Bridgeport area church and school closings revealed
December 7, 2018

A large crowd gathered in St. Barbara’s Church on Nov. 28 to receive news about Roman Catholic church and school closings and consolidations.

By Nathan Worcester

On the cold, snowy evening of Nov. 28, Roman Catholic clergy met with laity at St. Barbara Catholic Church in Bridgeport to discuss the Archdiocese of Chicago’s plan for regrouping of nine parishes and schools in Bridgeport, Armour Square, Canaryville, and Chinatown. Part of the Archdiocese’s “Renew My Church” initiative, the decisions were ultimately made by Cardinal Blase J. Cupich. Cupich did not attend the meeting; Bishop Robert Casey was present.

Santa Lucia-Santa Maria Incoronata Parish and School in Armour Square will close. A statement from the Archdiocese said the school will close on June 30, 2019, and the parish will close by June 2020. Both will be merged with nearby St. Jerome Croatian Parish and School and be managed by the Croatian Franciscans. The Rev. Jason Malave, Cardinal Cupich’s delegate for Renew My Church, said Santa Lucia-Santa Maria families will receive consultation regarding where to send their children next year.

“It’s a pretty small population at Santa Lucia-Santa Maria–about 35 kids,” said Fr. Malave.

Superintendent of Catholic Schools Jim Rigg indicated the Archdiocese would help Santa Lucia’s teachers obtain new jobs. He emphasized the statewide shortage of Catholic school teachers.

St. Barbara School will be brought under the umbrella of St. Therese Chinese School, 1.4 miles away in Chinatown. St. Barbara’s campus should remain operational and even include an expanded pre-K program. However, it will be overseen by the principal of St. Therese and bear the St. Therese name. St. Barbara’s current principal will be lead administrator at the St. Barbara site. The Archdiocese indicated that present faculty and staff of St. Barbara School will enjoy “priority status” if they apply for jobs at the newly configured, larger St. Therese School.

Nativity of Our Lord Parish in southern Bridgeport will join with St. Gabriel Parish in Canaryville under a single new pastor. Neither site will close. Bridgeport Catholic Academy, which uses the Nativity of Our Lord building, will be consolidated with St. Gabriel School. During the 2019-2020 school year, the schools will maintain separate campuses and principals. Both principals will answer to the new pastor. Director of Communications and Marketing for the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools Anne Maselli said determining how the two principals will interact with each other would be “an evolving process.”

Barring substantial declines in enrollment, faculty and staff from both schools who are in good standing should not be at risk of losing their jobs.

The Archdiocese has not decided the fates of All-Saints-St. Anthony Parish, St. Barbara Parish, St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish, and St. Therese Chinese Catholic Parish, and the Archdiocesan Center for Chinese Apostolate.

“The priests of the Archdiocese really invited the Cardinal to think about the future even more boldly than maybe the [Archdiocesan] Commission was thinking about the future,” said Fr. Malave, when asked why those decisions were being delayed until January 2019. “He wanted to really build towards vital churches, and it’s hard to build towards very vital churches with very minimal people in the pews.

“The Cardinal has asked us to take two more months and have more conversations to come up with the recommendation for him as to what might be the best structural decision for those parishes,” said Fr. Malave. “There might be other possibilities [of closures] in January.”

Attendees voiced a range of opinions about the consolidations.

St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish, is among four sites in the community whose future will not be known until mid-January 2019.

Various ethnic groups “have been here for 115 years, some of them,” said Michael Alebich, noting that the churches in the area have an “old country” ethnic character. For St. Barbara, the old country “would be Poland,” Alebich added. “In St. Jerome’s case, it would be Croatia. All-Saints: Italian. St. Gabe’s, Nativity: Irish. All the ethnic groups that kind of made up Bridgeport.”

“There’s no reason for declining enrollment,” said Chris Pienta. “Nobody cares that St. Therese is predominantly Chinese. Why do they only have to go to St. Therese? Why wasn’t the Archdiocese funneling these people off the waiting list to all these Catholic schools?

“The parish structure has always been focused on the various nationalities,” said Fran LaMonica. “That’s no longer the demographics. A lot of what had been, isn’t anymore. And there’s not as many priests as there used to be. So we have to be smart about how we consolidate. I think our Cardinal has the courage to do it and push it forward. Will I be happy if my church closes? No, but I can understand it. I’d be very saddened by it.”

Maselli said the Archdiocese understands that Santa Lucia-Santa Maria Incoronata parishioners “are sad. I think a lot of people want to sit with it too and figure out what is next for them.”

Thursday’s consolidations were announced just days after reports that the Archdiocese purchased a $1.65 million residence in Lincoln Park for use by parish priests. It also comes on the heels of the Archdiocese’s addition of ten names to a list of living and deceased clergy whose accused sexual abuses of minors have been judged “substantiated” by the Archdiocese.

Joann, an attendee who declined to provide her last name, blamed the Archdiocese for a lack of priests. “The Chicago Archdiocese has a miserable record in the number of priests it graduates,” she said “And why is that? Just think of all the news that has come out this summer. It’s a sort of analogous position to the ‘Me Too’ in Hollywood, but nobody seems to want to go there.”

Another anonymous attendee said St. Barbara was being absorbed by St. Therese because St. Therese is costlier.

St. Therese’s and St. Barbara’s websites show tuition is higher at the former than for “active participating parishioner[s]” at the latter. Families with three school-age children could eventually pay $3,380 more in tuition alone, although 2019-2020 tuition for children from a closing school will be pegged at the rate of whichever school is less costly.

“We look again at vitality—where do you find vitality?” said  Fr. Malave, when asked why St. Therese and St. Barbara were being united under the St. Therese banner rather than vice-versa. “What we know about the demographic of this area is that there’s a ton of desire for what St. Therese offers,” said Fr. Malave. “There’s waiting lists of about a hundred kids.”

According to Maselli, St. Barbara’s October enrollment was 132 children while St. Therese’s was 279 children.

Although Fr. Malave could not say how much money would be saved through the consolidations, he said any debt owed to the Archdiocese by the closing schools would be forgiven. No comment was offered on other debts.