From his apartment in Manhattan, Brody Hale searches online for Catholic churches in jeopardy of closing.
St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen popped up on his computer screen a few weeks ago. A software program for the visually impaired read the words aloud.
He recognized arguments the Chicago archdiocese had made to close the church: Not enough money for fixes and upkeep. Low attendance at Mass.
Hale tracked down parishioners leading the fight to keep it open and offered a free consultation. Folks at St. Adalbert accepted with appreciation.
Hale, 30, is uniquely qualified.
He runs the Catholic Church Preservation Society, which helps parishioners set up nonprofit organizations to raise money so they can persuade church officials to save the buildings by taking over the maintenance expenses that may have led them to consider closing a church in the first place.
Managing expectations is part of Hale’s pitch. His plan focuses on keeping a church open for occasional Mass and sacraments. He tells parishioners he cannot help save a parish.
Church officials have “an incredible amount of authority to merge parishes. That does not, however, equate to closing church buildings,” said Hale.
What many parishioners don’t know, Hale says, is that churches have special protections under canon law — the framework under which the church functions.
“A church is considered ‘sacred space’ under canon law, and in order to close a church, a ‘grave cause’ must be present, which generally means a church is damaged beyond all repair or there’s no money of any kind available to take care of or maintain the church building,” Hale said.
St. Adalbert parishioners still hope to keep the parish intact by persuading a religious order to take the reins from the archdiocese, though it’s not clear the archdiocese would approve such a transfer even if a religious order did step up.
Parishioner Dolly Arguello, 35, said congregants would ultimately be willing to scale down their ambition and just save the church building.
The faithful held a vigil last week in Pilsen to rally support.
“This place was a place to get away from the rough neighborhood where I grew up. It’s part of the reason I stayed out of trouble and graduated college. And I want that for my children,” Arguello said.
Archbishop Blase Cupich announced plans to close the church in February. But he has yet to issue a decree to shutter the building. And Sunday Mass is still being held at St. Adalbert, 1650 W. 17th St.
In the past few weeks, Hale helped parishioners set up the St. Adalbert Preservation Fund, which contains about $12,000, according to parishioner Richard Olszewski, who is leading the effort. An anonymous donor is ready to offer up $1.2 million, he said.
The archdiocese and parishioners disagree on the cost of repairs, including fixes to the church’s historic twin towers, which are crumbling and cocooned in scaffolding. Olszewski says parishioners, after consulting with industry professionals, estimate repairs to the entire structure will cost about $2.2 million. The archdiocese estimates repairs to the spires alone will cost nearly $4 million, Olszewski said.
Parishioners sent Cupich a letter detailing their plan several weeks ago but have not heard back.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese could not offer a date when St. Adalbert would close, but said last week those plans remain on track.
If an agreement cannot be reached, Olszewski said parishioners will appeal to the Vatican and use preservation funds to hire a canon lawyer to officially represent them in Rome. A delegation of parishioners will make the trip on their own dime.
But Hale hopes it won’t come to that.
His knowledge of church closings — and how to fight them — was gleaned firsthand.
Ten years ago, the church his ancestors helped build in South Lee, Massachusetts, closed. His family banded together with other parishioners but couldn’t save it. The church was turned into an art gallery.
“It felt like I was being spiritually gutted,” he said.
Hale later earned a law degree from Boston College and created the Catholic Church Preservation Society.
“There’s nothing in it for me except for preserving God’s houses on earth and sparing others the pain I went through,” he said. “I get a great sense of joy and fulfillment when the process works.”
Hale’s guidance has so far helped save six churches, including St. Mary of the Rock in Batesville, Indiana, part of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Parishioners there were beside themselves when the doors were locked in 2013. The parish faced consolidation.
“They told us we couldn’t go in and do anything,” recalled St. Mary of the Rock parishioner Laura Huber, who worked with Hale to save the church.
“He really gave me the confidence that I needed to lead the people of our small community, and it has been an overwhelming outpouring of support and donations,” Huber said.
Hale’s work in Chicago might expand as the archdiocese continues to formulate plans to close more churches and consolidate more parishes to address dilapidated facilities and a shortage of priests. The effort is being dubbed “Renew My Church.” A campaign to inform parishioners, and ultimately cushion the blow, included a letter that was published in church bulletins in early May to remind parishioners of the hard work ahead.
Hale offers guidance over the phone and via email but has never gotten involved with negotiations between parishioners and archdiocesan leaders.
“Parishioners are the ultimate ones making the decisions,” he said.
“This is going to sink or swim based on [Olszewski’s] work and the work of his fellow parishioners at St. Adalbert.”