When Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Bronzeville — and four sister Black Catholic churches on the South Side — close at month’s end, a chapter in the history of Black Catholics in Chicago closes with them.
Corpus Christi, at 4920 S. King Drive, along with St. Ambrose, St. Anselm, St Elizabeth and Holy Angels churches, will merge July 1 into one new “Our Lady of Africa” parish, under the Archdiocese of Chicago’s “Renew My Church” initiative, ongoing since 2018.
Under Renew My Church, struggling churches and schools are being closed or consolidated, to cut costs for aging infrastructure, as well as to address a priest shortage.
And while many parishes continue to struggle with challenges from the changing demographics of Catholic mass and school attendance, the sense of loss from closings and consolidations remains the same. Optimism is a seed that struggles to sprout.
“Some are resigned to the change. Some are sad. Some are mad about it, and feel like, ‘Could this not have been prevented?’ So the emotions of parishioners flow all over the place,” said Corpus Christi’s pastor, the Rev. Edmund Nnadozie.
“And I respect all those emotions. That to me is how it should be when you are talking about a church that has been here more than 120 years. There’s a whole lot of history tied up here, so it’s going to take time for people to get over it. As for me, I’m at peace with it.”
This Sunday, the church will host a parish reunion mass, and RSVP phone calls and emails from current and former parishioners have been flying for one of three masses until closing.
“We call it our celebratory mass. It’s not the last mass in the parish. That will be the 27th. But what we’re celebrating, really, is us. It’s the opportunity to come and to cry and to laugh, you know, and share memories, all of that,” said Nnadozie, pastor since October 2019, and a member of the Houston-based Missionaries of St. Paul, founded in Nigeria.
“We’ll still have two more Sundays to come back and worship and have a last look, if you will. We have a a lot of people calling in about this Sunday. And I tell you, if all those people do indeed come to that service, I just hope we have enough space.”
Fortunately, the sanctuary will be able to welcome well wishers at capacity Sunday, following Friday’s full reopening of both Chicago and the rest of Illinois, based on continued improvement in COVID-19 metrics and vaccine uptake.
In the pews Sunday will be the Williams family, part of the parish for 70 years.
Eleven siblings of parents who came up during the Great Migration — the matriarch from Rosehill, Mississippi, the patriarch from Baton Rouge, Louisiana — the family has celebrated dozens of baptisms, weddings, funerals, Holy Communions and confirmations here.
“I’m the youngest. My parents were very spiritually rooted people. And it’s just been a love affair with God and a love affair with the Catholic Church, and a cherished relationship with the Franciscan sisters and priests who ran the church and school over the years,” said Anthony Williams, 60, of Washington Park.
A brother still lives at the home they grew up in at 47th & Langley. And just two Sundays ago, two great-grandchildren, fifth generation, became the last Williams family members to be baptized here — following the lead of over 40 family members before them.
“My daughter lives in Columbia, Ohio, and she decided to get her daughter baptized here before it closed, because she was baptized here,” said one of the sisters, Katie Williams Hall.
“She then convinced her cousin, who also was baptized here and who had had her oldest child baptized here, to do a joint baptism of her younger child. It was very bittersweet.”
This year alone has brought consolidation of 13 churches and five schools in Rogers Park, Edgewater, Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Avondale and Old Irving Park, with more planned as the archdiocese continues to assess the future of its 344 Chicago-area churches.
The new parish serving the five South Side churches will be sited at the current Holy Angels, 615 E Oakwood Blvd. It’s the newest structure among them, rebuilt in the wake of a 1986 fire that gutted the home of the famed, late priest George Clements.
St. Ambrose is located at 1012 E 47th St., St. Anselm at 6045 S Michigan Ave., and St. Elizabeth at 50 E. 41st St.
A church closing reverberates beyond its community. Corpus Christi, for example, plays host to a bimonthly mass for Chicago’s citywide Nigerian community, in their language, followed by a potluck in the church’s huge social hall.
“There’s some anxiety there. They’re feeling, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ And I’m not sure that is resolved. They still have to find their ground, and when you’re stepping into a new place, there’s the question of, ‘How will I be received?’” Nnadozie said.
“But they already know they need to find a space. They will go to that new place and make it a home, and hopefully it will work out. It always does,” he said.
Parishioner Larry Cope, 61, of The Gap neighborhood, agrees with his pastor on the inevitability.
The Cope family has been members since his parents came up in the Great Migration to live with aunts who owned a greystone at 45th & Prairie, chopped up into kitchenette apartments, as was the norm in what was then known as the Black Belt.
Like all 11 Williams siblings, Cope and his four brothers and sisters all attended Corpus Christi Elementary, now long shuttered. And all siblings went on to attend Catholic high schools, the boys matriculating to Hales Franciscan High, run by the same order.
“Three of us remain members of the church. My wife and I were married here, and I’m actively involved in the parish council,” Cope said.
“Whenever you close a church, it’s like a death in the family. But I have prepared myself for this eventuality, because the writing was on the wall. We had low membership. We had debt and we had an aging church, which costs so much money just to maintain and repair.”
So there’s the resignation.
The seed of optimism must follow. The new church opens July 1.
“I have to remind people over and over that what we are closing is the structure, not the church. The structure can go down, but the people of God keep on moving,” Nnadozie said.
“Just as I told those gathered at the last baptism of Williams family, we thank God that we are receiving this last one into this structure, but we hope it’s not the last we will receive into the house of God.”