By Rick Romano
A local developer is breathing new life into an iconic Bridgeport church, shuttered since 2019 after serving Roman Catholics for more than a century.
T2 Properties is converting the St. Anthony of Padua Church and its campus buildings, once part of the All Saints-St. Anthony Parish, 518 W. 28th Pl., to a child and adult daycare center expected to be ready for occupancy in about a year.
Vari Architects of Chicago is doing the work in accordance with the City’s designating the church as an important historical structure.
The project has generated a mix of positive and negative reaction.
T2 vice president Dan Broughton, spokesperson for the principals, including T2 president Mao Mei, said his company recently received permits to work on the church interior.
“The façade work is done,” Broughton said. “We have power washed the exterior and replaced the windows that were taken out. We have repaired masonry, and we demolished the convent” to make way for a parking lot, “as per City approval.”
Broughton said T2 tries to preserve rather than raze buildings.
“This is our first church,” he said, noting the bulk of T2’s projects focus on converting industrial and warehouse structures as well as repairing distressed condo and townhouse developments. “We have been in business for well over 20 years.”
T2 provided an architectural outline that calls for using some existing rooms and building new spaces. The church building’s main floor will feature a library, reception area, all-purpose space, medical room, and activity rooms for adult daycare. The existing school building will become a child daycare center with 14 classrooms spread across three floors. The rear rectory building will house offices and a kitchen.
While no tenant has signed on to run the day care facilities, Broughton said T2 “has had some discussions” with potential prospective operators.
T2 is performing the work so as to maintain the building’s orange rating, second only to a red rating under the City’s demolition-delay ordinance protecting structures not already deemed historic landmarks.
“They were not going to allow us to tear down the church,” Broughton said. “The church has deep ties in the community. Hundreds of people have had their weddings here. There have been baptisms and funerals. To lose a building like this would not be good, to say the least.”
The Rev. Thomas Aschenbrener, pastor of St. Mary of Perpetual Help, 1039 W. 32nd St., also headed All Saints-St. Anthony when that parish consolidated with St. Mary’s. An Archdiocese spokesperson said a parish, not the Archdiocese, closes churches. Fr. Aschenbrener said he approved selling St. Anthony Church, noting factors including insurmountable costs to maintain it and the dwindling number of parishioners figured strongly in the decision. He called the process “difficult,” noting the remaining handful of All Saints-St. Anthony parishioners have gone on to St. Mary’s as well as to St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church.
Those involved have not disclosed how much T2 paid for the church; part of those proceeds will go toward an endowment for future maintenance and support staff needs at St. Mary’s, Fr. Aschenbrener said.
“The agreement directed the developer to not tear down the church,” he said. He also noted some parishioners found it difficult to transfer from All Saints-St. Anthony to St. Mary of Perpetual Help.
Despite the church building’s preservation, some local Catholics are not pleased with planned changes at St. Anthony’s and other churches with deep ancestral ties being taken out of commission. That sentiment is personified by Julie Sawicki, a Chicago real estate agent and president of the Society of St. Adalbert-Chicago, which has been working to save St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen.
Sawicki said developments that do not preserve a church’s sacred space are not in line with canon law. The Archdiocese, however, said in a written statement that “Any change in church status is done in accordance with canon law.” The Archdiocese issued a statement in 2020 removing the “sacred” designation from the St. Anthony Church building.
She also questioned how a developer could take on what looks like an expensive project and create only daycare facilities and wondered if more development at the site would follow.
“Bridgeport property is expensive,” Sawicki said. “This does not make sense.”
T2’s Broughton said the firm has no future development plan for the site, other than the daycare center.
“We are confident we will find a good operator,” he said. “We specialize in adaptive reuse of vacant buildings. We understand concerns. While we do have to make a profit in our business, we are part of this community. We responded to the building being for sale, and we thought this would be a benefit for the community.”
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit with the mission to preserve and revitalize the city’s architecture, said he has been in contact with the City, the developer, and those who oppose the project. He said it is time to trust the process.
“I have met with the developer and walked through the church,” Miller said. “When I toured the church, there had already been stained glass windows, light fixtures, and parts of pews removed. I don’t know who took them. There wasn’t graffiti or other signs of vandalism. I would describe the condition as in disarray.
“The developers seem to be good, decent people who have done other work in the community,” he added. “So far, they have cleaned up the exterior and done some repairs. I think we have to take people at their word and have faith.”
German Catholics in the area built St. Anthony of Padua Church in 1913. Architect Henry J. Schlacks, who also worked on churches on the South and West Sides, designed the structure in the Romanesque style, incorporating a mosaic of St. Anthony by Bavarian artist Franz Xavier Zettler over the church’s front entrance. The old All Saints and St. Anthony parishes combined in the 1970s. In 2018, the Archdiocese announced it would consolidate All Saints-St. Anthony Parish with St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish as part of its “Renew My Church” process and held the last Mass at St. Anthony Church in 2019.
To contact Fr. Aschenbrener, email thomasoic123gmail.com. For Preservation Chicago, log on to www.preservationchicago.org/. For the Society of St. Adalbert-Chicago, go to https://www.facebook.com/SOSAChicago/. For T2 Properties, call (847) 845-0927. For Vari Architects, log on to http://variarchitects.com/.