and historic landmark agencies are interfering with their right to freedom of religion by trying to stop them from tearing down or otherwise disposing of buildings they no longer want or can't afford.

Those seeking to save the buildings or artwork within them say religious institutions, given the civic benefits they receive, need to be more civic-minded.

A.J. Thomson, whose group successfully fought last year to prevent the demolition of St. Laurentius, a 130-year-old Philadelphia church built with the donations of Polish immigrants, is still upset with the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

"In my opinion, it was all about spiting the Catholics who didn't want to follow the rules," he said.

Two weeks ago, an archdiocesan lawyer asked a city panel to reject a request that artwork in two Roman Catholic churches be granted landmark status. The committee, however, sided with preservationists.

"The government shouldn't be in the business of governing sacred works of art within a church," attorney Michael Phillips said. "There are concerns when a property owner does not support historic designation and the historic commissions designate it anyway."

Some other recent flashpoints:

  • In Pittsburgh, a Methodist group sued this month to overturn a recommendation that a more than 100-year-old vacant church with many stained glass windows receive landmark status. It said the designation is blocking the $1 million sale. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the developer wanted to replace it with a Starbucks.
  • In Philadelphia, the First African Baptist Church was sold last month after the more than 100-year-old stone building, in need of major repairs, was designated a landmark despite the pastor's opposition. A developer tentatively plans to turn it into office space.

The Rev. Terrance Griffith complained to The Philadelphia Tribune that an architectural historian with no ties to his community had sought the designation, though some congregants also opposed its demolition. "You have this guy going around labeling himself as an activist, without considering the impact this will have on the church," he said.

Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places said preservation battles tend to ebb and flow but trends nationally are largely positive.

"Overall, the landscape is more helpful and collaborative than it's been in a while," said Bob Jaeger, the group's president.

The nonprofit has worked with many groups to repurpose buildings. In Augusta, Georgia, the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church is now Sacred Heart Cultural Center, hosting musical events, art exhibits, private parties and various festivals. A similar transformation is underway for the former St. Casimir Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Aggravating bad feelings created by recent preservation battles, the Philadelphia Archdiocese reminded clerics in January that it opposes layperson involvement in having church properties designated historic. It said such actions infringe on freedom of religion while exposing the church to unfair financial burdens.

Archdiocese spokesman Kenneth Gavin said the internal document did not signal "blanket opposition" to historic preservation.

Indeed, the archdiocese is not opposing a layperson's efforts to add an active church, St. Charles Borromeo, to the city's landmark registry. The church is in good condition, unlike St. Laurentius.

"Our opposition was never based on the merits of St. Laurentius. It was based on the financial hardship aspect of the effects of the nomination," Gavin said.

Aaron Wunsch, an assistant professor in a historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania, said he understands why religious entities want the freedom to dispose of properties. But he believes the civic benefits given to these institutions — in the form of tax breaks, for example — require them to take a more thoughtful approach.

"These church buildings often have a particular presence . and many are great works of architecture. I feel the church has an obligation in some way to be a good institutional citizen," he said.

Thomson and his neighbors understand that St. Laurentius — now being eyed for apartments — will never again be a house of worship. They just don't want to lose the twin-spired brownstone facade that was the first city church built for Polish Catholics, financed by immigrants one nickel and dime at a time.

"The church was built by people I've never met and never will, but they were the same as me at some point," Thomson said. "They cared enough to build this church and now I'm a steward. I hope that 130 years from now, people walk by the church and say, 'Wow. That's awesome.' I'll have been part of the generation that said don't tear this down."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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