Philly is a gritty city.
Grittiness has been in the fabric of the city for centuries as it led the nation in industrial production, becoming a hub of commerce and immigrants. And one only needs to spend time watching the Super Bowl-bound Eagles, the Phillies or the Sixers for a quick lesson on grittiness in Philadelphia sports. The NHL’s Flyers even have a mascot named Gritty.
But, most of all, grittiness is in the heart of Philly residents.
Although the characteristic sometimes carries a negative connotation of being feisty or uncompromising, in my experience, this unique type of persistence is precisely because Philadelphians care about each other and their home.
My lesson in “Philly tough” came by way of the most unexpected setting: a small Catholic school in the heart of Fishtown. I have been principal of St. Laurentius School for three years. Over a century old, the school opened long before the advent of the chai lattes, happy hours and concert venues that now make Fishtown such a trendy stomping ground in the city. St. Laurentius Church was built by Polish immigrants in the 1890s and became their new spiritual and cultural home in the U.S. The parish served as a familiar piece of home for many new arrivals to the country, and the school followed shortly thereafter. Starting in the early 2000s, St. Laurentius Church was showing evident signs of deterioration. The repairs would require a few million dollars, and after a lengthy process, the church was finally sold to a developer — much to the sadness of the generations of parishioners who called the church home.
This change is not the only major one we have faced in recent years. Like several neighboring Catholic schools, St. Laurentius School had been slated to close back in 2012, but was kept open due to a successful appeal to the archdiocese led by families and staff. The community fought to keep the school open.
Nevertheless, the school continues to face enrollment challenges as it responds to a new neighborhood demographic, a sharp decline in Mass attendance and a more transient population. Historically, Fishtown was a working-class community with modest rowhomes. Everyone knew everyone, and the neighborhood children grew up together attending the parochial school. Now many long time Fishtowners are taking advantage of the hot real estate market by selling their family homes and moving to the suburbs in search of parking and backyards. Renting is more common as new apartment buildings dot the neighborhood. This creates the challenge of keeping a stable enrollment in the school as we simultaneously try to stay anchored in tradition while navigating our place in the changing community.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, not unique to St. Laurentius School, came in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 hit. Uncertainty abounded, and in a not so uncommon story of Catholic schools in the United States during the pandemic, we were at the point of sink or swim. As families lost jobs, they couldn’t pay the tuition. We had to offer virtual instruction for each class, which exposed our existing technological infrastructure to be woefully insufficient. We had a maelstrom of new, unpredictable problems piling on our existing challenges, including facility maintenance on a tight budget.
And, now, all that remains of St. Laurentius Church is its front façade, the result of a slow, hard demolition process that began last September just yards from our school building. We were forced to adjust to street closures, change our daily operations, and work with countless city agencies to ensure the safety of our schoolchildren in light of this long and arduous process. What was once a stunning and magnificent church is now a shell of itself, sectioned off with fencing, scaffolding and orange barrels as it awaits its fate.
A lot could be said about the difficulty in dealing with unpredictable enrollment, educating during a global pandemic or trying to maintain daily routines next to the demolition a beloved community landmark. We could bemoan the loss of another historic building in the city or debate how gentrification has changed the neighborhood for better or worse. However, the spirit of resilience is palpable in the heart of Fishtown. It is the people who have held up the community and kept St. Laurentius School running.
For example, I think of Mr. R., our legendary eighth grade teacher who I once found on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor of the school entrance until it was spotless. He spent his entire summer vacation in school ensuring that the building would be ready for the students to return. I think of our students and staff who maneuvered through constant changes to their routine as they learned to switch from in-person learning to virtual, often on just a day’s notice.
Finally, I think of our pastor, affectionally known as Father Al, who is a native Fishtowner and spends early morning hours and late nights running the parish and school operations all while serving as the spiritual rock for the community. Each one of these people is “Philly tough” in his or her own way and contributes to our school community, knowing that it is greater than any individual.
I find that St. Laurentius is a microcosm of the city that surrounds it, a place that embraces challenges with a courageous resolve. And though these challenges may seem unprecedented, as I look just a couple of blocks down the road to where St. John Neumann — the father of the American Catholic school system — is buried, I am reminded that we have a long history of challenges that we’ve dealt with in this city. We’ve survived wartime and economic depressions. We’ve evolved as the nation changes and embraced waves of immigration. The constant is our people, who stand committed to each other and to their home.
It’s the people who make sure St. Laurentius School keeps swimming — come river, flood or pandemic. And, man, are they gritty.
Kelly Griffith Bell resides in Philadelphia with her husband, Brendan Bell ’15, ’17M.Ed., and their 8-month old son, Kevin. She previously taught outside of Washington D.C., and on the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas, as part of the Alliance for Catholic Education Teaching Fellows program.