LINCOLN SQUARE — A group of St. Matthias Catholic Church parishioners are going over Cardinal Blase Cupich’s head and appealing to the Vatican to try and keep the historic Lincoln Square church open.
They filed a complaint with the Vatican’s version of the supreme court last month after Cupich rejected the group’s formal appeal during the summer to postpone the church’s closure.
The Nov. 24 complaint submitted to the the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, Italy accused the Archdiocese of Chicago of presenting church authorities with inaccurate assessments of St. Matthias’ viability to remain open.
Parishioners also have launched a nonprofit, Save St. Matthias Church, to help fundraise for their legal battle.
“We’re trying to play out every legal opportunity available to us to fight this,” said Gerry Winters, president of the Save St. Matthias group.
Despite this, the archdiocese is moving forward with its plan to close St. Matthias, 2310 W. Ainslie St., and merge its parish with Queen of Angels, 2330 W. Sunnyside Ave., in Ravenswood by Jan. 24.
No decisions have been made about the future of buildings but the mergers were “arrived at in consultation with the parish communities,” archdiocese spokesperson Susan Thomas said.
Thomas declined to comment on the “pending canonical litigation” or how it could impact the archdiocese’s plans.
The archdiocese first announced its plans to close St. Matthias in November 2019.
The move was part of the archdiocese’s “Renew My Church” program, which aims to close and consolidate Catholic churches and schools in order to save money and create “more vital parishes.”
The Archdiocese selected St. Matthias to close because the church has racked up $4.6 million in debt and faces a shrinking number of parishioners, the archdiocese previously said.
The parishioners’ complaint alleges, however, the archdiocese told church higher ups they intended to keep St. Matthias open as a worship site after the merger when the reality is much different.
“The archdiocese has announced, and even put in writing, its intention to permanently close St. Matthias as a worship site,” Sean Vinck said, the nonprofit’s vice-president and legal counsel. “That’s the first part of our argument.”
The complaint also alleges closing St. Matthias but leaving its school open violates the church’s own rules for due process, among other things.
“The archdiocese is presenting to the Vatican that the decision to close the church is one that was thoroughly discussed with the St. Matthias community and its pastor. But in fact, that’s simply not the case,” Vinck said.
The court battle may take years to resolve and requires a specialist attorney based out of Rome allowed to practice in the Church’s legal system and is fluent in both Italian and Ecclesiastical Latin.
St. Matthias parishioners are the latest congregation to challenge the archdiocese’s decision to close and merge its churches since the Renew My Church consolidation process began in Chicago.
A similar legal battle to keep St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen open started in 2016 and continues to work its way through the Vatican’s byzantine legal system despite the archdiocese putting locks on the building’s doors and trying to sell off the property to developers.
“It’s very rare for any rulings to go against the local clergy like Cupich because the Vatican assumes they know the region better and defer to them on what should happen there,” said Blanca Torres, a member of the St. Adalbert Preservation Society.
The Pilsen group is also a nonprofit and Torres sympathizes with the long, stressful and expensive legal road the St. Matthias community now has ahead of them.
“But you never know what the outcome is going to be. If your community thinks it’s worth fighting for it then it’s worth it,” Torres said. “Because at the end at least you’ll know you tried your best and won’t have any regrets.”
The merger of St. Matthias and Queen of Angels was originally set to begin July 1 but was delayed due to the pandemic.
Cupich shot down the parish’s request to postpone the merger further until a vaccine is more broadly available and in-person meetings between church leadership and parishioners to discuss keeping the church open could safely resume.
“…You took hierarchical recourse against my decision,” Cupich wrote, in a July 23 letter. “…This alone is sufficient reason to refuse the postponement you now seek.”
“In other words, ‘how dare you go above me to question my decision so I’m not even going to consider this modest request,’” Vinck said.
The nonprofit trying to keep St. Matthias open grew out of petition efforts launched by parishioner Chloe Hasmonek in November 2019 calling for the archdiocese to reconsider keeping the church open at least once a week for Sunday mass.
More than 3,700 people have signed it and Hasmonek is now the nonprofit’s alumni coordinator.
“The pandemic slowed us down, obviously. But over the summer the parish reengaged to really develop our committee and create the infrastructure for a nonprofit,” Winters said.
To this end, the group launched a website, Facebook page and started offering lawn signs with the message “Keep St. Matthias Church Open.”
The first signs went up around Halloween weekend and at least 20 are now visible on front lawns and side yards in Lincoln Square and the surrounding neighborhoods, Winters said.
“Having a sign is a way for people who may not yet be ready to support our efforts with money or time can still show support,” Winters said.
St. Matthias has about 1,000 members and has been a pillar of the Lincoln Square community since it was founded 133 years ago to serve the area’s German-speaking population. The property the church is currently based out of was completed in 1915 after parishioners raised their own funds to build it, according to the group.
The church also shares a namesake with St. Matthias School and over 100 graduating classes have had their commencement ceremony in the church. The archdiocese does not plan to close the school.
The move to close the building is especially bitter for members who spent years raising over $350,000 for renovations such as repainting the ceiling and restoring artwork. In summer 2019 the church also finished refurbishing the church’s pipe organ, nicknamed Helga, which is over 80 years old.
The city’s Filipino community is also very involved at St. Matthias due to Our Lady of Penafrancia being enshrined in the church since the 1990’s, Winters said.
“That shrine is the most significant shrine in the Filipino Catholic Church that was brought here from the Philippines,” Winters said. “And the services for it easily draw over 1,000 people every year.”
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