LINCOLN SQUARE — Parishioners at St. Matthias Catholic Church in Lincoln Square, angry at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s decision to close their historic church, are putting up a fight.
The archdiocese plans to close the 132-year-old church at 2310 W. Ainslie St. as part of its “Renew My Church” initiative — a series of church and school closures and consolidations aimed at saving money and creating “more vital parishes.”
St. Matthias’ school will remain open.
But the parish church will merge with Queen of Angels, 2330 W. Sunnyside Ave., to form a new parish starting July 1. Queen of Angels will be the home of the new parish, where the pastor’s office and records will be kept, while St. Matthias’ will close.
The decision to merge the two parishes was due to the “cultural and geographic affinity between” the two churches, according to a statement from the the Renew My Church commission.
The commission also said it had “significant reservations” about continuing regular worship at St. Matthias “based on how similar situations in other groupings have proceeded, considering mass attendance and financial needs.”
The archdiocese has not yet said what its plans are for the property once St. Matthias officially closes. St. Matthias’ school was spared — on the condition it remains financially independent.
Chloe Hasmonek, 19, launched a petition Monday calling for the archdiocese to reconsider keeping the church open at least once a week for Sunday mass. Her parents were married at St. Matthias in 1995 and she’s been attending mass there since she was born.
“Many parishioners feel a close bond with St. Matthias because they are the fourth or even fifth generation of their family to be a part of the church,” she said in the petition. “In addition to being an institution and a pillar in the community, the church is absolutely beautiful with amazing stained glass windows and newly restored paintings.”
By Monday night the petition had gotten 572 signatures.
In a statement responding to the petition, the archdiocese said it remains “firm in its recommendation to transition all regularly scheduled masses to one church at Queen of Angels.”
“Celebrating all regularly scheduled Sunday Masses in one church for the new parish supports the vision of building a united community by worshipping together in one church,” the statement said.
“We’re not going to go to Queen of Angels,” Robert Nicklas said. He’s attended mass at St. Matthias for 50 years and also went to its school as a child.
“They think like little sheep we’re going to go where the archdiocese tell us to. Well, we’re not,” he said.
If the parish isn’t allowed to keep calling St. Matthias home, then its parish will end up scattered across the city or worse: they may not attend mass as all, he said.
“It’s unfortunate because we’re losing our church family. The people you see every Sunday,” Nicklas said. “The archdiocese also thinks the two parishes are going to meld together seamlessly. They’re mistaken because of the way they’re doing this. It’s causing so much resentment already.”
The archdiocese announced its latest round of church closures and consolidations Friday evening.
The Rev. Larry McNally, pastor of St. Matthias, acknowledged his parish’s frustration and disappointment during Sunday mass. During the service he took time to talk about the closure and answer questions.
He’d said he’s had sleepless nights worrying about what the archdiocese’s commission would decide to do with his parish. They began looking at what to do with Lincoln Square’s churches earlier this spring.
For the past several weeks he and members of his church’s parish council had been in talks with the commission’s executive committee during their review process. They’d been explaining St. Matthias’ strengths and presenting scenarios in which it could remain open.
McNally knew the school would be okay but he was praying for his church to remain off the archdiocese’s chopping block.
“We worked hard on the scenarios. But the one that was picked was not one we presented to the commission,” McNally said. “The feeling now is that their decision to close us was made long before we did all our work to present them with different scenarios.”
McNally has been at St. Matthias since 2015. He’s beloved for both taking charge of capital projects to improve the church and continuing the parish’s strong sense of camaraderie.
“There’s a sense of community we always talk about with religion. But it really exists here,” said Darlene Forte, a St. Matthias parishioner for 27 years.
“People here have always been nice here but since Pastor McNally’s been here, it’s become one of the most welcoming parishes I’ve ever been in,” she said.
That welcoming atmosphere is why Erin Zachman has been coming to St. Matthias with her children, ages eight and two, for the past two years.
“It’s our neighborhood church. It’s where our friends go. Where their kids go,” she said.
When the new parish is created it’ll have a new pastor and McNally said he’s unsure where he’ll end up, he said.
This further upset his congregation.
While McNally continued answering questions Sunday, one angry parishioner loudly said he felt like the archdiocese had them “jumping through hoops for nothing.”
After the mass, Carlos Torres was outside the church with his 15-year-old daughter Julia. He was still upset at the news.
“We feel like we got the raw end of the deal on this one,” Carlos Torres said. He’s been taking his daughter there since she was born and had her baptized there.
The congregation has been hard at work raising money over the past few years for things like repainting the ceiling and restoring artwork, he said.
Over the summer the church finished refurbishing the church’s pipe organ, nicknamed Helga, which is over 80 years old.
“The archdiocese has been unfaithful to us,” Carlos Torres said. “Here we are working hard to raise funds to fix our church. But they probably knew they were going to close it anyways. It feels like they deceived us.”
For example, back in 2013 St. Matthias launched its RAISE campaign after seeing its school enrollment double in a decade.
The fundraising goal of nearly $2 million was set to build an annex to allow the school to add classes at every grade level and cover improvements to the campus and church.
Parishioners spent four years raising more than $600,000 toward the expansion project and were ready to move forward with the project when the archdiocese stepped in to pull the plug because all new construction — whether new or a rehab — was on hold.
“What are they going to do now with it? Tear it down? Sell it to another religion?” Carlos Torres said. “A lot of parishioners now feel like they want their money back.”
Evelyn Rubino, another parishioner, has been attending mass at St. Matthias for 50 years. Her four children were baptized, confirmed, went to school and got married there. Her grandchildren were been baptized at the church, too.
She’s upset her family’s legacy at St. Matthias is coming to an end, and questioned whether valuable real estate played a role.
“We’re the heart of Lincoln Square and these houses around here cost lots of money. If the archdiocese sells off this property they’re going to make a lot of money,’ she said. “It’s all about money. They just want to make a lot of money. There’s no question about it and it’s a shame.”
Before the closure happens, McNally said a listening session with representatives of the archdiocese is in the works to allow the parish to ask more questions about the closure.
Once those details are sorted out, an announcement would be made via St. Matthias’s weekly church bulletin.
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