Sue Ontiveros: Their church is not ‘just a building’

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Patricia Wallace (left) and Cecilia Thomas stand outside their parish, St. Thaddeus. | SUE ONTIVEROS PHOTO

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“It’s just a building,” someone told Patricia Wallace and others during a discussion about the future of their parish, St. Thaddeus.

Sure, in the Catholic faith we’re taught that God is everywhere. Since he’s not tied to one material place, our faith shouldn’t be, either.

That’s easier said than done, and, as Wallace responds to the “building” remark: “So is your house and you don’t want to lose that, either.”

St. Thaddeus is the spiritual home to longtime parishioners like Wallace, which is why they say they keep fighting for it.

The parish, according to earlier news stories, was going to face a change even before the launch of Renew My Church, the campaign tasked with reimagining the Archdiocese of Chicago, given the dwindling number of priests and Catholics.

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In April, parishioners were told St. Thaddeus (9540 S. Harvard) was going to merge with St. Margaret of Scotland (9833 S. Throop). The long-closed parish school building had lost its tenant and, along with it, much-needed rent, was part of the explanation given.

This weekend parishioners say the pastor told them that while no final date has been set, one is expected soon.

Still, parishioners like Cecilia Thomas and Wallace say they’re not ready to give up on St. Thaddeus. They’ve held prayer vigils and written to the archdiocese’s higher-ups. There’s a petition seeking the church’s continued existence on

Cecilia Thomas, who lives across the street from the church, even wrote to the pope. (“He should know what’s going on here.”)

Thomas doesn’t want anyone to forget why St. Thaddeus opened in 1959: “We had no place to worship.”

She means African-American Catholics. Back then they weren’t exactly welcome at nearby white parishes. So black families built their own and named it after one of the 12 apostles, St. Jude Thaddeus, Thomas explains.

He’s also the patron saint of hope and impossible causes, so is it any wonder they’ve persisted and keep praying for a miracle?

There are those who’d say this sort of oasis isn’t necessary in 2016, but listen to the rhetoric from our current presidential campaign and it’s obvious things haven’t progressed as much as some think.

On its website, the United States Conference of Bishops includes St. Thaddeus on a list of parishes across the country with a strong black presence, noting the importance of having such “church homes.”

St. Thaddeus never was meant to be a big, sprawling congregation, according to Thomas, whose family has been a part of the parish since the beginning. The church holds some 250.

Both Wallace and Thomas agree membership is much smaller now, but contend the parish remains vibrant. There are active organizations and the parish hall is popular with community groups who rent it regularly. They call St. Thaddeus a stabilizing force in the Washington Heights neighborhood.

But most important, this church plays a pivotal role in their faith. Wallace talks about sitting on “her side” during Saturday evening masses. This is their sacred ground.

“When God calls me home, I want my services at St. Thaddeus, my church,” Wallace wrote in a letter to the archdiocese.

They also worry that parishioners without cars – many of whom are seniors like themselves – won’t be able to get to mass, although Thomas outright says “this is one Catholic they’ll lose” if forced to go elsewhere.

Thomas and Wallace are praying for a last-minute reprieve. They tell me they’ve got faith. Because isn’t that what this is all about anyway?


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