St. Constance Church as seen in the Jefferson Park neighborhood on April 29, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

JEFFERSON PARK — A Polish Catholic church in Jefferson Park is protesting an effort to merge with a nearby church.

St. Constance Parish and School, 5843 W. Strong St. is slated to join with St. Robert Bellarmine Parish and School at 4646 N. Austin Ave., in July. The move is part of a broader effort to consolidate parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The combined parish will have a new name, which has yet to be determined. Both buildings will stay open to host Mass for the unified group of worshippers.

The united parish school will be based at St. Robert Bellarmine. St. Constance School will continue to operate, but under the purview of the archdiocese.

The merger is occurring under the Archdiocese’s Renew My Church plan, which has closed church buildings and combined parishes amid dwindling resources, decreasing attendance at mass and unstable pastoral leadership throughout the city. Restructurings planned for the Northwest Side will group eight churches and schools into three new parishes.

But St. Constance members say the merger is “a hard pill to swallow.” Some of its members are appealing the decision via Canon Law in hopes of remaining an independent parish. If Cardinal Blase Cupich does not grant their request, parishioners can appeal to the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican.

“I feel like Cupich is abandoning our communities,” said Katarzyna Lewicka, a St. Constance parishioner leading the appeal. “They are suffering here in Chicago, especially during COVID, with the schools closed and people without jobs. This is not what any faith teaches us.”

Unlike some parishes that have struggled to maintain their communities, St. Constance has a vibrant parish that has raised thousands of dollars for its programs within the last year, Lewicka said. There is no reason for it to merge, Lewicka said.

A longstanding staple in the local Polish community, St. Constance Parish has 1,169 registered families and 2,920 individual congregants, according to data from the archdiocese.

“Sunday masses are so packed that overflow must be accommodated in the parish halls,” Lewicka said.

St. Constance Church as seen in the Jefferson Park neighborhood on April 29, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The merger involving St. Constance stems in part from a revolving door of leadership over the past few years, said Father Jason Malave, Cupich’s liaison for Renew My Church.

Father Thaddeus Dzieszko retired after 15 years at the church in 2017, according to past bulletins. Father Rich Milek took his place but retired last year. Rev. Paul Barwikowski took over temporarily last February and still leads the parish.

Father Robert Lojek, who is the pastor at St. Francis Borgia Catholic Church in Belmont Terrace, has been appointed to take over the newly formed St. Constance/St. Robert Bellarmine. Lojek and Barwikowski did not return requests for comment.

“We can’t find priests who are ready to become pastors, so, unfortunately, [St. Constance Parish] knows first-hand what it’s like to have a lack of pastors,” Malave said.

Unlike other mergers that have closed or sold off church campuses, there are no plans to close St. Constance and sell the building, Malave said.

Malave said any parish is free to appeal the archdiocese’s decision to consolidate. At times, they have been successful, although the archdiocese went through rigorous meetings with pastors and parishioners from each church before making the final call.

A man who has been involved with the parish since 1976, who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity around the topic, acknowledged there has been a fast turnover recently and the pastoral transition was rocky. But he worries about the future of the church community under the merger and feels ignored by the archdiocese.

“The community is over 100 years old … . if you value these people and their contributions, why do you want to take away their identity?” he said.

Malave said the merger will not take away those traditions or identities but will strengthen the new parish by uniting a multi-generational community.

“The united parish will be able to effectively serve a multigenerational community that is Polish, Polish American and American,” Malave said.

St. Constance School as seen in the Jefferson Park neighborhood on April 29, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The other Northwest Side mergers will join St. Bartholomew, Our Lady of Victory and St. Pascal into one parish, and St. Viator and St. Wenceslaus.

Benjamin Arevalos Lupercio, the pastor at St. Wenceslaus in Avondale, said he understands parishioners feel frustrated about the mergers but said having bigger, united parishes will mean more shared resources, talents and opportunities.

“The unification will help the community to understand that we are one church,” Arevalos Lupercio said. “The physical places are just buildings, but the church is the people.”

To accommodate the merger ahead of its official summer date, Arevalos Lupercio said he’s implementing a new mass schedule starting May 29 to give parishioners time to adjust.

Arevalos Lupercio said he supports the Renew My Church initiative and hopes to create a sense of belonging and home for members of his parish, just like he found a home in the church after he left Mexico 25 years ago.

“You welcome them. You love them. It’s home,” he said. “Just as I feel home here, I want everyone to feel the same. I embrace both communities and will do my best to demonstrate love and mercy of God and to the sacraments, and to the care for the needy.”

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