For most of my nine long years on this beat, the Archdiocese'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 was mailed to every parish pastor, schooling 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 (no surprise), St. Charles Borromeo, and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, all of which they plan to appeal. But the tone makes it clear that the directive goes beyond these three; the letter's appendix, an updated copy of the AD's policy on preservation, is nothing less than a warning shot across the bow of all parishes:
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 just up for this occasion; it was last updated in 2010, and, knowing the AD as I do, some variation of it has probably been on the books for a long time. But bundled as it is with this urgent message, it's 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, cause. But I don't think that really applies here. I can't think of a major historic designation project that's taken place without a parish's support, and any that did (like St. Laurentius) were done so to keep the AD 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 AD 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, this really is the AD 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 AD to make that call on their own?
Remember, 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 over the wishes and desires of the faithful.
No, this is a call to arms, plain and simple. A spiteful declaration of war against their very properties.
Because this directive doesn't just apply to institutions like the 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. The AD'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 for insight and advice. In the absence of true leadership on the issue, Partners is as close as it gets to the real deal. And to shut them out of the process entirely will only doom more and more churches to decline and destruction.
I long ago discovered that, frankly, this game was mostly rigged. That officially, AD leadership would never embrace the kind of property stewardship they really needed to, and that a good deal of closings were unavoidable because of that. But I still took solace in the few parish leaders I found who truly got it, who truly saw their buildings for the treasures they are, and who truly wanted to do right by them and the people who loved them so much. They're the beacon of hope that has kept me, and the Project, going for so long. Because while the AD 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 AD, support the preservation projects already in progress and help start new ones. Refuse to quietly walk in line and stand by as the AD 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.
Because if not, I might as well just shut this whole thing down now and flush the past nine years down the drain. 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.