PILSEN — After its parishioners spent years fighting to keep it open, St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen held its final mass on Sunday. Now, the fight for the property’s future moves into a new arena as the neighborhood’s alderman said he plans to rezone the property to potentially block future plans for it.
After a tear-filled mass, Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th) said he plans to push through a procedural move to get the upper hand over the Archdiocese of Chicago, which closed the hulking, twin-towered Catholic church amid shrinking attendance and changing demographics.
Sigcho Lopez, elected earlier this year, argued the archdiocese hasn’t done enough to disclose what’s next for the 2-acre church property at 1650 W. 17th St.
“We will downzone the property to protect it from any development to make sure that the residents and the parishioners … are at the table,” Sigcho Lopez said.
Such a “downzoning” could force the archdiocese or anyone who wants to buy it to go through heightened scrutiny for any future projects on the site. Officials with the archdiocese could not be reached for comment Sunday.
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In June, the archdiocese announced the final service would be Sunday. On Monday, the archdiocese will deconsecrate the church, preventing the property fro being used as a sacred site for worship, the archdiocese said.
The archdiocese previously told Block Club they were in “advanced discussions” with multiple parties to sell the property.
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Sigcho Lopez said the downzoning will force archdiocese officials to have an open conversation with parishioners and the community groups that have fought to keep the property open. He hopes the zoning change will force officials to disclose what exactly they have planned for the property, too.
“We are disappointed that the archdiocese failed to communicate clearly what is going to happen after the final mass. … We will do whatever it takes to protect St. Adalbert and work with the community to define the future,” Sigcho Lopez said.
The new alderman plans to introduce an ordinance to downzone the property at the City Council’s next zoning committee meeting this month.
A Need To Protect Sanctuary Sites
The St. Adalbert parish was founded in 1874 by Polish immigrants. The current building, built in 1912, has been a pillar for both the Polish and Mexican immigrant communities that have called the neighborhood home over the past century.
On Sunday, Sigcho Lopez chastised the archdiocese’s decision to close St. Adalbert, in the midst of planned Immigration and Customs Enforcement sweeps targeting 2,000 undocumented immigrants in Chicago and other major cities.
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“These are the sanctuaries that the country needs more than ever, especially during a weekend where we have continued to see the shameful attacks on the immigrant community,” Sigcho Lopez said.
“This is our opportunity to see… what side the archdiocese is on. They must be on the side of the people, of the immigrant community, of communities like Pilsen. They have to be allies. These are the safe havens that we need to protect.”
A Historic Landmark?
Sigcho Lopez said he also will explore if it is possible to designate St. Adalbert as a historic landmark. He’ll talk to the city’s Department of Planning and Development officials about it next week.
“We will work with you to honor the site for what it represents. This is a sanctuary. This is a landmark,” Sigcho Lopez said.
St. Adalbert has appeared on Preservation Chicago’s most endangered buildings several times since 2015.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, has been working alongside the Polish and Latino community for five years to encourage the archdiocese to seek a historic landmark for St. Adalbert to preserve the interior and exterior of the Pilsen church.
“It’s an incredible, architectural … landmark as well as a place of great importance for the community,” Miller said. “To hear the crackling voices [today] and the tears all around me just go to show you, [closing churches] is not the answer.”
A 1.5-mile stretch of 18th street, which includes 850 buildings, and dozens of murals is being considered to be turned into a historic landmark. St. Adalbert is not included in the ordinance.
Miller has advocated for its inclusion into the landmark district.
However, Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said St. Adalbert was protected against demolition due to its “orange rating in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey.”
“Historic preservation staff will continue to monitor the building,” Strazzabosco said in an email.
In 2016, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced it would consolidate six Pilsen churches into three. As part of the merger, St. Adalbert would close while Providence of God, 717 W. 18th St., and St. Ann’s, 1840 S. Leavitt St., would become worship sites for other parishes in the neighborhood before ultimately ending regular church services.
The archdiocese cited changing demographics, low Mass attendance and a decline in the number of priests as reasons for the reconfiguration.
For the past three years, parishioner have fought to keep the church open.
Society of St. Adalbert board member Julie Sawicki said the church holds particular significance for the Polish community, whose ancestors built it more than a century ago, and for the Mexican parishioners who have long called the church home.
“Our ancestors built it, not just for the Polish community but for the entire Catholic community, including the Mexican community who now live in Pilsen,” Sawicki said. “We built it and the Mexican community helped sustain it.”
Sawicki lauded Sigcho Lopez’s plan to downzone the site saying, he was “throwing the full weight of his position, behind the communities” effort to save St. Adalbert.
“I think a lot of people think it’s just masses,” Blanca Torres, a parishioner and Pilsen native told Block Club in June 2018. “It’s a lot more than that. You make a community with your church. It’s your network of people, it’s your support system.”
“When you lose those anchors, you lose those community ties, you lose that sense of togetherness,” she said.
In September, the archdiocese put the property up for sale for a second time, hiring SVN Chicago Commercial to find a buyer. In the posting listed by SVN Chicago Commercial, the church’s iconic towers were listed as “perfect penthouse units.”
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