Catholic archdiocese should work more openly to preserve historic Chicago churches

The churches are owned by the archdiocese, but the practical reality is that the buildings belong to all of us.

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The altar inside Corpus Christi Church, 4920 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.

The altar inside Corpus Christi, 4920 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. The church closed in June after 120 years.

Lee Bey / Sun-Times

The neo-Gothic church, convent building and rectory at 31st and Aberdeen streets have served the Bridgeport community for more than 110 years — first as Immaculate Conception parish and, since 1991, the Monastery of the Holy Cross.

And the buildings will likely be preserved even longer, because a city commission last Thursday voted to recommend the City Council grant landmark status to the structures.

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It’s the right move — prompted by the monks themselves who sought landmark status for the complex — that will protect a solid piece of neighborhood religion architecture that was once owned by the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

This should be the fate for the wealth of churches currently owned by Chicago archdiocese, namely the scores being closed now under the archdiocese’s Renew My Church initiative.

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Monastery of the Holy Cross in Bridgeport, built 109 years ago, was called Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church until 1991.

Tyler LaRiviere

But after padlocking one great building after another since 2016 as part of a church consolidation program, the archdiocese has been pretty much mum about what will happen to these structures.

It shouldn’t be. That’s a practice that must end.

Though the churches are owned by the archdiocese — and we sympathize with their financial struggles — the practical reality is the buildings belong to all of us.

And because of that, the archdiocese has a responsibility to do better by these buildings.

City’s architectural beauty threatened

The archdiocese kicked off its Renew My Church initiative in 2016 and began closing and consolidating churches in response to a vastly shrinking membership.

It’s hard to get a bead on exactly how many churches have been closed. An archdiocese spokesperson failed to respond to repeated requests for information.

But the churches that have been closed are among the city’s finest-looking structures.

For instance, Corpus Christi Church, an 120-year-old Italian Renaissance Revival beauty at 49th Street and King Drive with a dazzling coffered ceiling, closed in June.

St. Ignatius Church, 6559 N. Glenwood Ave., a limestone building with a stately entrance marked by six elegant Corinthian columns, held its final regular mass earlier this month after 113 years.

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Interior of St. Ignatius Church, 6559 N. Glenwood Ave., which held its final regular mass this month.

St. Ignatius Church

The closings concern preservationists because the archdiocese has not been shy about swinging the wrecker’s ball on unused churches.

Picturesque St. James Catholic Church, 2942 S. Wabash Ave, was demolished in 2013 after 133 years of service.

St. John of God Church, 1234 W. 52nd St., was demolished in 2011, although its limestone facade was stripped and re-erected in a new church near Antioch, IL.

The group Preservation Chicago is so fearful for the future of the city’s historic Catholic church buildings that it included them as a theme on the organization’s 2019 Chicago 7 Most Endangered Buildings list.

“This is nothing less than a tragedy, impacting whole communities and cities across the nation,” Preservation Chicago — which helped the Bridgeport monks research and compile the historic information used in their successful landmark bid — said then.

“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,” the group said.

Archdiocese must work to reuse buildings

The archdiocese, however, has not been willing to work with preservationists and community groups to find new uses for these buildings.

Landmarks Illinois in 2016 reached out to archdiocese to help preserve twin-towered St. Adelbert, 1650 W. 17th. The church still stands, but the preservation group said its overture to the archdiocese “never received a response.”

Given the architectural significance and beauty of the buildings and their contribution to the city’s history, the archdiocese should follow the lead of the Monastery of the Holy Cross and become protectors of these structures — and advocate for their preservation and reuse.

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