If you examine the “property for sale” list posted by the Archdiocese of Chicago, you get no inkling of its crisis and the coming wave of closed churches. There’s only one church listed for sale. Two others, with their attendant properties such as the rectory and convent, are listed as under contract.
Over time, a lot more will hit the market. The Catholic church’s selloff of property will play out over the next few years, and the results won’t be good for neighborhoods — mostly Chicago but some suburban — that will see distinctive and often historic institutions disappear. Chicago has seen a winnowing of neighborhood schools, some of which have found alternate lives, but the focus will shift to the spires of a heavily Roman Catholic city, features that long ago helped immigrants assimilate and defined a neighborhood’s character.
By my count, the archdiocese since early 2019 has announced plans to close anywhere from 19 to 25 churches in the next few years. The exact number will depend on circumstances; a few churches could hang on as ancillary Mass locations for the adjoining parish, with their status to be reviewed later. Most of these closings have been announced within the past four months. They are the product of Cardinal Blase Cupich’s “Renew My Church” campaign.
Eric Wollan, chief capital assets officer for the archdiocese, handles whatever is decided about the properties. “From my perspective, they’re all hard decisions, all emotional and difficult,” he said. Wollan said the archdiocese is “still on the front end of the ‘Renew My Church’ effort. It’s a major strategic initiative that allows our parishes to evaluate how best to fulfill their missions and decide which properties help them do that.” He could recall only four or five church sales in the past two years.
Wollan said decisions about what to close are made in consultation with parish leaders and proceeds from sales don’t get transferred downtown but stay within the surviving parish.
The nonemotional factors at work here are well known. Churches of all types have withered as their ethnic base moves on, their buildings age and require massive upkeep and the general interest in religious worship declines. The closings aren’t new to Chicago, but their pace will be.
The archdiocese will consider selling to another denomination or faith, Wollan said, or consider other buyers. In canonical terms, the aim is for “profane but not sordid” use. He said the former St. Isidore Church in Blue Island was sold to another denomination and one church the website still lists as “under contract,” Seven Holy Founders in Calumet Park, is being sold to the village to become a community center.
But Wollan knows the pitfalls. Churches were built for worship and their sanctuaries don’t adapt readily to some other purpose. The heating bills alone are a deterrent. “We don’t want properties sitting there that aren’t benefiting the parish and the community,” he said.
A prime example of a church becoming a blight is the sad case of the former St. Boniface at 1358 W. Chestnut St., which the archdiocese closed 30 years ago. With four bell towers, it stood regally across from Eckhart Park. Now it’s defaced and plundered, with development proposals having come and gone. The most recent, a condo plan from Stas Development, surfaced in 2018. But Stas’ phone is disconnected and contractors have filed at least $180,000 in liens against the property. Its corporate status with the state is listed as “not in good standing.” Terrence McConville, senior attorney with the Illinois secretary of state, said Stas is late filing its annual report, due Feb. 1, and has three or four months to fix that before being involuntarily dissolved.
A potential problem is St. Adalbert, 1650 W. 17th St., which the archdiocese closed last year. News reports have had it under contract to a developer, but Wollan said the archdiocese is still trying to sell it. “It’s a large property that requires a significant investment,” he said. Any sale would stir both angry parishioners wanting it to remain a church and Pilsen residents who fear gentrification from expensive housing.
The recently announced closings will hit over the next couple of years and range from Waukegan to South Holland, West Ridge to Hegewisch. To those who say the archdiocese is acting to pay settlements related to priestly abuse, Wollan said, “That’s certainly an inaccurate characterization of any of our ‘Renew My Church’ initiatives. Our goal here is to strengthen the church and its ability to deliver on its mission.”
The archdiocese, meanwhile, has properties left in its own account, including its headquarters in the former seminary at 835 N. Rush St. and the mansion at 1555 N. State Parkway. Will those be sold? Wollan said, “We constantly evaluate which assets are critical. We don’t have any specific plans for those assets.”