LINCOLN SQUARE — More than 100 people filled the pews of St. Matthias Catholic Church in Lincoln Square Tuesday night hoping they could convince a representative from the archdiocese to keep the 132-year-old parish open.
Instead, parishioners got more bad news: The church at 2310 W. Ainslie St. has racked up $4.6 million in debt and would indeed merge with Queen of Angels to form a new parish starting July 1.
The cost of insurance for the building, health insurance for the parish’s clergy, keeping the heat and lights on and more have made it too costly to keep the church open, said Rev. Jason Malave during the meeting. St. Matthias school, however, will remain open.
“In this time of renewal we don’t have guarantees. But what we do have firmness of faith in is the school. The outstanding school here,” Malave said.
Malave credited the school’s principal, Katie Carden, with making sure the school is “breaking even” fiscally.
Malave is part of the archdiocese’s Renew My Church program, which has worked to close and consolidate Catholic churches and schools in order to save money and create “more vital parishes.”
Prior to being tapped by Cardinal Blase Cupich to work on church sustainability, Malave was the pastor of St. Benedict Parish & Preparatory School, 3900 N. Leavitt St., from July 2012 to June 2017.
“I didn’t leave St. Bens to close churches. That’s for damn sure,” Malave said.
However, as the audience asked him multiple times whether the church could be saved, he defended the archdiocese’s decision to close it, saying the math just didn’t work for keeping it open.
The responses from Malave frustrated some residents, who walked out mid-meeting in frustration. This is not the first time Matthias Rev. Larry McNally and St. Matthias members clashed with the archdiocese.
In 2017 after parishioners spent four years raising more than $600,000 to fund an addition to its school, the archdiocese pulled the plug.
“I don’t want to be sounding bitter … but I’m frustrated,” McNally said at the time. “We’ve worked so hard … and we’re coming up empty.”
Before they knew their church was being closed in November, St. Matthias parishioners had raised even more money to fund ceiling repairs, artwork restoration, new pews and even refurbishing the church’s 80-year-old pipe organ nicknamed Helga.
While Malave was apologetic about the closure, he kept pointing to the massive debt and said it would not likely be saved.
“We can’t keep going that way. We can’t keep going in ways that don’t hold our pastors and our national teams accountable for what’s going on fiscally,” Malave said. “This is the shitty structural part. It just is. Excuse my French. I’m sorry. Jesus, I’m sorry.”
Malave said dwindling parish sizes and a slowdown of people looking to join the Catholic Church has forced the archdiocese to make some painful cuts.
“Young people, everyone in their 30s or younger, there are precious few of them here,” Malave said. “And they’re filing into non-denominational churches.”
He said it was up to Catholics like himself and St. Matthias parishioners to step up and recruit more church members.
But some neighbors said that is exactly what St. Matthias parishioners have been doing, they just haven’t been given a chance.
“This church is an integral part of this community”
Virginia Mann lives in Evanston but graduated St. Matthias school when she was a kid and still attends the church she’s been a part of for more than 20 years.
Twenty years ago, the school was almost shut down.
“[The school] doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Twenty years ago when St. Matthias school was teetering on closing it was parishioners, like myself who don’t have kids at the school, who stepped up to help turn the school around,” Mann said. “It was parishioners, not the school parents, who did that because we value the school. The school is an integral part of this parish, just as this church is an integral part of this community.”
But Malave was not as optimistic. He said Matthias would merge with Queen of Angels, 2330 W. Sunnyside Ave., July 1 and a new pastor for the consolidated parish would be announced sometime in March 2020.
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 Renew My Church commission.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, was at Tuesday’s town hall. Shuttered churches have been eyed by developers for luxury housing throughout the city, and he wanted to make sure the building’s historical significance is preserved when the archdiocese sells it.
He suggested the historic Lincoln Square building be considered for landmark status due to its ties to the neighborhood and families who have been attending mass there for generations.
The archdiocese has not yet said what its plans are for the church property once St. Matthias officially closes.
At the beginning of last month 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.
Malave said that would be unlikely, since Cupich will sign a decree to unify the parishes in the next three weeks.
“When it comes time for the actual closure…that decree will be signed during Advent [or between the end of November and Christmas] 2020,” Malave said.
“It’s really crazy to me how many people have written in the comments of the petition about their connection to St. Matthias. How they use your school here in like the 1960s and they still come here for Christmas mass, even though they don’t live here anymore,” Hasmonek said.
Hasmonek was at Tuesday’s town hall and hand delivered a hardcopy of the petition, which had over 3,235 signatures, to Malave. Another group of parishioners also delivered a different petition with 738 signatures, also asking for the church to remain open in some capacity.
“This is just the beginning,” said Hasmonek, after the meeting. “The fight has only just begun.”
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