Seen on a gray, rainy morning, St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen looks haunted. Scaffolding wraps its 185-foot-tall Baroque towers like a parasitic plant. At the church entrance, eight rose-colored granite columns are blocked by dirty plywood, on which are hung Polish and Vatican flags. Behind the plywood, someone has pitched a tent—the only comfort currently offered by the 109-year-old building.
St. Adalbert’s is a symbol of a looming aesthetic disaster in Chicago—the closing and possible demolition of historic churches. Changes in religious practice and in the city’s population have driven down church attendance, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, individual parishes and the heads of other denominations have found they can no longer afford to keep many of their buildings open.
What do you do with an empty church—designed for such a specific purpose, with its stained glass, statues and vaulted ceiling? Sometimes they can be successfully reused for another congregation, or for a community center or residences. A creative reuse—like the transformation of a Logan Square evangelical church into a circus school or a historic West Loop church into an arts center—preserves the beauty of the building and its purpose as a community gathering place.
But it can be architecturally challenging and expensive to convert a large church building, with its vast interior space. Sometimes the structures sit for too long waiting for a new owner, depriving a congregation of resources while they are stripped of their beauty by time, weather and animal and human vandals. The fabric of the neighborhood is torn by the presence of a church that’s disused and deteriorating.
Preservationists say it is difficult to landmark a church in Chicago, and so the decision to save it is taken out of the community’s hands. Plus, demolition for new construction or conversion into condos can raise property taxes in a neighborhood that’s already lost an important resource.
“It’s more than just a house of worship lost—it’s an institution, it’s a community asset,” says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “That’s why it’s really wrenching when you see one of these closed.” Miller describes a shuttered or demolished church as almost like “an open sore, an open wound” in a neighborhood.
“It’s the preservation issue of the next ten years,” says Lee Bey, architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. “I don’t think many people are paying attention to this the way it ought to be… These churches are one-hundred years old. What do you do with these churches? It’s a tough question.”
Bey says that the city is in the same situation with churches as it was with movie theaters forty years ago—they’re all endangered, but the ones that will be reused are the ones on the North Side. “The ones that are going to rot away and be demolished are the ones on the South and West Sides,” Bey says. The same neighborhoods that saw the closure of so many public schools are also seeing the closure of churches, which bring a similar sense of loss.
Of the twenty-three properties available for sale by the Archdiocese of Chicago, fifteen are located on the South or West Sides or in the south or west suburbs, such as St. Gerard Majella in Markham. These properties may include a church and its other facilities, such as a rectory, school and convent—some are under contract. Of the eleven Archdiocesan churches that are currently for sale in the city of Chicago alone, nine are on the South or West Sides. They include St. Adalbert, St. Ambrose, St. Camillus, Corpus Christi, St. Francis DeSales, St. George, St. Joachim, Our Lady Gate of Heaven and St. Kevin. Our Lady of Good Counsel was recently sold to the Pilsen Wellness Center.
John Holden, a writer, historian and church preservationist, says he feels a “sense of dread that all these wonderful, unique edifices are getting into a very dangerous position.” For Holden, the fight is personal—he has seen Little Flower Catholic Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, where he was baptized, fall into ruin. A recent visit was “devastating.”
“It was sad to see how horribly abused the whole place had been,” says Holden. “I don’t know if there were vandals that came in and ransacked it or if it was the work of the elements. There were file cabinets strewn all over, pews upturned, and rubble everywhere.” Built in 1940, the limestone-façade church closed in 1993 after serving generations of Chicagoans. Greater Mt. Hebron Baptist bought the building, but later left it.
“Psychologically, seeing a closed school and these closed churches does something to you—it’s like a big flashing sign for a level of disinvestment and failure, something went wrong,” says Elizabeth Blasius, co-founder of Preservation Futures.
“Just on a purely visual level, it diminishes the sense of community when these places disappear,” says Kendra Parzen, advocacy manager for Landmarks Illinois.
“Renew My Church”
The Archdiocese of Chicago is not the only religious organization faced with decisions over what to do with old, underused buildings. But it’s definitely the biggest, and has the largest and often the most architecturally significant churches.
This is because in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the city was packed with immigrant Catholics from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries, who built their own churches and schools. The churches were often modeled after those in their own countries—churches constructed in what is known as “Polish Cathedral-style,” for example, include St. Adalbert and the Northwest Side churches of St. John Cantius, St. Mary of the Angels and Holy Trinity. They have grand edifices and elaborate interior decoration.
Taking up entire city blocks with rectories, gymnasiums, schools and convents, many churches are significant even to people who are not Catholic—older Chicagoans remembering calling their neighborhoods by the names of the local parish, as in “I’m from by St. Ben’s,” instead of using the official community name. Here’s where you found summer carnivals, food pantries, pick-up basketball games, and basement Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“Tall, architecturally distinctive structures that soar above nearby two-flats and bungalows, they often serve as visual anchors of neighborhoods,” says former Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin. “They’re also repositories of memories and identity, their lure is so strong that ethnic groups who have left behind the ‘old neighborhood’ for the suburbs still make pilgrimages to them.”
As earlier immigrant groups moved out, new immigrants moved in. St. Adalbert, for example, was originally Polish but was primarily Mexican in recent years, and Mass was held in both Polish and Spanish in the years before the building closed. African Americans who were part of the Great Migration filled South and West Side churches and schools that used to be primarily Irish, as well as former synagogues.
But while many of those who frequented these churches moved away, many of those who stayed no longer go to church. The Catholic Church suffered from the self-inflicted wounds of sexual-abuse scandals and from the secularization of society that has hurt many religious communities—roughly three in ten U.S. adults are not religiously affiliated, up from five percent in 1972, according to the Pew Research Center.
The reason there are so many buildings for sale now is because the Archdiocese is going through a process called “Renew My Church,” which means consolidating parishes, closing down some churches or church buildings, and combining two or three parishes into one—it is hoped—financially viable one. The Archdiocese includes Cook and Lake Counties.
Eric Wollan, an Archdiocese spokesperson, said that when the Renew My Church process began about six years ago, there were 344 parishes. There are currently 218. About 65 parishes have more than one worship site.
Wollan acknowledges that many churches are architecturally significant and beautiful, but the buildings are expensive to maintain and parish membership is shrinking.
“One of the blessings of the Catholic Church is the grandeur of our buildings, but it’s also a curse,” Wollan says. “It makes it challenging.”
Most churches get sold to other religious denominations, which continue to use them as churches, Wollan says. For example, the St. Hugh campus in Lyons was sold to a Serbian congregation. This also happens with other denominations—the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago took over the Irving Park United Methodist Church, part of which dates back to the nineteenth century.
Some former churches and parish buildings have gone to non-profits, community groups and schools. Immaculate Heart of Mary’s elementary school became CICS-Irving Park Charter School years ago—the school now plans to convert the shuttered church for school use, Wollan says.
Many smaller buildings, such as rectories and convents, have become residences. In a few cases, campuses were demolished because buildings were beyond repair, Wollan says. Transfiguration of Our Lord parish in Lincoln Square was flattened for townhomes.
St. Boniface in East Village, in danger of the wrecking ball for three decades, is being converted into luxury condos that will sell for up to $1.75 million, according to the Residences of St. Boniface website.
“We’re hoping that will be a great success,” says Miller, who notes that the fight to save St. Boniface helped start Preservation Chicago. “If that’s a success story, perhaps other buildings can be repurposed in a similar fashion.”
A Cleveland State University study of conversions of more than 200 religious facilities and schools between 1984 and 2009 found that condominiums are the dominant reuse category, compared with apartments, cultural institutions (such as museums and arts centers), office and retail.
There have been some inspiring church reuse stories, where buildings were preserved and repurposed for a different community.
One such reuse is the conversion of the Church of the Epiphany into the Epiphany Center for the Arts in the West Loop. The Episcopalian sandstone church in the Richardsonian Romanesque style was built in 1885. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 to protect it from demolition. Drawn to the sound of its bells, David Chase and Kimberly Rachal married in the church in 1996. But it closed in 2011, and the diocese failed to sell it—both the main church and the newer annex were in disrepair.
Chase and Rachal looked into buying the church in 2015, and found that in order to use it, it had to be deconsecrated through a special ceremony. Construction started in fall of 2018. It now has eight art galleries, four live entertainment venues, and the entire facility can be rented for private events.
Parzen calls the Epiphany Center “a fantastic example of church reuse.”
“It can still be an anchor and a gathering place for the community,” Parzen says.
Chase cautions that converting an old church into a different use is “not for the faint of heart,” since it requires a lot of work with rezoning and construction.
“My first word of advice for anyone getting into this is to know what they’re getting into and realize that the real estate development process is complex,” Chase says. “It’s political, it’s expensive, so before you own a property, make sure you can do what you intend to do.”
He notes that many churches are obsolete for alternate uses, and if there’s any kind of landmark status or historic designation, you’re constrained as to use and construction. “If there’s a property that isn’t historic or landmarked, the highest and best use might be to tear it down.”
Another example is the rebirth of a Logan Square evangelical church into Aloft Circus Arts. Aloft owner and artistic director Shayna Swanson says she had been renting space for ten years, and figured it would be cheaper to buy.
When she first entered the empty, now-116-year-old building, “I got tears in my eyes,” Swanson says. “It would be so perfect.” Swanson had attended a circus school in a former British church, and knew high ceilings were good for rigging and performance space.
The purchase process took about nine months, Swanson recalls. “It’s hard to convince a bank to give you a million dollars to buy a church to build a circus school—surprise!” she says, laughing. The building required renovations, including removal of a “cool, beautiful, tin ceiling,” and leveling the sloped floor.
Swanson says it helped that the neighborhood favored the conversion. “I think the community was excited that it was going to be something beyond a condo building,” Swanson says. “For it to become a place where the community can gather, instead, is sort of in the spirit of what a church has always been.” Though she says she has seen some nice condo conversions that preserve the beauty of the buildings, Swanson thinks it’s better to keep former churches as community spaces.
The St. Adalbert’s Controversy
St. Adalbert’s has been the focus of the most sorrow and controversy over a closed Chicago church.
Completed in 1914, the church is the largest and most historically significant of the Archdiocese buildings currently for sale—the asking price is $3.95 million. Its architect was Henry J. Schlacks, who designed fourteen other Chicago-area churches, including St. Ita in Edgewater, St. Boniface in East Village and St. Nicholas in Evanston.
St. Adalbert closed because it was beyond the parish’s capacity to sustain, according to Raul Cerrado of the parish finance committee. St. Adalbert’s and a smaller church, St. Ann’s, were unified under St. Paul’s. St. Ann’s was turned into condos.
St. Adalbert’s had a $1.6 million debt, and maintenance alone on the building was $15,000 a month, while the collection earned a third of that on a good month, Cerrado says.
“It was in such disrepair—the thought came that maybe it’s not a safe place to be having Mass, at some point something’s going to come falling down from the ceiling,” Cerrado says. Of particular concern were the two towers—their iron frames were damaged by seepage. Repairs would cost up to $5 million, Cerrado says. So the parish decided to put it on the market.
Julie Sawicki, president of the Society of St. Adalbert, says her organization presented a plan to convert the facility into a shrine and retreat house. “We want to maintain it as a sacred space,” Sawicki says. She speaks rapidly, with passion and often anger, about the church’s closure and its importance in Polish Chicago history.
“All these peasant farmers managed to scrape together money to build these magnificent houses of worship, not only as a testament to their strong faith but as a gift to the country that accepted them and allowed them to be free,” says Sawicki. She argues that there are ways to save buildings like this, but “the Archdiocese just wants them demolished.” She says it was “sickening” how workers cut into the church wall to remove a marble replica of MIchelangelo’s Pietà, which shows Mary cradling the crucified Christ. Protesters yelled at workers not to take it away to its new home at St. Paul’s—some were arrested.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) says that the Archdiocese has been unwilling to discuss the future of the parish. He notes that the church pays no property taxes. Now it wants to sell the building, which could raise property taxes in an already gentrifying neighborhood, burdening long-time homeowners, he says.
“We have to have a conversation about what that means in terms of the implications for the rest of the community,” Sigcho-Lopez says. “Luxury development usually comes at a great expense to local residents.”
The alderman recommends a zoning change to give communities more input into the fate of church buildings, but he says this is in “limbo” in the City Council.
An archdiocese spokesperson says that representatives met with Sawicki’s group many times, and that it offered no credible proposal for reuse of the property. The spokesperson says church officials also met with Sigcho-Lopez, but that he wants to talk with Cardinal Blase Cupich, when it’s a parish decision—not the Cardinal’s. The parish pays for utilities and security for the empty church, and wants whoever buys it to reuse the building, not tear it down, the spokesperson says.
Cerrado agrees that the building’s closure hurts the character of the neighborhood, and passions are running high. “Even people who are not parishioners remember seeing the towers and knowing they were home.” But he says people have to ask themselves if it is more important to practice their faith or maintain old buildings.
“That’s the question—is being a Catholic about keeping the bricks together on these old buildings, is that achieving your spirituality?” Cerrado says. “We’d say, no, it’s not, it doesn’t do anything for the community… The church is not about the buildings, but about the parishioners who are there for the fellowship.”
Dominic Pacyga, professor emeritus of history at Columbia College and author of “American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Polish Chicago,” says St. Adalbert’s closure was the result of parishioners leaving.
“People ask me, ‘How can I save St. Adalbert’s?’ I say ‘Move back to the neighborhood and put a dollar in the collection plate.’ They say ‘I can’t do that,’” Pacyga says.
While all sides in the St. Adalbert’s debate refer to the church as a “landmark,” officially, it isn’t. It is difficult to landmark places of worship and that’s a major obstacle in preserving them, according to preservation experts. Making it easier to declare places of worship as landmarks would make it easier for the community to have a voice in their future.
Parzen and Miller say that the city is reluctant to landmark buildings like churches that are in active use. Congregations and owners alike may be resistant, Miller says.
“This comes up fairly often,” says Parzen. “Landmarking is one of the best tools that we have to protect buildings, to protect our historic resources. Churches are often wonderful anchors for their neighborhood, in terms of their presence on the block, and when we don’t protect them and they’re demolished it’s a real loss for the fabric of the community.” She says Landmarks Illinois is advocating for historic churches to be designated landmarks and for them to be reused rather than demolished whenever possible, ideally with neighborhood input.
Bey agrees that it should be easier to landmark churches. “The issue has been for years that the city won’t landmark a building without a congregation’s approval. But congregations are beginning to approve now… Congregations are understanding the importance of these buildings and they have to think about the life of these buildings in the event the church moves away. I think congregations are seeing the light, if you will.”
Miller says that African American churches on the South and West Sides in particular are starting to see the benefits of landmarking, which can attract grant money.
One hopeful sign is that the City Council in April agreed to landmark the 137-year-old brick-and-terra cotta Greater Union Baptist Church, designed by architect William Le Baron Jenney, father of the skyscraper. The church at 1956 West Warren Boulevard had already gotten preliminary landmark status with the support of the congregation.
Bey says that when the congregation is in doubt, the city could take more initiative about landmarking.
Architecture critic Kamin acknowledges that finding ways to reuse church buildings is a big economic challenge, but once recycled, they can pay tremendous dividends, such as providing affordable housing to seniors.
“We don’t build ‘em like this anymore,” Kamin says in an email. “Why send such transcendent beauty to the dump?”