Bridgeport residents informed of church closings, consolidations
February 1, 2019

Parishioners at All Saints-St. Anthony Parish were given the sad news by the Archdiocese that their church is slated for closure.

By Nathan Worcester

Bridgeport-area residents on Nov. 28 braved the snow and cold to gather at St. Barbara Catholic Church to learn how the Archdiocese of Chicago’s “Renew My Church” initiative would affect their parishes. Less than two months later, on Jan. 19, another snowstorm heralded another meeting at St. Barbara. The Archdiocese had finished its discernment process and decided the fates of All-Saints-St. Anthony Parish, St. Barbara Parish, St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish, and St. Therese Chinese Catholic Parish.

Speakers on Jan. 19 included Bishop Robert Casey, the Archdiocese’s episcopal vicar for the area; the Rev. Jason Malave, Cardinal Blasé Cupich’s delegate for Renew My Church; Ben Potts, associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese; and Cliff Barber, chief strategy officer for the Archdiocese. Cardinal Cupich did not attend either meeting.

After a hymn, there was a blizzard of announcements. Beginning July 1, 2019, St. Therese will form a combined parish with St. Barbara. It will be headed by the current St. Therese pastor, the Rev. Francis Li. The St. Barbara site will remain open, but Fr. Li will not be saying Mass there. It has not been decided who will say Mass at St. Barbara.

By the same date, All Saints-St. Anthony Parish and St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish will combine to form a new parish led by the Rev. Thomas Aschenbrener, current pastor of the latter parish. The All Saints-St. Anthony Parish site is slated for closure by June 30, 2020. A statement from the Archdiocese noted that Fr. Aschenbrener will work with Fr. Peter McQuinn, pastor of All Saints-St. Anthony Parish, “to ensure an effective and smooth transition to the new parish model, including accompanying the Hispanic community of All Saints-St. Anthony into the new parish.” St. Mary of Perpetual Help Church will serve as the worship site.

In a phone interview, Fr. Malave confirmed that Fr. McQuinn will move on to a new assignment. He also noted there will be eight closures across the Archdiocese as a whole at the end of this school year.

St. Jerome Croatian and Santa Lucia-Santa Maria Incoronata Parishes will unite to form a new parish July 1, with St. Jerome Croatian Church as the worship site, and also the site of the school, with Santa Lucia School closing. Nativity of Our Lord and St. Gabriel Parishes will unite to form one parish, with both churches open as worship sites. Bridgeport Catholic Academy and St. Gabriel School will unite as one school with two campuses.

The speakers also reaffirmed the Archdiocese’s decision to combine St. Barbara School with St. Therese Chinese School under the aegis of the latter. That determination, which was first announced at the Nov. 28 meeting, has sparked controversy. St. Barbara School parent Kathy Bunda started a petition on Change.org, “Save St. Barbara Catholic Elementary School.” It has received more than 1,500 signatures as of Jan 22. Fr. Malave confirmed that a similar petition had circulated within the St. Therese community.

“Many parents feel betrayed,” wrote Bunda in a Facebook message. “Other schools were given the opportunity to combine and join forces or even to raise money and remain open, such as St. Walter. We were never given that opportunity, and I do not believe it was ever in the plan regardless of how many meetings were held. We do not owe the Archdiocese any money and have not taken help or assistance from them for several years.”

“It kind of depends on how you define ‘self-supporting,’” said Fr. Malave. “There’s no grant from the Archdiocese of Chicago to St. Barbara School. There is support from the Big Shoulders tuition support organization.”

Fr. Malave also highlighted Illinois’ new “Invest in Kids” tax credit scholarship program as one means of bridging the tuition gap between St. Barbara and St. Therese, which St. Barbara parents would face after their first year at the combined school. In addition, he said the Archdiocese provides need-based scholarships.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently issued a report on Illinois priests facing sexual abuse allegations. In response to a question from the audience concerning alleged sexual abuse in the church, Fr. Malave said “sadness,” “anger,” and “shame” were among the understandable responses to those incidents and the climate in which they had occurred.

Another anonymous comment from the audience described the night’s announcements as an “abomination,” asking those responsible to “please pray for God’s mercy.”

Afterwards, reactions from the attendees were mixed.

“It did take me by surprise, but I am happy that St. Barbara and St. Therese will be both active parishes,” said Norma Perez of St. Barbara Parish, who added that her nieces and nephews attend St. Barbara School and that she is an alumna of the now-shuttered St. Barbara High School. “Instead of losing, we’re actually gaining. I think it’s best for the children of St. Barbara and for the parishioners. We’ll both learn from each other and our cultures. I just hope for the best.”

“All of these parishes can support themselves,” said Al DiFranco. “We don’t need the Archdiocese,” he added noting that he suspected that the Archdiocese was looking to reap a financial profit from sales of closed church properties.

Fr. Malave did not confirm whether St. Barbara Parish is financially self-supporting.

“I really feel bad for the parishioners of All Saints-St. Anthony,” said a parishioner of St. Therese who wished to remain anonymous. “This whole ‘Renew My Church’ process has been very, very difficult, and the timeline has been very, very short. And so there’s a lot of hurt feelings out there—some very, very bitter feelings out there—and it’s going to take a long time for us to heal… It’s heartbreaking for a lot of people, but I’m sure that they’ll make it through.”

“Everyone knew that changes would have to come,” said Wendy Sin of St. Therese. “Obviously we feel very sorry for All Saints and St. Lucy. They’re in our prayers. For us and St. Barbara, we feel hopeful. We look forward to working together. I’m sure that there will be things that we’ll have to work through with them. We’ll work together. So there’s no longer going to be an ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

Asked about one questioner’s concerns that the united parish will remain sensitive to the needs of St. Therese’s traditionally Chinese and Chinese-American parishioners, Sin replied, “I believe it’s possible. We live in Chicago—we’re one of the most diverse cities and metropolitan areas in the nation. It’s not insurmountable. We’ll work through it—we have in the past, and we will in the future.”

For more information, log on to the Archdiocese’s Renew My Church website at www.renewmychurch.org.