LOGAN SQUARE — Grace United Methodist Church leaders have launched a petition to convert the deteriorating church into a Park District community center, part of a last-ditch effort to save the more-than-century-old structure.
Under the plan, part of Grace Church, 3325 W. Wrightwood Ave., which has long struggled from deferred maintenance and a shrinking congregation, would become a community center for nearby Unity Park. The church would offer Park District programs like basketball tournaments and recreational activities for neighborhood kids.
The Grace-Unity Community Center Plan requires buy-in from the city — and more than $2 million. Church leaders have applied for a $1.5 million Chicago Recovery Grant along with Open Space Impact Fee funds. Those applications are under review, city spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said.
If everything falls into place, Grace Church would become only the second community center in Chicago that offers Park District programs in a building the city agency doesn’t own. The only other mashup is in West Garfield Park at United for Better Living, Inc., Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons said.
While the Grace-Unity Community Center Plan was developed a few years ago, it hasn’t moved forward during the pandemic. Church leaders and other proponents, including Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), hope to change that with the petition to “show that this something the neighborhood wants,” the Rev. Hope Chernich said.
“We’re really excited about the idea of this being a space that’s open to the community in a way that’s not just for the community — a space that the community is able to have a voice in how it’s used and what happens” there, Chernich said.
Grace Church was established in 1904. At the time, it was the first English-speaking church in Logan Square.
In response to “explosive growth,” the congregation tore down the original building six years later and constructed the current building, church leaders said. In 1925, the congregation tacked on an addition with classrooms, a gymnasium and a meeting area.
The decline of the congregation started in the 1950s and ’60s, when white flight drove many members of the church out of the city and neighborhood demographics shifted toward a majority-Latino population, said former pastor Mark Schol. That downturn continued through the ’90s, Schol previously said.
Schol was greeted by just nine people in the pews at his first Sunday service in 2012.
To save the neighborhood institution, church leaders partnered with a developer on a plan in 2017 that would bring a five-story apartment complex to the site, but the project fizzled after pushback from neighbors and preservationists. They argued the building is irreplaceable and shouldn’t be replaced — even partially — with an apartment building.
Meanwhile, the church fell into further disrepair, suffering from a crumbling roof and masonry exterior and a hazardous vintage electrical system, among other problems.
Church leaders moved forward with their plan to redevelop the church and sell to another congregation or organization in 2018. That plan was progressing when Logan Square Preservation President Andrew Schneider came up with the idea of turning part of the church into a community center.
Then, an anonymous donor — through Logan Square Preservation — stepped up to fund $250,000 worth in building repairs.
“That was the first thing that made us feel like this was possible,” the Rev. Lindsey Joyce said. “Every time you put a church on the market, there’s always a little bit of public outcry, like, ‘Oh, no, a church is closing.’ And that’s great, but Logan Square Preservation showed up and was like, ‘We don’t want this to happen, and here’s money to help.'”
Since then, church leaders have been on a mission to scrape together enough funding and community buy-in to transform a portion of the church into a Park District community center.
The plan has the support of Ramirez-Rosa, along with members of the Unity Park Advisory Council, Logan Square Preservation and Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
They see it as a way to revamp a decaying neighborhood institution and bring more affordable programs to kids and families — a win-win.
Unity Park, 2636 N. Kimball Ave., is the natural partner because the 1.4-acre park doesn’t have its own field house, Chernich said. The church also has a long-standing relationship with the Unity Park Advisory Council and helps put on events at the park.
Bethanie Omiecinski, Unity Park Advisory Council member, said her group sees the plan as an “excellent opportunity” for Logan Square.
Summer day camp slots fill up quickly in Logan Square, and another Park District program is needed in the neighborhood, Ramirez-Rosa said.
“Historically, [the Grace Church] gym has been a community space where people can come together to do recreational activities, and, unfortunately, as it’s fallen into disrepair, it’s been lost to the neighborhood,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “We’re not just saving the church for the neighborhood, but we’re really reclaiming that space.
“I’m really excited about the prospect, particularly as we see more young families move in and stay in the neighborhood, to have that as an option for our families.”
The plan would also salvage a church that has been an essential part of the community for more than a century, Schneider said. Logan Square has lost churches in recent years, and some have been converted into condos or single-family homes.
“Whenever we talk about these churches … the answer has always been: If you want to save the church, and if you don’t have a congregation that can buy it or save it, turn it into housing. That’s always the answer. What we’ve shown here is that there are other options,” Schneider said.
Grace Church is in better shape than it was a few years ago, thanks to the donor-funded repairs and a partnership with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, a Logan Square congregation that moved in to help Grace leaders offset costs. But the church still needs broad improvements to become a safe and fully functional community center, church leaders said.
The Grace-Unity Community Center Plan calls for a full revamp of the early 1900s church: a renovated gymnasium and kitchen; new bathrooms, doors and windows; a new heating and electrical system and accessibility upgrades for people with disabilities. The vision is “to transform Grace Church into an open and accessible space, where the community can enjoy sports camps, worship, art performances, get support, and much more,” according to Unity Park Advisory Council’s website.
The Park District is in “early discussions” with church leaders to provide “limited programming at the church once the church has completed the necessary capital improvements,” Lemons said.
Lemons said the Park District does not intend to buy the property or fund any church improvements. That’s why it’s critically important neighbors sign the petition and get involved, Chernich and other church leaders said.
“One of the big things is that the neighborhood catches the vision, that the neighborhood knows what we’re doing, and that those who want to be involved sign the petition,” Joyce said. “It feels very Logan Square to me, this kind of project.”
To sign the petition, go here.
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