LOGAN SQUARE — Logan Square almost lost one of its oldest churches in the mid-2000s.
Years of deferred maintenance and dwindling attendance nearly forced St. John Berchmans to close.
“It either has to explode under you, or we’re going to close it,” then-Cardinal Francis George told Father Wayne F. Watts when he was appointed to the parish in 2006.
But St. John Berchmans is still standing at 2517 W. Logan Blvd. thanks, in large part, to Watts and his tenacity.
Over the 13 years Watts has been at the helm, church attendance has swelled.
According to Watts, fewer than 75 people attended Christmas Mass the year he arrived. Last year, nearly 600 people attended.
The Oak Park native has also managed to raise a whopping $7 million to upgrade the building and improve the school to the point where it now has a waiting list for pre-K spots.
“Even before I believed it myself, I said, ‘Great things are happening at St. John Berchmans.’ Every week I said it, and people believed it. … We convinced people, we invited people and we encouraged people. It is kind of exploding,” Watts said.
But Watts’ time at St. John Berchmans is nearly up. The archdiocese reassigned him to the merged parishes of St. Joseph and St. Francis Xavier in suburban Wilmette
His last day at the Logan Square church is Dec. 31.
‘Once you get on the train, you never get off’
One of the first things Watts did when he joined the parish in 2006 was enlisting a group of friends and neighbors to write letters to every registered family in the church’s books, many of whom hadn’t been to St. John Berchmans in years.
It worked. Sunday Mass saw a spike in attendance.
“We need to tell people we need them,” Watts remembers telling the group.
Watts continued to tell the church’s story to anyone who would listen — not just neighbors and church-goers but also folks at Catholic Charities (his former employer) and organizations like the Big Shoulders Fund. The latter group ended up connecting Watts with a family on the North Shore who paid for upgrades to St. John Berchmans’ school, including new playground equipment and flooring.
Over the years, Watts used his connections to make millions of dollars in improvements to the 1900s-era buildings.
He installed the church’s first elevator — “You can’t say all are welcome, if people with disabilities can’t get up the stairs” — and renovated the church’s dreary basement. He even worked with the neighborhood group Logan Square Preservation to restore the church’s century-old bell.
Perhaps as a result, more and more people started coming to church. When Watts arrived, the weekly collection was under $2,000. Today, it’s closer $8,000. Though St. John Berchmans gets monthly contributions from other parishes, “collections is what makes the place run,” Watts said.
The reason Watts was so successful? He always knows somebody who knows somebody who can get the job done.
During an interview with Block Club, Watts fielded several calls, and all of them ended in Watts promising to connect the caller with so-and-so to get such-and-such job done.
“The reason he’s made such a difference is he’s a connector,” said Peggy Roketenetz, principal at St. John Berchmans school. “He’s able to develop relationships with people and for people, and that’s how we’ve all been drawn into this community.”
Watts describes himself as a “people person.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I would hang out and talk with people no matter how old they were,” he said.
Watts said when he was a boy it would take him hours to finish his paper route — but it would only take his brother 35 minutes.
“I would stop and talk to people,” Watts said with a smile.
Watts was born in Austin on the city’s West Side. He grew up in the Oak Park/River Forest area and went on to attend Fenwick High School and then Marquette University. He was ordained as a priest in 1990.
Watts began his career as an associate pastor in suburban Wilmette. He worked at a seminary high school in the city and then at Catholic Charities before landing at St. John Berchmans in 2006.
When people ask Watts about his philosophy on priesthood and life in general, he always tells the same story.
“We’re all on a train. I’m not the conductor, I’m like the beverage cart guy. But once you get on the train, you never get off. You keep adding cars and adding cars and adding cars. So there are people on the train that have the ability to help, and so I go back to their car and I say, ‘Could you help?’ And they help. And then if they need me they find me on the train and I help them,” he said.
The past and future of St. John Berchmans
St. John Berchmans was established at Logan Boulevard and Maplewood Avenue in 1905.
In its early years, the church was considered the center of Logan Square’s vibrant Belgian immigrant community. As Watts put it, St. John Berchmans was a Belgian parish “built for and by the Belgian community.”
But as neighborhood demographics shifted over the years, so did the church’s makeup. The church was predominantly Belgian, then Polish, then Puerto Rican and then Mexican before becoming the “melting pot” it is today, according to Watts.
“It’s everybody. Our Spanish-speaking population is a mix of probably 15 different nationalities. Our English-speaking parishioners come from every walk of life imaginable,” Watts said of the church’s demographics.
Years ago, Watts put up a sign in front that read, “Love, not hate. All are welcome,” which has come to embody the church.
“I’ve watched Logan Square explode into a great place of community, love and generosity. The people of St. Johns have contributed to that,” he said.
Of course, St. John Berchmans was not immune to the broader struggles of churches in Chicago. Without Watts and his staff, the church would’ve almost certainly gone the way of other struggling churches — closed, torn down and maybe even converted into condominiums. The latter scenario has become common in Chicago in recent years.
Needless to say, Watts doesn’t want to see that happen to St. John Berchmans; he’s grown to love the church community and the neighborhood surrounding it.
Watts said he would’ve stayed at St. John Berchmans for another six years had the archdiocese let him. Last year, he applied for a six-year extension, but was only granted one extra year. In the Catholic church, pastors are typically given 12-year assignments, Watts said.
While Watts won’t physically be in the building starting the first week of January — or at least he won’t be there as much (he promises he’ll be back often) — his legacy will live on for years to come. Watts’ imprint is everywhere: The renovated basement, the sound of the church bell, the full classrooms and the list goes on.
“My reaction was really first and foremost sadness for leaving a place where I’ve been and loved for 13 years. I guess an excitement about going forward, but my first reaction, and I think I’m still there, is I’m sad to leave Logan Square and the people here,” he said.
But Watts isn’t worried he’ll lose touch with the St. Johns Berchmans community. After all, there’s no getting off the train.
“People write to me, ‘I’m glad I’m on the train.’ It’s amazing,” he said.
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