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EXCLUSIVE: Massive Environmental Mess Has Upper Level Of Saint Laurence Church Facing Major Million-Dollar Problem

UPPER DARBY, Pa. (CBS) -- A Roman Catholic church in Upper Darby has a major fight on its hands -- saving its church. An environmental mess was uncovered right above their heads a few months ago.

Saint Laurence Church is a massive structure located on West Chester Pike in Upper Darby. Its hulking A-framed slate roof towers above the property, but what lies beneath that roof -- a dated ceiling -- is a 10,000-square-foot network of single asbestos-containing tiles.

The upper level of Saint Laurence Church is closed off. No masses, funerals, weddings, baptisms.

The air is even a bit stale as church leaders and parishioners slowly work to solve a major million-dollar problem that has uprooted them from where they've worshipped for decades.

"We, sure enough, had the ceiling looked at by a couple of experts," Father Jeffrey Rott said, "and we ended up having asbestos in our ceiling tiles. Once we found that out, I had to create a plan to move people to an alternate location."

Rott says engineers and testing confirm the entire ceiling, made up of asbestos-containing acoustic tiles, must come down. Some of those tiles have loosened and others have already fallen to the floor, Rott says.

"We do not currently have the funds. We have been saving some funds," Rott said. "I've reached out to a few of our most generous supporters of the parish and had a conversation with them. I have some set aside from them."

The price tag approaches $1 million for a church of limited financial means.

"It's pretty evolved because once we get to that point that where we can work on it and we raise and needed funds, we would have to build scaffolding," Rott said. "Build a dance floor in the scaffolding and then a rollable pyramid on top of that and remove the tiles and they would have to be properly disposed of, you'd have to have the proper air ventilation in here."

saint laurence
(Credit: CBS3)

Parish pastoral council president Harry Dietzler says Saint Laurence may not be able to afford it.

"It's not a rich parish. There's only so much the parishioners can do and I think we really need to reach out to people who grew up here and went to school here," Dietzler said.

Parishioners now go to mass in the parish's lower church, which in a way is a return to how things were here pre-1960.

This was the original church dating back to the late 1920s.

"A lot of parishes when they have to renovate their church space, they end up in a gymnasium for a year," Harry Dietzler, the chair of the Parish Pastoral Council, said, "so we're kind of lucky that we do have a church downstairs."

Dietzler acknowledges the project seemed impossible to tackle when parishioners first learned of it several months ago. He says for the most part people are now on board with removing the ceiling.

"You know, you see tiles ready to fall right down and the danger is No. 1, hitting someone and No. 2, asbestos being released," Dietzler said.

For now, Rott is hoping to reach some contributors to help offset the cost. He says the archdiocese already concluded the parish would likely not be able to raise enough money to begin the project.

"The scope of the project is big. I can't worry about it though," Rott said. "I can just ask people to contribute, to support and to know that we are doing our best."

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