This year, for a second time since 2019, Preservation Chicago has chosen to spotlight the consolidation, deconsecration, combining, closure and sale of many of our City’s finest religious structures. We are focusing once again on the decisions by the Archdiocese of Chicago to consolidate or close so many parishes and churches.
These immensely beautiful structures were constructed at great cost, and often at significant sacrifice, with pennies, nickels and dimes, by the faithful of the community. They are often the very cornerstones of our communities and neighborhoods, throughout Chicago. In addition to their sheer beauty and providing the necessary space for religious services for worship, they are also community centers, providing everything from food pantries, shelter services, counseling and child care. In days of the past, and even today in some places, a resident may refer to their parish church and community to define the neighborhood in which they live.
When one of these churches close and the parish is disbanded, relocated or merged, the impact is often felt hard and even beyond the traditional borders of a community–by the community at large. It’s not only the loss of an institution, but the loss of human services, often a lifeline to both families and individuals. These closings, consolidations, sale of buildings and sometimes demolitions, are painful in every way, and the loss of these institutions and their sacred spaces, should not occur in such ways and in such magnitude.
In 1980 the Archdiocese of Chicago had 447 parishes, with 278, which may have been perhaps closer to 298 in Chicago and 169 in the suburbs. At the time their records indicated an estimated 2,341,500 parishioners in total within the Chicago Metropolitan Area, according to their documents, making it still the largest Catholic Archdiocese in the nation. In the years since, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has become the largest Archdiocese in the nation, with Chicago second in the number of congregants.
Current trends have noted a drop in population and attendance across almost all faith communities in recent decades, due to a number of factors, resulting in the painful loss of these houses of worship and the communities of people which are often left behind. While the architecture and preservation community may not be able to address these issues of faith, we can assist in the preservation and reuse of these many buildings, which in themselves are cornerstones and landmarks in our communities across Chicago and elsewhere.
Since its beginnings, the Archdiocese of Chicago has closed approximately 110 churches and parishes in just the city limits of Chicago, until about 2019, with approximately 57 of the 110 churches also demolished over time. In 2020-2021 the program “Renew My Church,” under Cardinal Cupich is responsible for more than 88 churches and parishes are scheduled to consolidate, merge and close, with 25 of the 88 to be sold. This does not include the ancillary structures of convents, rectories or school buildings, which in total are potentially hundreds of properties. The magnitude of these closings have been devastating, and what appeared to be a rock-solid institution, here for the ages—in perpetuity and along with these massive Diocesan organizations stewarding these basilicas of faith, have also fallen sharply. Something must be done to save these sacred structures and several non-profit organizations are challenging these consolidations, closings and the sale of structures in the Vatican. These 19 cases, all from the greater Chicago metropolitan area, are the largest number of Canon Law filings challenging any archdiocese in the United States.
The individuals involved in these legal actions are parishioners seeking to save their parishes, their communities and their sacred shrines. Assistance is offered though pro-bono services of a Canon Law attorney and these cases are filed in English, translated into Italian and then once again into Ecclesiastical Latin, where they are debated each third Thursday of the calendar month, before the Vatican Courts. When a verdict is reached it is translated from Latin, to Italian and then to English, where it is then conveyed back to the parishioners. In some instances elsewhere in the United States, Canon Law rules and structures have not been properly followed, or violations have been observed occurring in these closings, resulting in a wide volume of churches and parishes reopened.
Canon Law also suggests that if faith options for the church buildings exist and are aligned with Catholic liturgy, for them to be gifted or first offered to another owner or religious body for the continuation of the faith. Those rules are oftentimes not shared as an option, and adherence to such policies are sometimes further challenged and debated.
Furthermore, protecting religious structures in Chicago has been extremely difficult since the introduction of the religious buildings consent ordinance of 1987, introduced to the Chicago City Council, by former Alderman Burton Natarus. This City Ordinance was invoked to protect the plans of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue from potentially replacing one of its ancillary Gothic-Revival inspired structures with a new tall residential building.
The theory was that a Chicago Landmark Designation of the church and its complex, could potentially prohibit such plans from materializing, which could also be an additional future source of income for the well-to-do church. As time passed, it was clear that the Near North Side neighbors were not pleased with such plans and the tall residential building concept was shelved. In its place on the site of the demolished ancillary Gothic structures has risen a community center structure, which has had tremendous benefits.
Yet the damage of the religious buildings consent ordinance has continued to hamper efforts to give Chicago Landmark Designation to active congregations and their historic religious buildings, without their consent. In almost every instance, the Archdiocese of Chicago has refused designation of its most amazing church properties and has often greatly challenged attempts to Landmark its buildings. This all despite these are viewed as shared community assets, often built and gifted to them by parishioners, yet those assets like the Landmark Buildings of our City are not allowed to be honored, shared and designated and become official Chicago Landmarks, with all of the accolades and protections offered our Landmark buildings in Chicago. This is very unfortunate on so many levels.
Preservation Chicago has been working to preserve many of Chicago’s historic buildings since our founding, twenty years ago in 2001. This preservation advocacy work has extended to religious buildings, churches, synagogues and houses of worship since our early years.
Preservation efforts and campaigns include the Landmarking of the former St. Clara-St. Cyril/St. Gelasius, now known as The Shrine of Christ the King, and the Minnekirken Chicago—The Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church on Logan Square. Also, advocacy efforts to preserve St. James Roman Catholic Church on South Wabash Avenue (demolished), Anshe Keneseth Israel on West Douglas Boulevard (demolished), Stone Temple Baptist Church, originally known as the First Romanian Synagogue and the site of many visits by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which is now a Landmark, The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, the Landmark building now to be reopened as the Epiphany Center for the Arts. The list also continues to include Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation Synagogue (converted to residential), St. Peter Episcopal Church on Belmont Avenue, the Church of the Advent on Logan Boulevard (converted to residential), which is also a Designated Chicago Landmark. Efforts to save, preserve and Landmark St. Adalbert in Pilsen, All Saints-St. Anthony in Bridgeport, St. Michael the Archangel in South Shore-“The Bush ” and 17 others have been ongoing. These are just several of the religious structures that have been part of our advocacy efforts, with many more in which we have provided supporting testimony towards a Chicago Landmark Designation.
We want to encourage the Archdiocese of Chicago to consider inviting other Religious Orders to Chicago, as was done under the direction of Cardinal Francis George, OMI (1937-2015), in the past, to occupy and staff many of these remarkable and sacred structures, when the Archdiocese can no longer support them. Many of these buildings can be retained and reused as chapels, monasteries, places of contemplation, retreat houses and sites, and a retreat from a visitor’s hectic traverses of the day.
We at Preservation Chicago are also requesting that the 1987 religious buildings consent ordinance be overturned, as for 34 years, all other buildings and structures in the City of Chicago can be considered for Chicago Landmark Designation without the consent of the owner. Yet this special provision and ordinance applies unfairly to buildings in which religious services are conducted, often creating an unbalanced playing field. This ordinance hamstrings many potential Chicago Landmark Designations, of some of the City’s finest buildings, some constructed by the same world-famous architects of our downtown Landmarks.
We are also of the opinion that since many of these structures were gifted to organizations like the Archdiocese of Chicago, by the many faithful, that they should not vigorously challenge such efforts, but share them with the community and work with parishioners and the community to determine a path to preserving these sacred places and buildings.
Additionally, if it is determined that a church or house of worship can no longer function in such a capacity by all stakeholders and the City, plans should be considered to encourage cultural reuses for these most sacred structures. Such reuse efforts may include a reuse as concert venues, music centers, cultural centers for the community and other such respectful uses.
After all, many of these religious structures, and in this particular case, Roman Catholic Churches are often cornerstones and visual gateways, which are so associated with our communities across Chicago. They are worth the effort and robust conversations to find alternative owners and potential and creative reuses for these magnificent structures, which were built for the ages and designed to inspire all who gaze upon them in perpetuity.
The following Roman Catholic Churches are to be consolidated, closed or sold and are of great concern to us at Preservation Chicago and to the larger communities of our City.
Highlighted Endangered Catholic Churches include:
- St. George Church (closed 2020)
- St. Bride Church (closed 2020)
- St. Michael Archangel Catholic Church
- Our Lady of Victory
- All Saints – St. Anthony Catholic Church (closed)
- Holy Cross Church (consolidated 2020)
- Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church (to be consolidated)
- Corpus Christi Church
- St. Matthias Catholic Church (to be consolidated)
- St. Ignatius Church
- St. Roman Church (closed 2020)
- Our Lady of Peace (closed 2021)
- St. Adalbert Church (closed)