Sigcho-Lopez using downzoning to try to save St. Adalbert’s Church
September 6, 2019

Photo by Christopher Valentino
St. Adalbert’s Church supporters pray the rosary as part of an effort to save the Pilsen structure and adjacent buildings.

By Nathan Worcester

Although the final Mass at St. Adalbert’s Roman Catholic Church occurred on July 14, activists continue to struggle to save the historic property. As Pilsen rapidly gentrifies, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s decision to market the property on a real estate website has sparked fears developers will convert the property to expensive condominiums.

As of late August, the church’s listing with SVN Chicago indicated it already is under contract, a fact both SVN Chicago and the Archdiocese of Chicago have confirmed. Neither would comment further.

Yet 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez continues to work with Preservation Chicago, the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, the Society of St. Adalbert (SOSA), and other groups to protect the site. Sigcho-Lopez introduced an ordinance at the last City Council meeting to downzone the property to prevent development.

“The only use will be for a park or cemetery,” said Sigcho-Lopez. He explained that any proposals for using the property differently or for further zoning changes “will have to be vetted by the parishioners and the community at large.

“We expect to pass the ordinance in September,” added Sigcho-Lopez, referring to the September 10 meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards.

The archdiocese has “not been responsive to parishioners or the community at large,” Sigcho-Lopez continued. “Once they are hopefully ready to present an alternative that has the parishioners’ support and the support of the community, we’ll hopefully be able to have a conversation with them.”

‘Doesn’t speak well’

Asked about the “under contract” status in the SVN Chicago listing, Sigcho-Lopez stated, “I was informed they were planning to go under contract. That doesn’t speak well regarding the intentions of the developer to be transparent and to have a community-driven process.”

“We at Preservation Chicago are very supportive of Alderman Sigcho-Lopez’s actions to downzone St. Adalbert Church and the surrounding lands, which include the rectory, convent, school, and parking lot,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “This will encourage the Archdiocese of Chicago to perhaps engage in a robust conversation with the alderman, the community of Pilsen, and the faithful. To this point, it is our understanding that the archdiocese has been fairly unresponsive to the alderman’s outreach about the future of the building—as well as to the larger community.

“We also understand that there’s a proposal by a group of parishioners and faithful, [who] have proposed the acquisition of St. Adalbert Church and ancillary buildings for a shrine and a retreat house and that this proposal is to keep this a site for religious activities and worship. Such an idea will not impact the archdiocese or other churches and parishes in the area,” Miller added.

“We also want to encourage a Chicago landmark designation of St. Adalbert Church, which, if it were to proceed, would allow for possible free and unrestricted grants from the City of Chicago from a special developer’s fund, known as the ‘Adopt-A-Landmark’ program, which could assist in funding exterior repairs to the church, including the two tall towers,” Miller noted. “However, this fund can only be used to repair designated Chicago landmarks, so we are trying to encourage the Archdiocese of Chicago and the alderman to consider such actions, as they encourage sensitive and good decisions.”

Anne Maselli, spokesperson for the archdiocese, did not comment directly on Sigcho-Lopez’s downzoning proposal. She directed Gazette Chicago to the archdiocese’s latest statement regarding the church property.

“The archdiocese fully understands the importance of its buildings to the communities we serve,” the statement reads in part. “We have a long history of open communication with City of Chicago officials and community members whenever church properties no longer serve their original purpose. We expect to continue an open dialogue about St. Adalbert. The potential reuse of the property will be respectful of the property’s history, the property’s place as a previously sacred space, the desires of the parish, and of the community.”

“We are working closely with [Alderman] Sigcho-Lopez to use the downzoning so that it’s used as a tool for the archdiocese to come to the table and make a concerted effort to have a real meeting with all the interested parties,” said Blanca Torres, spokesperson for the St. Adalbert Preservation Society. “Clerical and secular personnel should be present at this meeting.”

Torres said her group had not heard back regarding its appeal to the Vatican, noting, “Everyone goes on vacation in Europe in August.”

“We have been supporters of preserving St. Adalbert’s for a long time,” said Ruth Maciulis, co-director of the Pilsen Alliance. “It was a smart move to downzone and to demand a community process.”

“I think it’s godsend what Alderman Sigcho-Lopez is doing,” said Julie Sawicki of SOSA. “The former alderman, Danny Solis, would not even meet with our group, even after repeated requests and showing up on his ward night. He [Sigcho-Lopez] knows that the community wants to save St. Adalbert’s.

“He came up with the idea of downzoning the property,” continued Sawicki. She explained, in official Roman Catholic church language, that while the church itself is relegated to “profane” (i.e., non-church) but not “sordid” use, the remainder of the property has no such canonical protection.

‘We’re thunderstruck’

Asked about the property’s “under contract” status, Sawicki said, “We’re thunderstruck by this because this is wrong in so many ways. It is a violation of canon law. You are not allowed to sell the church when there is an active appeal in the Vatican court.”

“I don’t know how they can sell the property when a resolution for a zoning change passed the City Council,” added Sawicki. “There is also a fiduciary responsibility here on the seller’s part to tell the buyer that a zoning change could happen.” Sawicki said the archdiocese would have known about Sigcho-Lopez’s intention to downzone the property in early July because of a public letter he sent during that period.

“I’m a real estate broker,” Sawicki explained. “We can get fined if we have the wrong status listed. I’m in agreement with the alderman. It doesn’t look good for the archdiocese. It’s about money and the love of money, and money is the root of all evil. We’re talking about a church here. Money should not be what this is all about.”

“While St. Adalbert’s was open, the Archdiocese of Chicago never should have been marketing the church,” said Brody Hale, a canon law expert and leader of the Catholic Church Preservation Society, who has been advising SOSA. “There are two petitions pending in Rome against the relegation of St. Adalbert’s to profane but not sordid use.” The Archdiocese “should never have even begun to market the church until after all appeals were resolved. So, the fact that they’ve been marketing it for years is beyond irregular and disturbing. And the fact that they’ve entered into a contract or sale is positively jaw dropping. Measures are being taken to inform the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.”

At a Mass on August 23 in Pilsen, in which congregants filled row upon row of folding chairs in El Zocalo Plaza at 18th and Paulina Streets, clergy and laity expressed sadness and frustration. Although leaders conducted the service in Spanish and featured Mexican music and dance, worshippers included a group of Polish parishioners associated with St. Adalbert’s. They held up Polish flags, which fluttered in the cool evening wind.

“I think it’s a done deal,” said Father Tom Lynch, who helped organize the Mass. “It’s probably not right that people should be overburdened financially.”

“I’m just waiting to see what happens,” said Jose Padilla, a longtime St. Adalbert’s parishioner who also assisted with the event. “To me, it’s kind of suspicious.”

“We haven’t heard anything,” said Rosemarie Dominguez, another St. Adalbert’s parishioner. She serves as a civic organizer and housing organizer with the Resurrection Project, which coordinated the Pilsen Mass.

“It’s absurd, but I’m trying to remain hopeful,” she added.

For the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, visit www.facebook.com/StAdalbertPreservationSociety/. 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. An archived version of the listing from August 22, 2019 with the “under contract” status listed can be viewed at https://web.archive.org/web/20190822234023/https://svnchicago.com/properties/?propertyId=129333-sale.