GRAND BOULEVARD — Joan McAfee says she’s probably spent more time at church than home.
McAfee grew up at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, 4920 S. Martin Luther King Drive, attending services as a kid. She stayed there once she became a wife and mother, dutifully ferrying her kids to and from mass every week and running the food and clothing ministry.
Even though she’s lost touch as her family has relocated, “I have so many good memories here I can’t even pick one, and the bad memories are only bad because I didn’t understand them at the time,” McAfee said.
McAfee, now 90, was part of massive group of past and present parishioners who gathered last weekend to say goodbye to the church.
The South Side church is closing in July after nearly 120 years of service. The congregation is merging with three other predominantly Black parishes — St. Ambrose, St. Anslem and Holy Angels — July 1 to form Our Lady Of Africa, a larger parish that will convene at the former Holy Angels site a mile and a half away.
The consolidation is part of the Renew Our Church initiative from the Archdiocese of Chicago to preserve struggling parishes.
Though congregants will gather for two more Sunday services, the official farewell mass was held June 12. Father Edmund Nnadozie offered a message of faith and hope to a packed sanctuary of members, doing his best to temper the somber occasion with humor.
“The building is tired. You can tell by the walls. It’s tired like the rest of us,” McAfee said.
‘It’s Not Enough To Be The Parish We Once Were’
The relationship between Black folks and the Catholic church is a complicated one, and the history of Corpus Christi is no different.
The church was established for a largely Irish population in 1901, and its leaders were instructed not to serve Black residents. It closed briefly in 1929.
Though their existence predates the founding of America, Black Catholics have often found themselves fighting for inclusion.
As with many other northern parishes, the Great Migration changed the complexion of Corpus Christi. By the 1940s, the church was nearly 100 percent Black, with expanding membership rolls forcing leaders to expand Sunday service to six masses. By the mid-1970s, Chicago was home to 80,000 Black Catholics — the second-highest number in the country.
It wouldn’t be until the second Vatican council in the ’60s that Catholic leadership would try to correct centuries of wrongs by approving sweeping changes, sparking a global transformation of the faith for years to come. For Corpus Christi and other predominantly Black churches, that meant an acknowledgment and embracement of their Blackness, right down to the look of the sanctuary itself. Black art was installed, and walls were trimmed with red, black and green — the colors of Black Liberation.
“My belief is that there is nothing wrong with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. What messes up a lot of churches — Catholic or otherwise — is the human factor,” said Larry Cope, Corpus Christi’s historian, whose family ties also span generations. “We live in a segregated city, so you understand where the racism comes from. You have to realize that there are some Catholic churches that don’t want a Black person to walk in their doors. That’s fine. I still believe in the teachings of the church.”
Cope also serves as site host for Open House Chicago, which offers visitors a chance to tour the historic building. People can view its Munich-style stained-glass windows, coffered ceiling and Stations of the Cross paintings, done by Benedictine monk Gregory Gerrer.
But membership has dwindled over the years: The sanctuary that once held over 3,000 congregants now holds 50 on a good day, and restoring the structure to its former glory would cost millions.
There’s been a precipitous drop in Black residents in Chicago over the past decade.
“You have a lot of families who moved away, joined other parishes closer to home,” Cope said.
The decline is also a matter of traditional Catholic teachings clashing with a more modern world, the former firmly holding onto tradition as the latter pushes for a more progressive Catholicism that welcomes women and married priests into the fold — a line of thought with which Cope agrees.
Dwindling membership has affected church coffers, and upkeep has become too costly.
One of Cope’s fondest memories is meeting Cardinal Francis George, who commissioned Cope to design medallions for the archdiocese. That chance meeting — which began with a phone call Cope assumed was a prank — turned into a genuine friendship, the two men keeping in touch until George’s death in 2015.
“You’d think that since he was a cardinal he’d be straitlaced and serious, but nah. He could cut up,” Cope said, chuckling.
Now, Cope hopes to keep alive the memory of Corpus Christi while looking to the future, whatever it may hold. Several items from the church’s collection, including art, will find a home at Our Lady of Africa.
For Katie Williams-Hall, it will be hard to say goodbye to the place that helped her to ground her faith.
Corpus Christi has been the backdrop for family baptisms, graduations and weddings — “at least six of my siblings were married here,” said Williams-Hall, who, like Cope and McAfee, is a proud alumna of Corpus Christi High School.
“It takes a lot, financially, to keep up a place like this. Even if we did get a big benefactor, you’re still talking about 50 people coming here every Sunday. It’s not enough to be the parish we once were,” Williams-Hall said.
The final mass will be held June 27. An archdiocese spokeswoman said there are “no current plans” for the building.
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