On the evening of February 28, about thirty congregants of St. Adalbert Church huddled under a tunnel of scaffolding outside the main doors of the church, seeking refuge from a downpour of rain. Holding posters, candles, and various Catholic paraphernalia, the churchgoers collectively chanted “La iglesia no se vende.” (The church is not for sale). At around 6:30pm, a few of the elderly parishioners, standing on the steps at the entrance of the church, began a prayer vigil.
During the vigil, a few well-dressed visitors periodically parted the crowd, walking through the scaffolding to enter the church. They were attending the first concert held by the Chicago Academy of Music (CAM), a celebration of the music school’s move to its new location—St. Adalbert.
The events that evening represented a months-long dispute over the future ownership of St. Adalbert, a magnificent neoclassical church built in 1914 by Polish Americans and now shared with Mexican American parishioners in Pilsen.
At issue is the sale of St. Adalbert to CAM. St. Adalbert Preservation Society, a nonprofit formed by the church’s parishioners, claims that the sale of the church is illegal under religious law. However, the Archdiocese of Chicago, the legal owners of the church property, says that they are currently under contract with CAM and expect the sale to close in the next several months. St. Adalbert has been threatened with closure before, but now the fate of this storied Pilsen church lies in the hands of the Archdiocese: will they sell the church to CAM, or will the church’s parishioners have the chance to decide its future ownership?
On May 23, 2016, the Archdiocese of Chicago issued a decree announcing the closure of St. Adalbert’s parish as part of a larger plan to reorganize and consolidate six Pilsen parishes into three. Changing demographics, a decline in the number of practicing Catholics, and a need to reduce the costs of staffing and programming for the Archdiocese were some of the reasons it gave for the restructuring.
But the May 23 decree also made clear that the church of St. Adalbert Parish, in this case the physical building of St. Adalbert Church, would retain its own title and “remain a sacred building designated for divine worship.”
The distinction between a church and a parish is important to note here. Under canon law, not all Catholic churches are automatically parishes. Parishes must hold regular mass and support the community, whereas a church is just a sacred building. The church’s plan would merge the two parishes of St. Adalbert and neighboring St. Paul, but parishioners would still be able to hold Mass or perform sacraments like baptism and matrimony in the St. Adalbert building.
But on May 24, the Archdiocese issued another decree modifying its decree from the day before, stating that the physical church building would actually no longer be a sacred site. The decree cited the closure to the “dangerous state of repair and prohibitive costs of repair and maintenance,” referencing the scaffolding on the two towers of St. Adalbert.
Several residents of the neighborhood note that the scaffolding has been up for close to two years. Rosie Dominguez, a parishioner and graduate student at UIC, says, “We’ve had individuals come look at it and there does need to be some filling, but there haven’t been pieces [of the building] falling off.”
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese was searching for an entity to buy St. Adalbert Church. Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, knew that the church had been on the list of endangered buildings for two years and had been trying to shift the discussion away from demolition toward discussions on “the best user.” He suggested the building to CAM, which at the time was seeking to relocate, claiming that the school had outgrown its current location at University Church in Hyde Park.
“Where we can find a viable place to put schools in neighborhoods that allow for safe haven for children, we’ll do it,” said Michael Scott Carter, executive director of CAM. Carter explained that he planned to expand CAM through the preservation of churches. “The church [St. Adalbert] itself fits for what we’re gonna do, so we don’t really have to build anything,” Carter said.
“We [the parishioners] kept having masses in our church even though it was a deconsecrated church. We knew something wasn’t right with the Archdiocese,” said Blanca Torres, vice president of the Preservation Society. If the church was deconsecrated, it was no longer a sacred site and therefore unable to hold mass.
So on July 1, members of St. Adalbert Preservation Society appealed both decrees issued by the Archdiocese to the Congregation for the Clergy, a court entity in the Vatican similar to a court of appeals in the U.S. Federal Court system. Any decree made by the Archdiocese of Chicago is subject to appeal by Congregation. As a Catholic court, the role of Congregation for the Clergy is to review appeals from parishioners that have not been addressed by their own archdioceses.
On October 31, the Archdiocese released another decree confirming the sale of St. Adalbert Church to CAM. However, it also stated that the church was now a sacred site again, rescinding its previous decree from May 24. Torres believes that the Archdiocese’s unprecedented action was due to pressure from the Congregation for the Clergy in response to the appeal. Regardless of the cause, this decree had implications that further complicated the sale of St. Adalbert to CAM.
The exact text of the decree says: “…relegation of St. Adalbert Church to profane but not sordid use, according to canon 1222 §2 of the Code of Canon Law, no longer appears to be the right means to advance the objective of preserving this historic church. Immediate alienation of the church, through the sale to the Chicago Academy of Music, is a better solution.”
However, under canon law, for a church to be sold to a secular purpose, which CAM is, the relegation of the church to profane use must precede the act of alienation. But Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, explicitly states in the first point of the decree that he rescinded the May 24 decree relegating the church to non-sacred uses.
Brody Hale, founder of the Catholic Preservation Society and a close advisor to the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, says that the sale therefore should not be possible for two reasons. “One is because there are still legal arguments going on in Rome regarding the parish closure, and because of that, no buildings at all on the parish campus should be sold if the law was being followed right now. Point two is that even if there were no legal actions in Rome taking place, in order to sell this church to CAM, he [Cupich] would again have to issue a decree making it no longer a church, which the Cardinal has not done so in this case,” Hale said.
Torres emphatically added that this contradiction in canon law is exactly what the Preservation Society is arguing against. If the church is still a sacred site, “why is the Archdiocese selling it to a non-Catholic entity?”
Most of the complications with the sale seem to arise from different understandings of the Archdiocese’s October 31 decree that re-consecrated St. Adalbert Church.
The transaction is completely legal under Illinois law. CAM director Carter said that “the church will stay almost, roughly the way it’s going to be. The consecrated or sacred spaces, we won’t take away or destroy.” He views it as a “happy marriage” because the parishioners can continue to worship in the church on the weekends while CAM uses the space on the weekdays. But again, according to canon law, if a Catholic church is sold to a secular entity, it is no longer sacred and can no longer be used for regular masses and worship.
Additionally, if a church is still a sacred space, canon law dictates that any music must be of liturgical nature. The type of music that the Academy would produce, even if it were classical jazz or music appropriate for children, would not be allowed.
Hale concedes the legality of the transaction in state law, but he says that “a multitude of requirements within the Church itself should have prevented such a sale from going through.”
So far the Archdiocese has been unresponsive to the Preservation Society and the parishioners regarding its actions. “If the sale goes through, it would be an absolute illustration of a complete disregard on the Archdiocese’s behalf for regulation,” Hale said.
“I think the Archdiocese is aware of the appeal to the Congregation for the Clergy, but is just refusing to engage in dialogue with the community,” said Anabel Arguello, the president of the Preservation Society.
Colleen Ryan, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese, wrote in a statement to the Weekly that the decision for the sale came after “a years-long transparent, consultive process that included surveys and meetings conducted throughout the Pilsen community.”
But “many of the parishioners are not too happy with the Archdiocese,” said Clemente, a parishioner who helps out with a small shop at St. Adalbert. For instance, parishioner Rosie Dominguez says that the reason why she got involved with efforts to save St. Adalbert was because she felt that the Archdiocese had completely disregarded her community and home.
Ryan’s statement also says that the proposal from the Chicago Academy of Music was the only one they received at the time with the financial ability to repair and preserve the church.
On November 11, 2016 the Preservation Society, along with The Resurrection Project (TRP), a Pilsen nonprofit, put in a matching bid for the property.
Because the property of St. Adalbert Church includes several other buildings, Torres says that the parishioners wanted to partner with an organization “who might be able to use the rest of the building for community services.”
“TRP was started twenty-five years ago in St. Adalbert when people needed an organization to help with housing and immigration issues,” says Torres. Now, they have expanded to providing support for undocumented immigrants and building low-income housing such as the La Casa student housing located a few blocks away from St. Adalbert.
“One of our biggest frustrations is that we’ve submitted a matching offer with TRP, and the Archdiocese is still not being transparent or establishing dialogue with us,” said Arguello, who says that she had been asking for an opportunity to review the joint project with TRP with the Archdiocese with no response. “They’ve actually hired an attorney, a law firm, and they’ve directed all of our communication to them.”
The Archdiocese continues to hold the position that they are under contract with the Chicago Academy of Music and that the transaction is expected to close in the next several months. Their only communication with the Preservation Society has been through a letter sent by the law firm representing the Archdiocese confirming the sale of St. Adalbert.
Hale thinks that the process could drag on for months, or at least until all the legal motions in the Vatican are finished. Last month, on February 8, the Preservation Society received a letter from Archbishop Christopher Pierre, the highest representative of the Catholic Church in the U.S., confirming that the appeal made back in July has been “forwarded through the diplomatic pouch to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura,” the highest court in the Vatican.
The best-case scenario for the Preservation Society is that the Vatican rules in favor of the parishioners to keep both the parish and the church open, although Torres is not optimistic about the success of the appeal for the parish. The more realistic alternative is that the appeals process will give parishioners enough leverage to make the Archdiocese willing to engage in negotiations with TRP regarding the future of the church building.
Although the progress of the sale is unclear, when I spoke to Carter on February 13, he remained confident that CAM was still under contract for the sale.
“For us, the infrastructure of saving those towers and putting the church back and still allowing the church to be used on Sundays has always been the plan,” Carter said.
The Chicago Academy of Music was founded as the brainchild of Carter in 2013, with the aim of bringing jazz and classical music education to underserved children. Carter’s business model for the academy is to have musicians and artists from around the world teach, in exchange for providing short-term living arrangements for them with money from student tuition. He explains that the Academy would build “enterprises”—think restaurants and bakeries—on the side to “help fund the shortfalls that music schools have because they need instruments and other things.”
However, there have been worries from parishioners about the Academy’s financial health and long-term commitment to the Pilsen community.
Torres remarked that she has no problems with the mission of CAM as an organization, but sees it as unfit to own St. Adalbert. “We’re just afraid that if they take over this big property, they’re not going to know how to manage it and in two or three years, they might go around and sell it to a developer, and something more drastic might happen, like a demolishing of the church. We just want to make sure that a proper entity that is established. It doesn’t even have to be Catholic per se.”
Greg, a Polish parishioner who grew up in St. Adalbert, said that CAM is not a community organization and “has no roots in Pilsen.” After speaking to several parishioners at the prayer vigil, it seems clear that whatever happens to the church, what they would like to preserve is not just the building itself, but the community services it provided, so that, as Arguello remarked, “We can continue to have a vibrant and diverse community.”
Hale is advising the Preservation Society for free. He has been fighting against Catholic Church closures since 2006 and agrees that there are some churches that genuinely need to be closed. “But I can tell the difference, and when I saw St. Adalbert’s situation in early 2016, it did look savable on account of parishioners willing to do what they needed to do to save it.”
This is not the first time that St. Adalbert has been in danger. The church was threatened with closure in the 1970s due to repair costs. A special committee was formed by Polish parishioners to collectively raise the $248,000 needed to halt deterioration. In 1974, the committee had raised enough money to save the church, celebrating with a special mass to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the parish’s founding.
When I asked Clemente why the church mattered to him, he pointed to the history so many people had with the church. “Everyone has that little moment or the place where it all started. This is where it started for me, and many other people. This is not just a building where I had church or mass, it’s a building where their faith started and grew. That’s why it means a lot to people. You see a lot of older people tearing up, but even with younger people—and you understand it every time.”
In order to understand the arguments made for and against the sale of the church, it is helpful to retrace a few of the events that have led up to the impasse. A timeline of the events can be accessed at savestadalbertchurch.org/timeline.
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