By Monica M. Walk and William S. Bike
Preserving Pilsen’s St. Adalbert Church moved forward a step in the landmarking process after the Commission on Chicago Landmarks’ Aug. 7 special meeting. Later in the month, however, the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese entered into a preliminary contract with a buyer who may turn the church into an event space.
“The commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with the preliminary recommendation; so, yes, we received the vote we were looking for,” Blanca A. Torres, vice president and spokesperson for the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, told Gazette Chicago. “There was much rejoicing.”
Landmark status for Chicago buildings requires an eight-step process. The Aug. 7 meeting results moved St. Adalbert into step two, known as preliminary recommendation, in which the commission votes to initiate the consideration process for a proposed landmark designation status. According to the Chicago Department Planning and Development, “A positive vote puts in place the Commission’s authority to review building permits during the consideration process.”
The commission called the special meeting due to citizen concern that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago was dismantling the building.
“The urgency was the fact that the Archdiocese of Chicago was removing the stained glass windows from the church,” Torres said. “Our alderman has worked tirelessly to make certain we in Pilsen have our voices heard.”
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the 25th Ward attended the special commission meeting.
Torres said landmark supporters expected preliminary landmark consideration status for the building’s exterior would provide protection from window removal, but the Archdiocese continued to remove windows after the Aug. 7 decision. It also has removed interior items from the church, including several murals depicting historical events in Polish Catholicism and statues that include a Pieta that replicates the Vatican’s famed sculpture.
In a statement to Gazette Chicago on Aug. 17, an Archdiocese spokesperson said, “St. Adalbert Church is part of St. Paul Parish in Pilsen. The parish is completing work it began weeks ago to protect the property and the sacred items in the church which were being repeatedly vandalized and destroyed. The need to protect the items was reinforced as the church has been repeatedly broken into, including last week. The preliminary landmark status vote by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks does not affect the efforts of St. Paul Parish to protect these items.”
St. Adalbert is at 1650 W. 17th St. Polish immigrants populated the neighborhood at the time of the parish’s founding in 1874 and contributed funds to build the church between 1912 and 1914.
Architect Henry J. Schlacks, who trained in the offices of Adler & Sullivan, designed the church and rectory with inspiration from the design for St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome. Parishioners named the church for the martyred patron saint of the Czech Republic and Poland.
Pilsen transitioned from a Polish and Czech community to a predominantly Hispanic community throughout the 20th century. The Archdiocese of Chicago decreed the church building no longer a sacred space or place for worship on July 15, 2019, after announcing impending closure in February 2016 because “the condition of the building and associated costs [are]…unsustainable by the parish.”
Contract causes complications
The church building is now under contract for sale to Miami, FL-based Anew Holding LLC, which would turn the church into an event space for parties, video shoots, and other events.
While the building owner’s consent would be required to landmark the church if it were still an active house of worship, consent is not required of the owner for landmarking a former religious building and would be only “advisory.” The City therefore still could landmark the building.
Concerning the proposed sale, Sigcho-Lopez noted, “We have been down this road before. There have been at least three sale proposals before. And the reason why these proposals failed before is because unfortunately we continue to see a reluctance to follow due process.”
Sigcho-Lopez noted that since churches do not pay taxes, they receive “subsidies in exchange for a social contract. It is part of the social contract that we have a need for community spaces, more gathering spaces, spaces that can be used for classes and youth, and faith-based services in exchange for those property tax subsidies. That’s why they are non-profit.”
Because of this social contract, Sigcho-Lopez said, that means the Archdiocese has “to come in front of the community to discuss the proposal. Instead, they keep trying to sell St. Adalbert’s and other parishes behind people’s backs and under the table.”
Sigcho-Lopez is looking for help from Mayor Brandon Johnson, who “is a person of faith. He’s a mayor committed to collaboration, coordination, and respect. So we’re calling again on the Archdiocese to sit down with us, not just impose upon us.
“The prospective buyer let us know the landmarking could present a challenge to the sale,” Sigcho-Lopez added. “So let’s have a community meeting.”
He also noted that the disposition of St. Adalbert’s could set a positive, or negative, precedent.” “We have other empty churches in the 25th Ward, and many more across the City,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “So I think the Archdiocese owes to the City of Chicago a discussion, a fair process, before there is an agreement where we can discuss repurposing or rehabbing empty churches for mutual benefit. Everyone needs to be at the table.”
Preservationists weigh in
Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago executive director attended the Aug. 7 meeting in support of landmark status and noted the City Council chambers saw a “packed house of Polish and Latinx community members.”
Miller called St. Adalbert “the Mother Church of the South Side Polish Community” and noted St. Adalbert has been on Preservation Chicago’s “most endangered” list several times. He said 40 people provided public testimony at the special session, with the only one against landmark status being a representative of St. Paul Parish, which now is responsible for St. Adalbert’s upkeep and sale.
That opponent was Raoul Serrato, a former St. Adalbert parishioner and parish finance council member who now is on the finance council at St. Paul after the merger among those parishes as well as St. Ann’s.
“It wasn’t our intention to keep the structure,” Serrato told Gazette Chicago. “We’re opposed to the landmarking because it would complicate the sale of the property.
“It was a matter of being unable to sustain the church,” he continued. “There was a diminishing number of parishioners attending, and the amount of contributions coming in was not able to sustain the cost to keep such a big building.”
“The Archdiocese hasn’t been forward in its actions,” Miller said. “They hold the title to the building, but the people built it with pennies, nickels, and dimes given to the Archdiocese with a promise to the community.”
Serrato disagreed. “All of the proposals for repairs were disseminated to the parishioners,” he explained. “This information was widely disbursed prior to the church closing. I just think it’s not feasible for this parish to bear the costs associated with keeping that building open.”
But losing the church would erase its story and that promise to the community, Miller countered, as well as destroy a building designed by the late Cardinal George Mundelein’s favorite architect.
Miller expressed concern about removing the art glass windows after the Landmarks Commission’s Aug. 7 vote to continue the landmarking process. He said the church is now color-coded “orange,” meaning a landmark-in-waiting and subject to a 90-day hold for demolition permits. While the City did not landmark the building’s interior, Miller noted the removed windows form part of the building’s exterior, which is protected. “This is a shared asset of the people, by ordinance,” Miller said while expressing concern that authorities have arrested citizens for protesting in protection of the church.
“There is nowhere to put the windows at St. Paul,” Serrato commented. “The Archdiocese, I believe, will put them in storage.”
“The Archdiocese has said the church is vandalized,” Miller said. “But a Polish film crew was in recently, and all was intact two and a half weeks ago except for dust and some strewn documents. Why a rush to dismantle? Gut it, and it will cost more to fix it up. Why have these treasures sit in a vault when they were made for this location? Would you tear off the corner of a Rembrandt or Picasso or Renoir? It’s meant to all sing together, with harmony and beauty all in one place.”
Torres calls maintaining the church property key to keeping the community vital, engaged, and diverse.
“Especially in these times of difficulty, we need to have positive and enforcing anchors to the community, places of refuge and education,” Torres said. “We need to have places that help in the process of community building and not just tearing down. This is vitally important in a community like Pilsen, who is at the crossroads of how to have a neighborhood be fully participatory to new and older generations alike. St. Adalbert is at the heart of Pilsen.”
Miller said the next hearing date will be held Thursday, Sept. 7 and represents step three in the Chicago Landmarks Designation Process. It will feature a report from the Department of Planning and Development stating how the proposed landmark designation affects neighborhood plans and policies.