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As debt mounts and congregation dwindles, 130-year-old church in Hyde Park seeks a path forward

“We do have an aging population [and] we are declining,” Rev. Charlene Hill of the United Church of Hyde Park said Thursday. “We have just way more space than we can possibly sustain.”

The United Church of Hyde Park, at 1448 E. 53rd St., is facing a dire financial outlook. Last week, worshippers and community members met with church leaders to begin devising a path forward.
Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

A church that has stood in the heart of Hyde Park for 130 years now faces an uncertain future.

With its mixed congregation of Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists dwindling, the United Church of Hyde Park’s financial situation has grown increasingly dire. On Thursday, worshippers and community members met with church leaders to begin devising a path forward.

“We do have an aging population [and] we are declining,” Rev. Charlene Hill told about 70 people assembled at the church, located at the corner of 53rd Street and Blackstone Avenue. “We have just way more space than we can possibly sustain.”

The interior sanctuary of United Church of Hyde Park.
Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

Stephanie Uhl, treasurer of United Church, told the Chicago Sun-Times that roughly 60 congregants show up for Sunday service, leaving about 90% of the church empty on any given week. Hill told attendees that church officials are now considering selling some its property and building a smaller church on the campus.

“We would still be able to be the church on the corner,” Hill said. “That’s a big part of our identity.”

That identity dates back to 1890, when the ornate greystone building first opened its doors to worshippers.

Back then, Illinois congressmen were fighting to make Chicago the host city of the World’s Columbian Exposition, a move that would ultimately cement the city’s status as a global destination. Meanwhile, the North Side baseball team that would come to be known as the Cubs had recently finished its final season as the White Stockings, a moniker Charlie Comiskey later co-opted for his ball club in Bridgeport.

In some ways, the city’s rich history ran parallel to that of the United Church of Hyde Park.

Paul Cornell, an attorney who played a key role in the development of Hyde Park and the city at large, even donated land in 1858 to a group of protestants that went on to start the United Church a few blocks away.

As the church looks to sell off some of the property — which also includes an adjoining chapel, a meeting hall, kitchen and a building that houses a Montessori school — Hill said officials were recently in discussions with the University of Chicago for 18 months. Those talks stalled in the fall when the two sides “couldn’t find enough overlap” in their interests, Hill said.

Jack Spicer, chair of the preservation committee of Hyde Park Historical Society, and Angie Marks, the University of Chicago’s vice president for real estate operations, listen to a United Church of Hyde Park’s members’ suggestions on how to raise money during a town hall Feb. 20, 2020.
Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

Angie Marks, the associate vice president of real estate operations at the university, was on hand for Thursday’s meeting but declined to discuss those negotiations.

In addition to that effort, Hill said a “think tank group” commissioned by the church also proposed either renting to a nonprofit as a way to remain in the building or working with community members and businesses to find another solution.

The latter option led to Thursday’s town hall, which let residents weigh in on how to raise funds and use the church. From applying for grants to brewing cider and renting space to businesses or performers, the diverse group of attendees offered an equally diverse list of possible solutions.

Though Uhl said officials have rejected offers to sell the church outright, Hill acknowledged that it’s been operating in the red for years. Hyde Park resident Patricia Morse fears opportunistic developers will potentially buy up the plot of land in the center of a hot retail corridor.

“[The church] prevents a certain level of density,” Morse noted. “If it goes, it’s going be another high-rise.”