Precious Blood joins St. Malachy in merging of faith communities
July 5, 2012
Colorful Machachine dancers celebrated Precious Blood’s heritage. (Photo by Gabija Steponenaite)

By Gabija Steponenaite

May 27 stands as a bittersweet day for parishioners of Precious Blood Church, 2411 W. Congress Pkwy. It marked the closure of their house of worship and their joining a new place of devotion at St. Malachy Church, 2248 W. Washington Blvd. As Precious Blood ushers scrambled for more chairs to accommodate the overflowing crowd that day, parishioners of all ages quickly filled the pews of the rose colored, lovingly decorated church.

The last Mass at Precious Blood, one of Chicago’s oldest faith communities, started with loud drumming by Machachine dancers dressed in blood red costumes embroidered with gold and silver ornaments and wearing helmets decorated with red, white, and blue feathers. The dancers led a procession of ministers to the altar to begin the Mass.

“It hurts a lot,” said Precious Blood deacon Mario Avila. “We know it is going to be hard, especially for those who have been there for a long time. But slowly we have to heal our wounds and we hope that in the future we can build a church which unites African Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos.”

Avila has been with the parish for 42 years, serving as deacon the last 22 years.

Varying opinions
Some parishioners expressed hope and excitement, others said they felt they were losing their childhood home, others feared they might lose their faith traditions, and someone even said attending the last Mass at Precious Blood felt like attending a funeral.

“St. Malachy is a very beautiful church, but my heart is at Precious Blood,” said Esteban Uriostigue, a 21-year Precious Blood parishioner. His daughter Michelle admitted, “It is a little bit upsetting; however, if we look at the bright side, we will be at another church, our community will be bigger, and we will get more support.”

“Families from the Precious Blood community would like to include their culture of worship, and we would like to include ours,” said St. Malachy council and choir member Robin Watson. “I think it is very important that we are working to appreciate each other’s traditions.”

“I really like it, because people of different cultures are uniting,” said Jannette Rodrigues, a Precious Blood parishioner for five years. “I think it is a great idea, and it is better to be united rather than to be separated. We learn from each other.”

Gladys Lanier-Lee, a member of the St. Malachy-Precious Blood finance council, said, “I am experiencing overwhelming feelings. We have been separated for so long, and today is a wonderful day when we see the churches unite. We have been working together. What could be so wrong if we worship together? We share the same goal.”

Decade-long work
The idea to reorganize some of the Chicago West Side parishes began a decade ago.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Chicago explained, “In September 2002, Bishop John Manz convened a group of pastors from Deanery D in Vicariate III to meet and discuss how their area ministry might look in the next ten to 20 years. Ten parishes with dwindling financial resources and an exorbitant need for capital repairs had very small congregations with a total of 2,500 worshippers on any given Sunday. In October 2002, the pastors and lay representatives of the West Side parishes initiated a planning process and discussion on how the ministry might evolve in their particular areas.”

The archdiocese closed Precious Blood as a parish in 2005, but the building remained open as a worship site affiliated with St. Malachy. Rev. Matthew Eyerman, appointed last year to serve both communities and assist during the merger, said, “New beginnings and new challenges are exciting. St. Malachy’s parish has a great history and a great potential for growth.”

For several years, Precious Blood members fought their church’s closure. They feared that merging with St. Malachy’s would eliminate their church’s name, devotions, faith traditions, space for the Sunday school, and evangelization efforts. Fr. Eyerman has worked to address their concerns.

Steeped in history
Irish immigrants founded St. Malachy and Precious Blood more than 100 years ago. Both have experienced membership increases and decreases over the years due to demographic changes. Founded in 1882, St. Malachy today is considered one of the oldest predominantly African American Catholic parishes in the city.

Precious Blood, founded in 1907, has mainly Latino parishioners. The combined congregations number about 400 people. The churches are located on the opposite sides of the Eisenhower Expressway, about a mile from one another. Unfortunately, the bridge over the expressway sometimes served as an unofficial border separating the two communities, rather than connecting them.

The merger “is a historic time, not only for these two local parishes but for the Chicago Archdiocese,” said Elena Segura, director of the office for immigrant affairs and immigration education at the Archdiocese. Segura noted that, despite their cultural differences, the communities share a similar history and experience—discrimination, poverty, and struggle against systematic oppression.

“Through faith and sharing there is an opportunity to find common ground and the courage to be empowered,” Segura said. The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Black/Latino Dialog program “can assist in developing better relations between these communities,” she added. “It will be ready to assist the St. Malachy and Precious Blood members to integrate more successfully.”

Strength in numbers
Some worry the combined church might lose several parishioners, especially those who spent most of their lifetime worshiping at Precious Blood. Fr. Eyerman, how ever, thinks the merger “has made both communities stronger,” he said. “This merger has not only inspired people to learn more about their own faith traditions and icons, but about new traditions and icons from a different culture. It has given us an opportunity to reflect on what is important in our faith traditions and express it to other people.”

Good will
Both communities have worked hard to create good will and a successful transition. For the last year, church members organized joint meetings and events to discuss expectations and express concerns.

St. Malachy members created space for each church’s devotions and placed texts explaining their meaning and significance.

They also erected an Our Lady of Guadalupe statue in the churchyard. The new church has incorporated both names, becoming St. Malachy-Precious Blood Church. Fr. Eyerman has started learning Spanish.

The May 27 procession, which brought in sculptures of saints from Precious Blood, enjoyed a welcome by the St. Malachy choir featuring inspirational and uplifting songs.

“I think we have achieved a milestone,” Fr. Eyerman said. “Every member of the church did a lot of hard work. Currently there are only a handful of united African American and Hispanic churches in the City of Chicago. By learning about each other, we are strengthening a bond which will hopefully bind us together in one church forever.”

Said Second Ward Alderman Robert Fioretti, “I think together they will have strength, they will be able to flourish, and they will have the combined wisdom of all their parishioners. Both churches are committed to helping their community, and I think we will see an overall change for the better.”

A charter school under Learn Charter School Network will expand its operations at the Precious Blood church building and will continue operating there with a long-termlease.