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Resurrection

From the remains of eight dying parishes, the black Catholics of Englewood have built something to be proud of.

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For Dorothy Banks, a Sunday without 10:30 mass is an anomaly. "I'm there except if I'm in the hospital or out of town," she says. "If I do miss, four or five people will call to see where I've been. I go to hear the Word, that's the main thing, and to set an example for my children."

Two of Banks's three grown children live out of town, but 41-year-old Louise, who was brain-damaged at birth, resides with Dorothy and her husband, Charles, in a frame house overlooking Ogden Park near 65th and Racine. Louise, Charles, and Dorothy always go to church together, to Saint Benedict the African Catholic Church at 66th and Stewart. They prefer the late mass because it is looser and more gospel. ("It swings," says one parishioner.) Louise and Dorothy are members of the choir. If it weren't for Dorothy's insistence, Charles admits, he would be far less devoted.

The Bankses' route to church takes them through the heart of Englewood, a neighborhood made up of sagging frame houses, run-down brick two-flats, and vacant lots. In the last decade one-fifth of the population has left the community. Of those remaining 58 percent survive on welfare. In 1990 there were 92 murders and 292 rapes reported to police in the area. "This used to be a neighborly neighborhood," says Dorothy Gilmore, a friend of Dorothy Banks's and a longtime Englewood resident. "I don't know most of the people round here anymore, but then I don't want to know any of 'em."

In religion Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals dominate. Where Englewood residents were once Catholic in large proportions, they are now maybe 2 percent Catholic. Saint Benedict the African's two worship sites--the other is farther west, near 70th and Honore--cater to about 1,100 families.

On Sunday, June 9, the newly constructed east site of Saint Benedict's celebrated its first anniversary. That morning, as usual, the Bankses arrived just as the early-morning mass was letting out, and Dorothy, a short, stout woman of 62, greeted her friends. "Oh, now here's Miss Martin," she said as she embraced one woman on the way inside. Another woman brought news of a chum who was out of the hospital. "Why dahlin' that's wonderful," crowed Dorothy.

Precisely a year before, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had stood close to where Dorothy was clucking so delightedly; he had come to bless the church. The creation of Saint Benedict the African was no mean achievement; the parish had been knit together out of eight decaying black parishes over a span of several years. The consolidation remains the largest ever within the Archdiocese of Chicago, a realm of 389 parishes serving 2.35 million churchgoers.

All the more remarkable was the fact that the consolidation was voluntary. In January 1990 Bernardin had announced a wave of church and school closings and consolidations, sparking considerable protest. The loudest hue and cry arose over the shuttering of Quigley Seminary South, an academically competitive, racially integrated high school; in all 33 parishes and 20 schools would close by June 1991. But instead of waiting to be smitten from above, the Englewood Catholics had already combined. In so doing, they effected their own resurrection.

Saint Benedict's high-ceilinged, circular nave contains not pews but chairs without kneelers, arranged in a semicircle around an African-feeling black-walnut pulpit and altar. A tapestry up front depicts a dancing flame (which represents God's spirit), choppy water (daily strife), and broken bread (Communion). Rubber plants and ferns grow in earth beds along the scallop-shaped inside walls. The stained glass in the windows is surrounded by clear panels, enabling worshipers to peer outside and outsiders to look in.

The building lacks the splendor of the new Holy Angels Church in Kenwood-Oakland, a $4.5 million solar-heated edifice that opened in June on Oakwood Boulevard, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to replace the original, which was destroyed by fire five years ago. But like Holy Angels, Saint Benedict's represents the dreams not of the Irish and Germans who first settled Englewood but of the African Americans who live there now.

The first-anniversary service, conducted by Father David Baldwin, the parish priest, was alternately calming and rousing. After a reading from the book of Genesis, Father Baldwin, a handsome, graying man of 39, interrupted the proceedings to welcome a stroke victim, a debilitated man with a walker, back to church. Following the homily and the offertory, Baldwin asked guests to stand and say a little about themselves. "I hope once you have tasted the sweet, sweet spirit of this place that you will feel welcome here," Baldwin said. Then came announcements: eighth-grade graduation, a church stag party. The choir delivered the Lord's Prayer to a jaunty beat, then people exchanged the traditional "handshake of peace" ("Peace be with you . . . and also with you") and hugs. The choir sang a hymn as the handshakes went on and on. Dorothy Banks bobbed up and down in the second-to-last row. After Communion, everyone linked hands to sing "Lamb of God."

"When I walk in this place, I feel excitement and joy," said Dorothy Banks on her way out. "It's like I own it. My God is here."

Dorothy and Charles Banks converted to Catholicism in 1961. Dorothy was raised Baptist, but Louise's twin sister, Lois, became enamored of Catholicism at age 12, and her devotion spread to her mother. Lois eventually became a nun, though she later swore off her vows and married. She now teaches physical education at a Catholic high school in Dayton, Ohio.

In 1962 Dorothy and her family moved to Englewood, where they started attending Saint Brendan's Church at 67th and Racine. Lois and her brother, Charles Jr., entered the school there, while Louise attended a neighboring Catholic school with special-education classes. From her house across Ogden Park Dorothy could see the church spire. Later she would work for a decade in the bindery at R.R. Donnelley, but it was Saint Brendan's that would form the centerpiece of her existence.

The parish, founded in 1889, had for years served a predominantly Irish constituency. The handsome Gothic church had a cathedral ceiling, a resonant organ, and stained-glass windows executed by a glassworks in Munich, Germany, founded by luminary Franz Mayer. Saint Brendan was a sixth-century Irish sailor who supposedly rode to Newfoundland on a giant fish, and the most distinctive piece of stained glass depicted him being greeted by Indians as he landed in the new world. Saint Brendan's burst with followers; at its apex in 1930, church membership totaled 3,300 people, with more than 1,000 children in the school, which was staffed by the Sinsinawa order of Dominican nuns.

In the 1950s, thanks in part to the predatory efforts of unscrupulous real estate agents, the Englewood population began to shift from white to black. But the whites of Saint Brendan's held onto their homes longer than most. Though by 1960 Englewood was 70 percent black, the congregation at Saint Brendan's hadn't changed very much. When Dorothy came to the church, she recalls, "I doubt there were eight black people there, that I knew anyway. There were plenty of whites--why, they had three masses every Sunday. Unless you got to church 30 minutes ahead of time you stood up."

Dorothy joined the Altar and Rosary Society, which changed the altar cloths, distributed soap and combs among the retarded, and made bandages for overseas Catholic missions. But she hardly felt welcome. "The people there were so impolite to us," Dorothy remembers. "If they didn't like blacks and you sat down, they'd get up and move. There was this terrible feeling of being unwanted and unloved." But the blacks held their tongues.

In large part the newcomers faulted Father Leo Smith, then the parish priest, for the prevailing attitude. Once, with black parishioners in the pews, Smith looked down from the altar and said, "Just pull down your shades. Don't look out the window. That way you won't have to look at them." "Them" needed no translation. (Ironically, Father George Clements, the outgoing pastor at Holy Angels and the prototypical black urban priest, celebrated his first mass at Saint Brendan's in 1957--that was his neighborhood church.)

Ill health forced Smith to retire in 1964, and most of the white parishioners left with him. By the time Father Robert Burns took over in 1968, Saint Brendan's membership was made up of a couple of hundred black families and maybe 30 white ones. Burns was "a sweetheart," says church stalwart Irene Martin, but he was also a man who recognized the obstacles he faced in maintaining his church. Most of Englewood's blacks were not Catholic. Moreover, it was middle-class African Americans who generally converted, and Englewood was becoming woefully low-income. "But instead of viewing this as a disaster," says Burns, "we preached a gospel that this was a great opportunity for people to adopt a faith, educate their children, and share the opportunity to embrace the Catholic church."

Burns started religious education classes for adults. To prop up parish finances, he ran a Friday-night bingo game that became all the rage. "We got the pros, people who would play 40 to 50 cards at once," he says. At one time Saint Brendan's was netting as much as $900 a week off bingo, but as other churches and organizations started to compete with games of their own Brendan's take fell off precipitously. The costs of maintaining the church were rising. Nuns left, and more expensive lay teachers had to be hired. By the time Burns departed in 1982 the number of kids in the school had dropped below 200.

Similar downturns plagued the other nine parishes in Englewood. Most of the churches were drawing a subsidy from the archdiocese to balance their budgets. In 1969 the priests decided to take some action. Father John Farry, then assigned to Saint Bernard's, became coordinator of what was known as the Catholic Community of Englewood--an attempt to bring some unified services to the parishes. Together the churches developed a community-wide food pantry, a gospel choir, a youth group, and adult education classes.

In 1975 Farry presented the archdiocese with a plan to unite four sets of parishes in various ways; for instance, Saint Brendan's and Sacred Heart Church were to talk about forming some kind of joint parish. After six months without a word, Cardinal Cody responded by closing two local schools and declaring that the Catholic Community of Englewood had no official standing; Cody was absolute in his view that the head local bishop must be the sole arbiter of decisions involving parishes. To Farry's mind Cody was only underscoring his image as the ultimate autocrat. A disgruntled Farry returned to Saint Bernard's, and many of the joint ventures ceased.

It was not until the early 80s that the Englewood parishes resumed discussion about their future. This time an advisory council composed of two delegates from each parish recommended to the recently arrived Bernardin that the churches cooperate on services and that the money-losing schools be joined as the Catholic School of Englewood. The new school would have six campuses under one umbrella. "It was a better use of our personnel," says Father Baldwin, who arrived at Saint Bernard's around this period as the copastor. "Where one parish school couldn't afford a music teacher, say, one Englewood school could."

The proposal troubled no one more than Father Ron Kondziolka, the new pastor at Saint Brendan's, whose school was slated for closing. Kondziolka had come to Saint Brendan's in 1983 from a church in Little Village. At Saint Brendan's he found an underpopulated school, a dwindling number of Sunday worshipers, and rising operating costs. Just to heat the church for an hour on Sunday cost $500, the same amount being gathered weekly in the collection plate, relates Arthur Eiland, the loyal parishioner who kept the books. The annual operating budget for Saint Brendan's, both school and parish, stood at close to $400,000, but the accumulated debt was $180,000. "We were never technically on subsidy," says Eiland; "the archdiocese made us loans. But it was the same thing."

Church officials left Kondziolka with the impression that his mandate was to turn things around. "I went to Brendan's with a lot of enthusiasm," he says now. "The assumption was that I was there to make the parish work, not close it down."

Kondziolka, then 30-ish, bearded, and scrappy, focused first on the school. He imported a Ugandan priest, along with four Ugandan nuns to fill holes in the teaching staff, and he cut tuition to lure in pupils (to the annoyance of the other, higher-priced Catholic facilities). A new brochure touting the school's music program, gym, and respect for discipline was mailed out to area residents. Ten annual scholarships went expressly to non-Catholics. The school population soon ballooned to 400, many of the new students drawn out of the public schools. "Parents came to all the assemblies," says Lucy McCullough, who taught eighth grade at Saint Brendan's. "Our graduates were going to the best high schools in the city."

The congregation also mounted a campaign to attract more worshipers on Sunday. "My friends and I would telephone two or three people and say, "Be sure to be at mass on Sunday now,"' Dorothy Banks recollects. "More people would come, but two Sundays down the road the attendance would fall off, so we'd have to call again."

Still, the school was doing better than it had in a long time, and Kondziolka was understandably upset over the deliberations of the Englewood advisory council on consolidating. Father Thomas McQuaid, coordinator of the consolidation project, said the new school configuration would serve as many students as the old system. But Kondziolka argued that the six campuses would only drive tuition higher, forcing the low-income students out and some teachers to be laid off. Kondziolka grew to mistrust the planning committee, which "had an inner core of power that never represented the opinion of the people," he says. "It was a puppet group whose designs were predetermined." He resigned from the committee, which in the end proposed to close the school at Saint Brendan's along with those at Saint Bernard's and Saint Carthage.

On Valentine's Day 1984, Kondziolka led hundreds of his flock down to the chancery office on what he called "a love walk." The school band played "We Shall Overcome." The priest wore a paper heart on his lapel. "The plight of black people has been to close schools and to close churches," he said. "I'm proud our people will not shuffle down the road any longer." Kondziolka refused an audience with Anne Leonard, the archdiocese's educational services director, because she agreed to meet with only a small contingent of protesters. Shortly thereafter, on an especially cold night, a contingent from Saint Brendan's delivered a plea to Bernardin at his residence, but there was no response.

When the archdiocese approved the Englewood consolidation plan that March, no one bothered to call Kondziolka. "I learned about it on TV," he says. His response was to organize a funeral. "That seemed fitting, because closing the school felt like a death." A local mortician donated a coffin, which was packed with mementos: a basketball trophy, a photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, who had visited Saint Brendan's in the 60s, three bricks symbolizing the three shuttered schools, and a copy of "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love," a popular hymn composed by a priest named Peter Scholtes while he was stationed at Saint Brendan's 15 years before. The funeral service took place at Saint Brendan's, and a 76-car procession conducted the casket to Oak Woods Cemetery (no mean feat, since it was tricky to secure a city permit to block traffic for a bodyless cortege). At Oak Woods a trumpeter sounded taps and someone laid a memorial on the grounds.

In June Saint Brendan's school saw the last of its students. The building, subsequently turned over to the Catholic Charities, was rehabilitated into senior-citizen housing. A nonprofit agency called the BRASS Foundation (for Behavior Research and Action in the Social Sciences) purchased the old convent and turned it into a halfway house for recovering alcohol and substance abusers. That fall the Catholic School of Englewood opened for business on six sites. The officially sanctioned Catholic Community of Englewood, led by Father McQuaid, acted as the liaison among the separate parishes.

Kondziolka stayed on at Saint Brendan's, but after a couple of years the burdens of the post wore him down. He was robbed repeatedly. Once he happened on some burglars pilfering copper from the abandoned school; they threatened his life, prompting him to seek police protection. Meanwhile all kinds of other part-time functions, as a teacher, an army chaplain, and a hospital chaplain, were sapping his energies. In 1986 he departed to become the chaplain at Saint James Hospital in Chicago Heights, a gentler venue. Old hands suggest that Kondziolka was banished for insubordination, but he says it was more complicated than that: "I wasn't in the Englewood power structure, and I had no invitation from any other church to stay."

"Ron made a mistake in being so public at Brendan's," says Robert Burns, his predecessor there. "There had already been too many discussions for him to have made a difference when he came in." But he was missed by some. "He fought with all he had to make the parish go," says Dorothy Banks.

"I still believe the Catholic church should subsidize the schools that work in a poor neighborhood like Englewood," thinks Kondziolka. "We don't need Catholic schools in Arlington Heights or Winnetka. If we're going to have them anywhere, make it in Englewood."

Kondziolka was replaced by Father Ron Dussman. "He was a forgetful priest," says Dorothy Banks. "If you didn't put things down on a piece of paper for him, it would slip his mind. But I'll say this for him, he loved to visit the sick and dying, and he could bury somebody like nobody's business."

Dussman and another priest, Patrick Quinn, really shared their duties between Saint Brendan's and Sacred Heart three blocks away, where they lived. On Sunday the priests would hustle between the two churches. When Saint Brendan's had an oldies dance as a fund-raiser, it had to be held at the Sacred Heart gym because there wasn't one at Saint Brendan's anymore. "After the school closed, morale at Brendan's went all the way down," says Arthur Eiland. "We suspected the church would be next."

Actually, there were some signs it might stay open. With the school gone, Saint Brendan's budget stood at only $75,000 a year, an amount the church was able to cover through collections and help from several "sharing" parishes in the suburbs. In November 1985 Saint Brendan's marked its 95th anniversary with a special liturgy and a banquet at a restaurant in Beverly.

But the pews were growing emptier and emptier. A good Sunday drew 100 people, many long in the tooth, and the choir rarely mustered more than a dozen voices. Dorothy Banks began to count the people in the pews: "The number got lower and lower and lower, to the point where I grieved. I cried at night."

The other parishes in Englewood were also seeing a falloff. "We had 100 or so families on the official sheet," says John Wilson, the engineer at Saint Bernard's, "but I'd say 60 or 65 came regularly." Dorothy Gilmore, a longtime member of Our Lady of Solace, can remember by name everyone who came to her church on Sunday.

By 1987 the Catholic Community of Englewood, by now moderated by David Baldwin (McQuaid had departed to become a missionary in East Africa), decided it needed to look toward merging further. The decision jibed with the release by the archdiocese of a document entitled "Criteria for Parish Planning and Evaluation," which spelled out a series of norms by which parishes could judge if they were viable in the eyes of the diocese. The paper advised that one parish should lie no closer than a half-mile from the next parish and should have at least 300 families on its rolls. Membership stability was important; Bernardin defined a healthy church as one with two-thirds the number of families it had five years ago. The operating cost per worshiper was not to exceed $450, twice the diocesan average. Tuition and other school revenues were to have been covering 65 percent of schools' operating costs; and 50 percent of the students participating in parish programs were to have been non-Catholic.

Englewood's churches flunked most of the cardinal's tests. Even though the predominantly black church communities demanded, and received, their own gentler assessment (called the Cartwright Report), the Englewood churches saw a heightened necessity to make some new changes. "We knew we couldn't remain ten individual churches," says Theodria Constanoplis, a parishioner at Saint Justin Martyr.

Under prodding from Bernardin, the CCE established a 30-member planning committee, composed of priests and laity, which met on a monthly basis over 18 months. The committee examined financial statements and sent small teams to worship at every church and gauge strengths and weaknesses. A survey tapped opinions from the clergy as well as people in the pews on a range of issues, from the quality of the Sunday sermons to the ability of the youth minister.

When it came time to make decisions, the thorniest problem was to get people to consider closing their own church. The leaders of Saint Martin de Porres argued architecture; their classic Gothic structure was topped by a 228-foot spire and the golden statue of a rider that pilots reputedly used as a guide on their approach to Chicago. Supporters of Saint Brendan's argued that it had the largest capacity, 800 seats. Finally Eiland suggested that all ten parishes be closed and new churches built. "That way it wouldn't be the case of us going to your building, but we'd all have something new," he says.

In the end the CCE recommended that Englewood be reconstituted as one parish with three worship sites--one west, one east, and a third on Garfield Boulevard--and four school locations.

Bernardin authorized the four school sites (although one would later fall victim to a budget trimming). Further, since Saint Basil's and Visitation, both on Garfield Boulevard (Englewood's northern border), had a significant number of Latino families, Bernardin directed that those two churches be spun out of the CCE and begin talks about long-range consolidation with the nearby Saint John of God Church and other churches to their north. That left eight churches in the Englewood complex. The five churches on the east side--Saint Brendan's, Saint Bernard's, Saint Carthage, Saint Martin's, and Our Lady of Solace--were to receive a new church, the cardinal decreed. The three parishes on the west--Saint Justin Martyr, Saint Raphael's, and Sacred Heart--were to figure out which of them would constitute a common place of worship.

The five east-side parishes set about trying to name their new church. One of the top choices was to memorialize Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia banker's daughter who became a nun and in 1891 founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People; the order set up 63 schools, including Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic college to admit blacks.

The CCE membership, however, voted in favor of Benedict the Moor, a man born into slavery in Messina, Italy, in 1526. At age 21 he was recruited to join the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi, who lived as hermits. Benedict cultivated a reputation for performing miracles and as a confessor and eventually emerged as a leader of the community. Canonized in 1807, he is seen as a patron saint of African Americans. The CCE decided to drop the term "Moor" ("Someone said it was a put-down to blacks," says Eiland), and so the new parish assumed the designation Saint Benedict the African.

The consolidation spelled doom for Saint Brendan's. Its families would be uprooted to Saint Bernard's until the new church could be built. (Our Lady of Solace joined Saint Martin's for the interim, and Saint Carthage stayed open.)

The final service at Saint Brendan's took place September 4, 1988. Though former parishioners and nuns were invited, it was mainly the sisters who came. The altar was decorated with flowers contributed by Saint Bernard's. The choir sang Peter Scholtes's hymn. In his homily Ron Dussman told the congregation to celebrate the future as well as the past. "The church is not a building but the people of God," he said. His message fell on some mighty angry ears. "We were quiet that day, and hostile," recollects Dorothy Banks. "The hurt was there for me, that I'll say. I had put 27 years into that parish. I had scrubbed floors and washed the curtains. It was home."

Father Baldwin provided some comfort; at the reception after the service he offered a handshake and words of encouragement to nearly everyone. Baldwin felt the new fusion was prudent and far-sighted, but his maternal grandmother had been both baptized and married at Saint Brendan's. Something--maybe his mixed feelings--made his ministrations unusually effective, says Ann Eiland. "He sweetened a very sad occasion."

In the great snow of 1967 the roof of Saint Bernard's Church had collapsed, destroying the parish sanctuary, and services had continued in a parish hall. It was decided that the new east-side church would be built on the old foundation of Saint Bernard's.

The building committee consisted of two lay representatives from each of the five closing parishes, along with David Baldwin and "liturgical design consultant" Regina Kuehn, whose job it was to insure that the church architecture squared with theology.

The group met at least monthly. On select Sundays they would get in a van and visit buildings that Kuehn thought were worth seeing: Catholic churches on the northwest side and in Park Ridge, an adult learning center at Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, the large, angular Saint Elizabeth Seton Church in Orland Hills, notable for its pie-shaped seating, and Saint Celestine's in Elmwood Park, now a "sharing parish" to Saint Benedict the African--meaning they provide assistance, monetary and otherwise, to the poorer church.

Also on the itinerary was Saint Elizabeth's, a church serving the Stateway Gardens housing project at 35th and State. The elders at Saint Elizabeth's had requested a structure without flourishes, and as designed by Wendell Campbell and his nephew, Kevin, Saint Elizabeth's was an anthem to plainness, an octagonal structure with walls of oak and cinder block and only a couple of simple panels of stained glass. (Kuehn calls it "architecturally unimaginative.")

It became clear that the leaders at Saint Benedict's had a grander vision. Kuehn set the stage by underlining how Vatican II philosophy enabled Catholic churches to be freer in design. No longer did naves have to be militaristic, with row after row of pews facing an altar; instead they could be rounded and friendly, inviting participation. Saint Martin's had featured a walk-in baptismal fount, the first in the archdiocese, which had attracted many converts. The sentiment on the Saint Benedict's committee was to go even further, to create a fount in which converts could submerge their whole bodies, reminiscent of the Baptist tradition in which countless Englewood Catholics were reared.

"We wanted a large choir room and a movable altar," says Banks, one of the building committee members. Kuehn came up with the idea of the scalloped walls, recalling the repetitions common to African music and poetry. Kuehn also reminded people that Vatican II thinking called for a return to essentials; for instance, she reported, churches in medieval Europe never had pews. That sounded especially reasonable to Dorothy Gilmore, who represented Our Lady of Solace. "I didn't want no kneelers," she says. "They make too much noise."

When the parish invited bids in the spring of 1989 seven architects responded, among them John Voosen, who had designed Saint Celestine's, both Wendell and Kevin Campbell, and the Wheeling firm of Belli & Belli, arguably the leading designer of Catholic churches in the midwest.

The Belli brothers' work on churches goes back to 1946, when they were invited to help convert a three-story apartment building into a school for Our Lady of Guadalupe parish on the southeast side. Edo Belli was summoned to meet with the parish priest and Cardinal Samuel Stritch, who asked Belli his opinion of the project. Edo thought the apartment building was so run-down that it wasn't worth fixing, and he said so. The priest was so offended that he wouldn't ride with Belli to the site. But the cardinal appreciated Belli's frankness and hired him to build the parish a new school. That spawned a close friendship with Stritch that led to numerous commissions for the archdiocese--rectories, convents, churches, schools--and for such prominent Catholics as printing tycoon John Cuneo. The firm's signature is on Saint Joseph and Columbus hospitals, as well as three buildings at the University of Notre Dame. In 1965 their relationship with the archdiocese soured when Edo resisted using a furniture designer backed by Cardinal Cody on construction of a church in Melrose Park. But after Bernardin took office in 1982, Edo Belli and his sons Allen and Jim returned to the church's good graces. Saint Elizabeth Seton is one of their latter-day creations.

Wendell Campbell was known for seminal additions to the black community's landscape, among them the south-side YMCA at 63rd and Stony Island, Paul Robeson High School, and the Genesis Convention Center in Gary. Saint Elizabeth's was modest, but Campbell had delivered it for $20,000 under the $940,000 budget. He assumed the Englewood committee would be interested in his frugality. But the building committee didn't like Saint Elizabeth's lack of grandeur.

Kevin Campbell had been the chief designer of Saint Elizabeth's, but in the middle of that project he had split off from his uncle to establish his own firm, Architechnology. Kevin and architect Chris Lee, with whom he joined forces for the Saint Benedict's venture, had grown up in and around Englewood and had met at Lindblom High School. Now in their late 30s, they were returning bearing solid academic credentials--Kevin with an architectural degree from MIT, Lee with a master's from Harvard--and a feeling that, where possible, blacks should hire blacks. In addition, both men thought their chances were enhanced by the fact that Campbell was the only black Catholic architect working locally (Wendell Campbell is not Catholic).

It was in their presentation that the two young architects gave affront. "When Kevin came in, everything he talked about was as far as his pocketbook," says John Wilson, a committee member, "and his partner gave the impression that he didn't want to work with us laypeople, that we didn't know what he was talking about." Dorothy Banks rather liked Kevin, but thought Lee was too arrogant. When the committee asked what Campbell and Lee's fee might be, the pair haggled in front of everyone and finally had to leave the room to firm up a percentage figure.

The Bellis' presentation to the building committee was much different. The architects talked about themselves and their way of working and passed around a book of renderings and photographs. They had just gotten on the Dan Ryan on the way back north when Jim turned to his father. "I'd really like to do this church, but we don't have a chance," he said. He assumed they'd pick one of the black firms.

Instead the committee voted unanimously in favor of the Bellis, which greatly disappointed Kevin Campbell and Chris Lee. Campbell says the building committee expected them to have arrived bearing specific designs. "We said, 'Well, you'd have to pay us for that,'" says Campbell, who's now City Hall's liaison to Hammond-Beebe on the construction of the Harold Washington Library. If the committee members thought they were being talked down to, Campbell is not surprised: "It happens with regularity with people who don't ordinarily buy this type of service."

"This job would have been a plum for any architect," says Lee, but "particularly a black architect who normally doesn't have access to a large and wealthy market. What kind of signal does going with the Bellis send to that black kid who might want to go into architecture, when he sees a job like this going to a white guy from the suburbs? It just sustains the status quo, where money always leaves the community."

In fact, the committee had first been inclined toward the black aspirants. "We had it in the back of our minds to hire a black," relates Banks. But as much as the Campbells and Chris Lee were a letdown, so the Bellis won people over, and as the days wore on, the committee was increasingly delighted with its choice. "It impressed us no end," says Banks, when Jim Belli and his wife started attending mass at the remaining churches, trying to catch the different flavor of each one.

Construction on the new church, budgeted at $1.4 million, began around September 1. The building committee had charged the Bellis with hiring as many black subcontractors as possible; the painting, plastering, and carpentry crews and the door and skylight men were all African American.

Between 1986 and 1990, more than two dozen parishes in the Chicago Archdiocese either closed or merged voluntarily. While Englewood's consolidation was the largest, similar moves occurred in Harvey, South Chicago, and Burnside, and on the west and near southwest sides. The issuance of norms by the cardinal in 1987 had been designed to hasten that process, but a sudden financial crunch forced the hand of the archdiocese.

Between 1986 and 1988 the annual deficit of the Chicago see climbed from $700,000 to $17 million, and in 1989 it hit nearly $29 million. Only 29 parishes were on subsidy from the chancery office in 1982; seven years later that number had climbed to 109. Nearly four times that many parishes avoided going on subsidy only by drawing on savings, according to Jack Benware, the chief financial officer for the archdiocese. For the first time ever, the Catholic church was borrowing from banks.

In a background report released in November 1989, the archdiocese outlined the roots of the crisis. Catholics had moved to the suburbs and attendance was down. Buildings were aging; half were at least 50 years old. "Rather than represent an asset," said the report, "these properties are often liabilities. As they age, they require large expenditures to keep them safe and operational." Over the prior quarter-century the number of priests serving the diocese had dropped from 2,900 to 2,000. In 1960 nuns accounted for 70 percent of the teachers in local Catholic schools; by 1990 nuns made up a mere 15 percent of teachers, with the remainder of the positions staffed with more costly lay personnel.

So it was that in January 1990 Bernardin announced the rash of closings and consolidations to be completed in two stages, the majority by July 1, 1990, and the rest a year later. (The same problems had prompted the same response in other cities; in Detroit, for example, the sword had fallen on 43 of the city's 112 parishes two years before.)

No community should have been surprised by the cardinal's dictates, insists Father R. George Sarauskas, then research and planning director for the archdiocese: "Nobody on [Bernardin's] list didn't know what was coming." The timing was just moved up, says Jack Benware: "Many parishes had been in planning [for consolidation] for several years. What happened was that we had to facilitate the dates."

Truncating the diocese has had the desired effect, reducing the net deficit to $8.6 million for fiscal 1990, says Jack Benware. He predicts a balanced budget within two or three years.

Meanwhile Saint Benedict's draws praise from officials. "The people in Englewood anticipated the future, or what the cardinal was forced to do. They came up with an action that was bold and innovative, and when the time came for closings they didn't have to be involved," says Sarauskas, now director of a program for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that assists churches in eastern Europe.

Still, the Englewood consolidation has not been uniformly easy. Bernardin determined that the churches in west Englewood would not receive a new building, forcing the three parishes to decide which of them would become the new worship site. "Very few people wanted to give up their own church," says Theodria Constanoplis. "There was a lot of anger and mistrust." Sister Lea Woll, who worked for the placement office of the archdiocese, was called in to help mediate the process, which culminated in an open meeting in June 1989 at Sacred Heart.

The aim of the meeting was to arrive at a consensus among the 200 or so people present, but in the end a rancorous vote had to be taken. "This was a real instance of not succeeding," Woll says. "I overestimated people's ability to be detached enough to make an objective choice." The choice made that night was for Justin Martyr. Constanoplis says time has healed wounds: "Definitely there is a feeling of oneness on the west."

Adjusting to the changes in east Englewood took time, too. After Saint Brendan's closed, Dorothy Banks started attending services in the lyceum at Saint Bernard's until the new church was built, and she was uncomfortable. Prior differences had soured her feelings toward some members of Saint Bernard's. She balked at joining the choir, considering her voice "hoarse and gross."

After a while, though, she eased into activities. She started to sing. She joined the Ministers of Care, who take Communion to the homebound, and the Birthday Club, which honors birth anniversaries with a card and cake. She renewed her commitment to the Ministers of Praise, who pray with the sick.

But her mourning for Saint Brendan's only ended when she and Father Baldwin, on their way to visit a blind man in his home, stopped by the old church as it was being torn down. It was near the end of August, 1989. The pair looked on as the wreckers destroyed the church kitchen. (They saved only the stained-glass windows, which were presented to the Chicago Historical Society.) I did all I could for this place, Dorothy thought as she watched the walls come down. I'm going to get on with my life.

Officially opened on Mother's Day, 1990, the new church was consecrated by Bernardin on June 10. The cardinal's was one of scores of cars that drove into the circular driveway that day, past a bell tower featuring two wrought-iron bells from Saint Martin's. The cornerstone, set at eye level, was etched with the names and founding dates of the five original east-side parishes. Parishioners had been asked to fill out cards articulating their hopes for the future, and those lay in the cornerstone.

Inside the church the main focus was the stone baptismal pool, which at 24 feet in diameter and three and a half feet deep is the largest in any church in America, says Regina Kuehn. Light from a skylight played on the water, giving it an ethereal aspect. "We didn't want the pool to seem like a bathtub," says Edo Belli, who would seem to have achieved his aim.

The sanctuary, which normally accommodates 300 people, had been adapted to seat 75 more; the spillover crowd looked on via closed-circuit TV in the lyceum. The black-walnut furniture--the altar, the lectern, the three-horned presider's chair--was inherited from Saint Bernard's. As the cardinal and his entourage surveyed his handiwork, the 72-year-old Edo Belli, surrounded by his boys and their wives, said he felt "like a hero."

The service started with a half hour of gospel hymns, and Baldwin delivered the homily. Bernardin made some remarks. Then, in order to sanctify the church, the cardinal put oil on his thumbs and made the sign of the cross on paper crucifixes attached to beams. He blessed the sanctuary with water from the baptismal.

Today Saint Benedict the African has three priests, a youth minister, social-services and adult-education directors, an accountant, numerous clubs and auxiliaries, and four choirs. The Academy of Saint Benedict the African, a school with three sites and three separate principals, charges a base tuition of $1,135 a child. Another $600 can either be paid or worked off by attending PTA meetings, donating time at school, and participating in other activities designed to foster parent involvement.

In 1984 the Englewood parishes functioned on an annual budget of $3.5 million, according to Baldwin, with 185 people on salary and six schools and 45 buildings on the rolls. The budget has dropped below $2 million. The staff has been trimmed to 75, and the parish is trying to use its many dormant buildings as outposts for social-service agencies. The yearly cost of education (albeit with two parishes gone) has been whittled down 40 percent to about $1.5 million; the archdiocesan subsidy has been halved to $700,000.

The archdiocese paid most of the $1.4 million it cost to build the new church, plus an additional $550,000 to rehab the school site adjoining it. (Ronald McDonald Children's Charities contributed a playground.) The parish committed to raise $150,000 for the church over four years. Through a pledge drive the parishioners have already retired half the debt. The Banks family made a pledge of more than $1,000 over several years, "and we haven't missed a payment yet," says Dorothy.

A number of people from Saint Brendan's shunned the new parish when theirs closed down. "Some of our dearest friends went out to Saint Margaret of Scotland," says Ann Eiland, referring to a church on 99th Street west of the Dan Ryan, "but I've noticed other people coming to our church. We see a lot of new faces." This year Saint Benedict's has baptized 25 infants (one of them Allen Belli's granddaughter) and six adults; the adults don white robes, walk into the fount, and submerge themselves three times, one each for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Saint Benedict's sees its share of visitors. Father Burns came back once. Ron Kondziolka, though he returns to Englewood several times a week to visit families in need, has not come to Saint Benedict. "I was invited," he says, "but I didn't feel right going."

But the parishioners are enthusiastic. The church has adopted a slogan taken from a gospel song--"There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place." Red-and-green banners on light poles surrounding the church advise passersby to "catch the spirit." (When Baldwin inquired about a city permit to hoist the banners, the man he talked to said he didn't suppose there'd be much of a problem. "There isn't a lot of competition for poles in your neighborhood.")

"We have reason to be proud of tackling the issue of transition in a proactive way, instead of becoming victims of circumstance," says Baldwin, who was recently named to succeed Sarauskas as head of the archdiocesan Office of Research and Planning based in part, he admits, on his success in Englewood. "We seized the opportunity at the right time. We had a say in how we would be church, instead of having somebody tell us how."

"This church was built for us, in our time," says Ann Eiland. "Our old churches were built for other people, who abandoned those churches. Now we have a feeling of ownership. This will be a legacy that we will leave to Englewood."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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