THREATENED: Roman Catholic Churches of Chicago

Address: Throughout Chicago
Architects: Dillenberg & Zucher, John van Osdel, Patrick Keely, Burnham & Root, Gregory Vigeant, Henry Engelbert, William Brinkman, Henry Schlacks, Worthmann & Steinbach, and others.
Date: Between c.1857 to about c.1927
Style: Victorian Gothic, Renaissance Revival, Romanesque, Byzantine-Romanesque, Gothic, Roman Basilica, French Gothic
Neighborhood: Throughout Chicago, but mostly in Pilsen, Bridgeport, Canaryville and Uptown communities

T he Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago was once the largest and most populous diocese in the nation with the most parishes and largest parochial school system. Comprised of hundreds of magnificent church buildings, often on the grand scale, these churches were designed by some of America’s greatest architects and most recognized architectural firms. The Chicago area, with 2.2 million Catholics, still stands as one of the largest concentrations of Catholics in the United States. The Archdiocese of Chicago represents an enviable assemblage of ethnic national parishes and more mainstream parishes.

The church buildings which have made Preservation Chicago’s 7 Most Endangered List for 2019 are both gateways and landmarks in their communities and a great source of pride, stemming back to their inception—often built with the pennies, nickels and dimes of the Faithful. These structures were then given to an institution, including the Archdiocese of Chicago, to care for, maintain, staff and steward. In recent years, this has proven to be a challenging task.

Over the past three decades, the Archdiocese of Chicago and its holdings have been substantially trimmed and reduced, with many religious buildings closed and merged, along with school closings, which have often left communities without their cherished houses of worship and a building vacant and devastated. The Archdiocese of Chicago has seen successive waves of church closings or consolidations. Nearly 30 years ago under then-archbishop Joseph Cardinal Benardin, a wave of church closings and consolidations swept through the city shuttering more than 40 churches and parochial schools.

In 2016, news broke that by 2030 the Archdiocese of Chicago will have a rapidly decreasing number of priests serving, with the rate of retirement far exceeding new ordinations.
Six years ago, Chicago’s neighborhoods saw almost 50 public schools shuttered. Now some of the same neighborhoods will see their parish churches closed or consolidated. Communities are often defined by their church and school institutions. With both the schools and churches in some neighborhoods closing, residents could be left with large, vacant former community hubs to contend with.

Cardinal Blaise Cupich has directed a new program called “Renew Your Church” which has caused a re-evaluation of the many churches and religious buildings that have historically been anchors of the city’s communities. This has brought about new discussions of massive closings, projected to be 75 to 100 buildings and parishes across Chicago which are to be merged, consolidated, closed, sold and perhaps demolished. Financial issues and an expected priest shortage have been cited as reasons for why this is happening. This is devastating to many beyond the Faithful to lose these magnificent buildings and structures which were to be built for the ages.

This is nothing less than a tragedy, impacting whole communities and cities across the nation. Despite a predicted shortage of religious personnel and other on-going issues, these buildings and community landmarks could have a better future. Led by community input and with public-private partnerships, advocates can pool resources together – including Landmark designation – to keep these buildings alive. After all, these buildings and parishes are more than religious centers, but also community centers—hosting neighborhood meetings, food pantries, daycare, family and addiction counseling, educational facilities and warming centers in the most inclement weather. We can collectively do better and want to spotlight these amazing buildings that are both Chicago and world treasures.

It is now apparent that a wave of church closings is imminent. With an estimated 75 Catholic churches expected to close or consolidate over the next 10 years, this current restructuring of the Archdiocese of Chicago would be almost twice as large as the 1990 restructuring under then-archbishop Joseph Cardinal Benardin.

Many of the churches targeted first for closure are the oldest and largest buildings and have higher operating costs; not surprisingly, this number includes many of Chicago’s most architecturally and historically significant churches. Currently there are 19 churches threatened with their doors being shuttered. For generations these churches served as spiritual centers and anchors to their parishes and neighborhoods. A majority of the churches are located on the South Side.

Most of these churches are either Red or Orange coded in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS). In the CHRS, a color-coded ranking system was used to identify historic and architectural significance relative to age, degree of external physical integrity and level of possible significance. The CHRS defines Red-coded properties as buildings which “possess some architectural feature or historical association that made them potentially significant in the broader context of the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois or the United States of America.” The CHRS defines Orange-coded properties as buildings which “possess some architectural feature or historical association that made them potentially significant in the context of the surrounding community.” Despite their high ranking in the color-coded ranking system of the CHRS — ranking which proves the buildings are of high architectural and historical significance — most of the 19 churches are not designated landmarks. Due to a 1987 amendment introduced by then Alderman Burt Natarus requiring church owner consent to Landmark a building, only a handful of Chicago churches are designated Chicago Landmarks. Because the churches lack Chicago Landmark or Landmark District designation, there is little available to protect them.

Since 2003, dozens of important houses of worship throughout Chicago have either been demolished or significantly altered. The loss of these incredible churches diminishes the character of the surrounding communities. Three years ago, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic New World: “Demographics have shifted dramatically. Some of our parish buildings are in disrepair. We have fewer priests to pastor our faith communities. The result is that we end up spreading our resources too thinly. We should not be afraid to face these realities.”

Preservation Chicago is committed to ensuring the preservation of Chicago’s religious legacy. It will:

  • Continue to proactively monitor vacant and abandoned religious structures throughout the city.
  • Continue to oppose inappropriate “preservation” solutions like “façadism” and building deconstruction and relocation.
  • Continue to pressure the city to amend the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance which currently allows owners of houses of worship to opt out of the Landmarks Ordinance.
  • Propose and advocate for policies that will encourage the restoration and repurposing of houses of worship.

In April of 2018 the City Council Zoning Committee approved Alderman Brian Hopkins’s ordinance to fine property owners $1,000 to $2,000 for letting historic properties or those within Landmark Districts deteriorate. Preservation Chicago advocates for the City Council’s formal enactment of Alderman Hopkins’s ordinance with respect to demolition by neglect. While the future for many of Chicago’s Catholic churches is unknown, the city should proactively protect these architecturally and historically significant churches which are neighborhood landmarks and gathering places. Hopefully, with a strong ordinance in place, parishioners and preservationists would be allowed time to select the highest and best use for the many churches now projected to be closed.

According to canon law of the Catholic Church, if two or more parishes are merged the new combined parish may adopt a new name. While it may seem a small thing to some, Preservation Chicago recommends keeping the historic names of the Catholic churches, if possible. A name carries a lot of meaning. It can help tell the rich history of the neighborhood and parish.

Landmarks Illinois, our sister organization, has stated “many buildings that trigger a demolition delay due to their inclusion in the CHRS are architecturally significant but don’t meet more than one of two required criteria for landmark designation due to lack of information regarding its original owner or architect. Yet these buildings often contribute to a neighborhood’s economy, historic streetscape, scale and character.” Preservation Chicago advocates for the City Council to amend the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance so that in special cases a Chicago Landmark designation based on one criterion, rather than two criteria, is possible. Preservation Chicago advocates for Chicago’s Mayor and City Council to support an amendment to the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance that would again allow the City Council to Landmark places of religious worship without the consent of the owner. This would allow the many Catholic churches included in the Archdiocese restructuring to be designated as a Chicago Landmark or to be located within a Chicago Landmark District.

The following churches have been added to the rapidly growing Preservation Chicago Endangered Church Watch List (listed by location North to South):

  1. St. Ita
  2. St. Thomas of Canterbury
  3. St. Mary of the Lake
  4. St. Stanislaus Kostka
  5. Notre Dame de Chicago
  6. Holy Family
  7. St. Adalbert (Chicago 7 2014 and 2016)
  8. St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church
  9. St. Jerome Croatian
  10. All Saints – St. Anthony
  11. St. Barbara
  12. Santa Lucia – Santa Maria Incoronata
  13. St. Mary of Perpetual Help
  14. Nativity of Our Lord
  15. St. Gabriel
  16. St. Michael Archangel
  17. St. Camillus
  18. St. Felicitas
  19. St. Joachim



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