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Historic Edgewater church for sale; neighbors worry about what will come next

Unable to afford upkeep, Epworth United Methodist is looking for a new owner for its 130-year-old building, which also is home to a homeless shelter.

Epworth United Methodist Church, 5253 N. Kenmore Ave., Edgewater, is noted for its exterior walls, which are clad in boulders brought in by barge from Wisconsin via Lake Michigan.
Epworth United Methodist Church, 5253 N. Kenmore Ave., Edgewater, is noted for its exterior walls, which are clad in boulders brought in by barge from Wisconsin via Lake Michigan.
Mark Brown / Sun-Times

A historic Edgewater church that houses a vital men’s homeless shelter is up for sale, creating uncertainty about the future of both.

Epworth United Methodist Church, 5253 N. Kenmore Ave., has been a neighborhood landmark for more than 130 years, its distinctive boulder walls dating to when the newly developing Edgewater community was annexed into Chicago.

But a once-thriving congregation that could fill a sanctuary built for 600 people now numbers only 30 to 35 members. And the surviving worshipers can’t afford the upkeep on the aging 22,500-square-foot structure.

That’s an old but increasingly common story in Chicago. It’s a problem that crosses neighborhoods and denominations, as city dwellers turn away from organized religion, leaving church buildings underutilized and without resources for repairs.

Maybe some other day we can explore the broader implications of these dying churches and what one Epworth parishioner calls the “spiritual deserts” being left in their wake — parts of the city where soon there might no longer be any house of worship within walking distance.

For now, let’s stick with the effort to save Epworth United Methodist as a contributor to the community it for so long has served.

Over the past four decades, one of the church’s most important roles has been to provide space for a homeless shelter with beds for up to 67 men who sleep in the building’s second-floor gymnasium. The shelter, operated since 2009 by Cornerstone Community Outreach, is one of the last homeless shelters for men on the North Side and the only one in Edgewater.

Since last year, the shelter has been operating at about two-thirds capacity because of social distancing requirements forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cornerstone officials say they have a contract to rent the church space through the end of the year and are exploring their options if forced to move by a new owner. For now, they don’t want to cause undue alarm for their homeless clients.

In addition to the homeless shelter, the church operates a Girl Scouts program, provides school supplies for neighborhood children and, in pre-COVID times, has been an important community gathering spot.

John Sansone, chair of trustees for Epworth United Methodist Church, inside the church sanctuary. It seats 600, but the church today has fewer than three dozen members.
John Sansone, chair of trustees for Epworth United Methodist Church, inside the church sanctuary. It seats 600, but the church today has fewer than three dozen members.
Mark Brown / Sun-Times

The planned sale of the church was brought to my attention by Anne Sullivan, a self-described community “troublemaker” who lives next door to Epworth in a senior apartment building. Fearful that a sale could see the church torn down to make way for a high-rise residential development, Sullivan started a petition drive to win city landmark protection for the building. It’s already on the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation affords it little practical protection.

Sullivan says she has been met with an outpouring of support from neighbors fond of the familiar, old structure.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) agrees Epworth is a “very important part of the fabric of the community.”

“My goal is to save the building, make it be more functional,” Osterman says. “I don’t want some developer to knock it down and build condos. There will not be a high-rise there, period.”

Osterman says he considers the church a “historic building” and says he is exploring legal options for protecting it but suggests that he’d prefer to work cooperatively with a nonprofit owner interested in some “good community adaptive re-use.”

Osterman says he’s hoping to keep the shelter there but that, if that’s not possible, promises to work with Cornerstone to “find them another place in the community.”

I toured the church with John Sansone, who chairs the Epworth trustees when he isn’t running the mail room at a downtown law firm.

The building has some significant problems, but it’s in better shape than many old churches in Chicago that I’ve visited. The foundation is settling, which has caused a large crack that’s visible along the top of the basement wall. But Sansone says the crack is no worse than when he joined the church 24 years ago.

“It’s not crumbling down,” he says of the structure.

A stairwell in the church that’s seen better times.
A stairwell in the church that’s seen better times.
Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Still, there’s no question the building needs serious work, “more than $500,000 to fix it” says Sassone, and the congregation doesn’t have the money.

It was a previous repair to a buckling exterior wall on the east side of the church along the alley that forced the current situation. Unable to pay for the repairs, church members borrowed from the Methodist church hierarchy and now can’t pay that back.

Sansone says four prospective buyers have expressed interest — including a developer and three church groups.

Let’s hope they find a way to keep this piece of history by making it a part of a better future for the residents of Edgewater.