St. Adalbert holds last Mass; parishioners fight on to save church for community
August 2, 2019

Photo by Amy Rothblatt
Before the July 14 service, activists and parishioners braved the heat to protest the archdiocese’s decision to close the church.

By Nathan Worcester

At noon on July 14, the pews at St. Adalbert’s Roman Catholic Church, 1650 W. 17th St., overflowed with people. The church was celebrating its final Mass, a trilingual service in English, Spanish, and Polish. As of July 15, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich relegated St. Adalbert’s to “profane but not sordid use,” according to an Archdiocese of Chicago statement.

The word “profane” is used by the archdiocese not in the modern negative sense but as a word that simply means non-church use, so long as the building is not used for bad (“sordid”) purposes.

Financial and administrative challenges in operating the church “have become too burdensome” to keep the church open, according to Anne Maselli, a spokesperson for the archdiocese. The archdiocese put the church property up for sale and has entered “advanced discussions” with “several interested parties,” Maselli said. Any plan for the site likely will include “a redevelopment component” for some or all of the property.

Locals in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood worry the church site will go to real estate developers, creating more fallout from ongoing gentrification. Meanwhile, activists representing the Chicago area’s Polish-American community consider the closure an affront to their immigrant forebears.

The 25th Ward’s new alderman, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, is working with Preservation Chicago’s Ward Miller and other groups to safeguard the site from development, but groups have differing visions for St. Adalbert’s.

Many remain skeptical about St. Adalbert’s closing, seeing archdiocesan figures for repairs as implausibly high and saying the process lacked transparency. A deal for the Chicago Academy of Music to acquire the property lapsed when the contract with the academy ended in 2017.

Parishioners upset

Before the July 14 service, activists braved the heat to protest the decision in front of the building.

“The diocese has really screwed us over here,” said Anina Jakubowski, who grew up in the neighborhood. “They are greedy. It was built by the Polish immigrants for their children—and for all people.”

“It’s an emotional tug of war,” said Neil Drasga. “The Catholic Church probably doesn’t have the funding to save all these churches. At the same time, it’s part of the community.”

“I believe this parish is very beautiful,” said parishioner Jose Padilla. “This is a house of God. They shouldn’t touch it.”

“I think it’s a disgrace,” said Kathryn, a woman who did not want to disclose her last name. “They have religious orders willing to take over, and the archdiocese won’t even sit down with its own people. This is not the archdiocese’s—this is our church.”

Maselli neither confirmed nor denied whether the archdiocese has rebuffed religious orders.

Teresa Rogala, a Polish immigrant, compared the Archdiocese of Chicago to the Communist Party in Poland before 1989. “Nobody knows anything that’s going on,” she said. “They were deciding in Warsaw what would be done in some part of the country. And over here it’s the same.”

Karolina Franz, another Polish immigrant, noted, “The archdiocese says we don’t live in the neighborhood anymore,” but said her mother comes to Mass at St. Adalbert’s every week, there are plenty of cars with people coming from other areas, and “there’s great infrastructure. The Pink Line is right here.”

She also noted substantial immigration from Poland since the 1990s. “We have supported the parishes all over Chicago for years,” said Franz.

During the service, Monsignor James Kaczorowski eulogized St. Adalbert’s in three languages.

“I am very sad today, and I am sure you are, too,” said Kaczorowski. “But we know that life doesn’t end with a funeral. No one can separate us from St. Adalbert.”

Kaczorowski’s Spanish remarks included a call-and-response of “¡Que viva!”—“Long live!”

Photo by Amy Rothblatt
A protester’s sign pointed out the irony of the archdiocese closing St. Adalbert’s in prosperous times after leaving it open during the Great Depression.

Back to the streets

Following the service, protestors took to the streets once more, chanting, “St. Adalbert, hear our plea! St. Adalbert, pray for us!” Before long, police officers blocked one of the church’s massive doors.

Longtime parishioner Martin Moreno cupped his hands together beneath his mirrored sunglasses, shouting, “The church is not for sale!”

Moreno told Gazette Chicago, “This has been my second house for 32 years.” He disagreed with claims the church was structurally unsound, saying contractors working on the church felt it did not require substantial repairs.

“We will be on the side of the community,” said Alderman Sigcho-Lopez during a subsequent press conference, adding, “We will have a conversation with the City” about landmarking St. Adalbert’s.

“In the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, St. Adalbert is rated orange, meaning that it is subject to the Demolition-Delay Ordinance wherein any applications for demolition permits are subject to a hold of up to 90 days,” Sigcho-Lopez elaborated in a later statement to Gazette Chicago. “During this period, the City’s Department of Planning and Development can take a number of measures including landmark designation. Essentially, landmark designation would prevent the church from being demolished.”

At a press conference, Miller said a 1987 amendment to the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance prevents landmarking religious buildings such as St. Adalbert’s without the owner’s consent—in this case, the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Repeal amendment?

“That 1987 amendment should be repealed—also something Preservation Chicago is advocating for,” said Mary Lu Seidel of Preservation Chicago to Gazette Chicago.

Zoe Chan, spokesperson for Sigcho-Lopez, confirmed the alderman supported repealing that amendment.

“Today, to see that church filled and to hear the crackling voices and people all around me in tears, just goes to show you that to close churches in Chicago—or any religious structure—is really not the answer,” Miller said.

“I think we can find priests in other places,” Miller continued. “I think we can raise the money to restore these towers. I think we can get special orders—religious orders—in here to save this church and to reopen it.”

Activists disputed many of the archdiocese’s statements about St. Adalbert’s closure. Some claimed the church’s supposedly precarious financial position resulted when the church’s pastor, Rev. Michael Enright took out a large loan to repair St. Adalbert’s and St. Paul’s Church, where Fr. Enright is also pastor. According to Julie Sawicki of the Society of St. Adalbert (SOSA), although officials originally meant to split the loan evenly between the two churches, the majority went to St. Paul’s, and the remainder “wasn’t enough to repair St. Adalbert’s.”

Jakubowski said that those opposed to closing the church feel the archdiocese’s plan is, “Get rid of this church. We’ll sell it because it’s top real estate property and now we’ll pay off your bill.”

Maselli responded, “Any previous repairs at St. Paul are immaterial to the decision regarding the future of the St. Adalbert buildings. The St. Adalbert buildings no longer serve the mission of the church and, therefore, it is not good stewardship to continue to incur significant costs associated with them and also risk them falling further into disrepair.

Monsignor James Kaczorowski eulogized St. Adalbert’s in three languages, with a large contingent of people near the altar and in the pews.

Repair costs

“The St. Adalbert towers require significant masonry repair,” wrote Maselli. “We believe the cost just to repair the towers exceeds $3 million—a number that has been widely known for many years. Additionally, both the church and supporting buildings require significant additional investment beyond that of the towers.”

Sawicki expressed skepticism about the $3 million figure. After noting members of the Polish community had pledged to provide free labor, Sawicki explained that, even without assuming any labor was free, her group conservatively had budgeted $1.8 million to repair the towers and install new roofs on the rectory and convent.

Moreover, according to Franz, “There’s parishes and parishioners of parishes in very well-off areas we are hearing would be more than willing to donate funds to us.”

According to Sawicki, SOSA’s vision for St. Adalbert’s future necessitated the church not be separated from the rest of the property and retain a sacred purpose, which led SOSA to recommend converting St. Adalbert’s convent to a retreat house and the church to a shrine. Sawicki argued the site would avoid competing with nearby churches while generating revenue through the retreat house, faith-based tourism, and, eventually, housing clergy in the rectory.

Sawicki said market-rate condominiums on the property would make “a drastic change” to the area’s demographics, density, traffic, and property taxes.

Under her group’s plan, Sawicki emphasized, “There isn’t to be any real estate development on this property.”

According to Sawicki, after a productive meeting with the archdiocese and Polish community leaders in July 2017 and some successful fundraising at Polish festivals, Masses, and other events, the archdiocese’s apparent interest cooled.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of information coming back to us—like, for example counteroffers,” Sawicki said.

“The only thing that we can come up with is this is all about money,” Sawicki added. “We know we have the best plan because it’s either our plan or a real estate developer’s plan. What other plan is there?”

“They want to sell,” said Bianca Torres, spokesperson for the St. Adalbert Preservation Society. “They’re being very coy. They want to get $4.2 million at least.”

Torres explained her group was drafting a letter to the nuncio in Washington, DC, for him to transmit to the Vatican.

“We would like it to be mixed use,” said Torres of the property.

“We’re getting buffeted by the open market,” said Torres. She said her group was “willing to compromise.”

Concerning comments from others that new Polish immigrants during the 1980s and 1990s were somehow prevented from knowing about St. Adalbert’s, Torres offered the opinion that new arrivals may simply have been told to go to their nearest church.

Regarding the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, Sawicki said she previously had belonged to the organization as its only Polish-speaking board member. Her tenure coincided with the unsuccessful Chicago Academy of Music contract, and Sawicki said she had anticipated its failure and unsuccessfully pressured the board to come up with a plan.

“After five months, we should have easily been able to come up with a plan,” she said.

Sawicki and Torres support landmarking and downzoning St. Adalbert’s to protect it from development, and they expressed appreciation for Miller’s and Sigcho-Lopez’s efforts.

Fight continues

For those committed to saving St. Adalbert’s, the fight continues.

“To date, the archdiocese has not provided any documentation or information regarding their plans for St. Adalbert or, indeed, any of their other churches,” said Sigcho-Lopez. “This is why we have called upon the archdiocese to fulfill their responsibilities to parishioners and hold a public meeting wherein they are transparent about their plans moving forward so that the community is as informed as possible.”

“We’re fighting developers,” said Sawicki. “We’re fighting the archdiocese. We’re fighting people who have personal interests. We’re not giving up.”

“We continue on,” said Torres, noting a Spanish rosary group that used to meet in the rectory found it boarded up soon after the final Mass.

‘God on our side’

“Even though they’re closing the physical doors to St. Adalbert, we will continue to have prayer in front of the church every Sunday,” said Franz. “We have God on our side and the Holy Spirit.”

“If He [Jesus Christ] came back, he’d be angry,” added Padilla.

For the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, visit www.facebook.com/StAdalbertPreservationSociety/. Contact St. Paul’s Church at (773) 847-6100. For the Society of St. Adalbert, visit www.societyofstadalbert.org/. For Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, visit www.25thWard.org or call (773) 5213-4100. For Preservation Chicago, visit preservationchicago.org. View the church’s commercial real estate listing at svnchicago.com/properties/?propertyId=129333-sale.