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Knells of Saint Mary's

Can this church be saved? Should it be?

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Gene Urbaszewski is prepared to move heaven and earth to save his church. Whether he can move the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago is another matter.

Saint Mary of the Angels Roman Catholic Church, 1825 N. Wood, near or in (opinions vary) the now up-and-coming Bucktown neighborhood, is one of those Chicago landmarks everyone recognizes by description--"That big church with the dome and the light and the angels, next to the Kennedy at Armitage"--if not by name. Seen from the expressway, it's big and impressive. Seen from up close, its dark-brick bulk looming, it's overwhelming. Since January 4, it's been closed.

In some ways, it's a familiar story: a huge edifice--built in another era for a burgeoning immigrant population and built too close to other parish churches--that is expensive to maintain, needs costly work, and has a dwindling congregation (of 800 families) and a changing (in this case, increasingly Hispanic) neighborhood. But Urbaszewski and a hard-core group of about 100 members of the parish and surrounding community have taken on the archdiocese, challenging official statements about the condition of the church and the cost of restoring it.

That the 68-year-old structure has physical problems is not debated. The acknowledged question is the extent of those problems and how much needs to be done--at what cost and how soon--to fix them. The unacknowledged question, at least on the part of archdiocesan officials, is whether the work should be done or the church simply torn down. But the ongoing cost of maintaining the huge edifice, rather than the price of making repairs, may be the real sticking point for the archdiocese.

"The carpet has been pulled out from under us as a living, viable parish--large enough to pay our bills. Our people were never involved in the discussion," says Urbaszewski, brandishing a thick sheaf of photocopied clippings on the church being named a "Marian shrine" last year, on the order of priests that runs the place, on the archdiocese, on the cardinal, on what makes for a good parish life, on good church decor. Urbaszewski, a stocky, graying insurance broker, is the chairman and his wife, Terry, is the publicity head of the Saint Mary of the Angels Restoration Committee, an organization that has consumed much of their money and energy in the last nine months. They take a no-surrender stance on the closing of the church Gene's grandfather helped found.

"The old-time Catholics are very, very weary of getting no support from the people who are supposed to nurture them," says John Jeffery, who is not a Catholic of any stripe; his parents were Protestant missionaries in China. A neighbor of the parish, he's a registered architect and head of the technical subcommittee for the restoration committee. "We've had more than six months of hard labor, and we haven't even been given a few square feet for a small office to run the committee. All the support is coming from outside the church--none of it is coming from inside the church.

"The base point for the parish is: how can we get this church open, stop the water coming in, repair the things that need to be repaired? The base point for the archdiocese is: how can we keep this place from being a drain on our budget? But the parish has to come up with 75 percent, so it's not much of a drain anyway.

"Saint Mary's is not a landmark in the sense of Louis Sullivan's church, or a really great, historic church. But it is a landmark in the sense of the city's topology. It's a landmark in the sense of the power of your seeing it when you're driving down the expressway. If these great old churches were gone, the city would be nothing but a boring landscape of a lot of two- and three-flats."

Persistent rumors swirl around the church: That the parish is to be closed altogether and the property sold, which happened to Annunciation, an Irish church a few blocks away that is now the site of high-priced yuppie town houses. That the archdiocese has decided that one Polish church is to be closed, and that that one is Saint Mary's. The rumors are denied vehemently by archdiocesan officials.

After a piece of painted plaster--"Tiny," stresses Urbaszewski. "A real nothing. About one inch by an inch and a half, about the thickness of a coat of paint"--fell from the dome, grazing a female parishioner on the forehead in the summer of 1985, the archdiocese ordered a series of studies from Wiss Janney Elstner Associates, a firm of consulting engineers on retainer with the archdiocese. Their final report, which came out in August 1987, estimated a cost of $1.4 million to repair the church; the most pressing repairs would cost $639,000.

The biggest problems lie within the great dome, which was modeled on Saint Peter's in Rome; repairs need to be made inside and out, and inside means expensive scaffolding. The front parapet is leaning. The distinctive terra-cotta angels have suffered from water that has gotten into their joints. The rose windows need their storms repaired. The front stairs are crumbling. The electrical work doesn't meet code. A lot of maintenance has been put off for too many years.

On November 3 of last year, the director of administrative services for the archdiocese, John Philbin, formally advised the pastor of the church, the Reverend Edwin Lapinski, that the church should be closed, "as soon as it is practical for you to do so." A set of background notes from the church's restoration committee reads, "On 11-22-87 Philbin's letter was found in the Sunday Church Bulletin. Shock, Horror and Dismay struck the people!" On Christmas Eve the news hit the papers, which listed Saint Mary's as the second of 25 churches the archdiocese might close.

The parishioners didn't sit around horror-struck for long. On December 27, a group of more than 500, including parishioners, alumni of Saint Mary's School, and neighbors, organized the Saint Mary of the Angels Restoration Committee. They established a bank account and held their first fund-raiser, a concert by the Polish Lira Singers in the church building on January 3. That event raised $10,000. The next day the church's doors were locked, and services were moved to the school auditorium.

In February, the restoration committee hired Historic Boulevard Services, a nonunion firm with a good record in restoring historic churches, including the fire-damaged Notre Dame on the near west side. The firm, which does relatively low-cost work, was to conduct a second engineering study and submit an estimate on the price of repairing the church. Owner Bill Lavicka, a past president of the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois, examined the building and set repairs at $650,000--less than half the estimate Wiss, Janney Elstner had given the archdiocese. The archdiocese then commissioned a third study by Holabird and Root, who placed the cost at $4 million.

"I'm an engineer who specializes in historic structures," says Bill Lavicka, a strongly, opinionated man who is not afraid to express his opinions. "I've worked on a number of National Register structures--I've worked on three, and consulted on three or four. At Notre Dame di Chicago, they were talking a million dollars. We completely restored it for about a third, maybe a half, of the money. The scope is the problem, everybody wants to fix problems that don't need to be fixed."

Lavicka estimated expenses of $10,000 for the bell-tower roofs, $20,000 for repairing the storm windows on the rose windows ("Holabird and Root wanted to spend $282,000 on storm windows," he snorts), and $50,000 for the flat roofs ("The others want to tear the whole thing off, but you don't need to. The main roof isn't leaking"). "I saved $128,000," he says.

Holabird and Root said the 26 nine-and-a-half-foot-tall angels were in dangerous condition and should be taken down; a few, perhaps, could be reconstructed in the garden. "Everybody keeps wanting to tear the angels down--toss 'em on the ground and smash 'em to smithereens," growls Lavicka. "But they're up there real strong; each one has a steel bar through it. My guys went up there and literally waltzed with each one. Even if pieces did fall, they'd fall on a parapet, not on the ground. My cost for the angels is $30,000 to fix 'em up, versus $85-ish. Holabird and Root wants to tear down the four watchacallums--the four minidomes. That's ridiculous."

The front parapet, which leans out at a noticeable angle, is another area of contention. "It's been leaning at least 20 or 30 years," says Lavicka. "I'd strengthen it, I'd tighten it up. I estimated it would cost $10,000. Remember those big windstorms a while ago, when the Sears Tower lost 90 windows? Sears Tower lost 90 windows, but the angels stood, and so did the parapet."

The other estimates included tuckpointing the entire structure. "The walls are 20 inches thick," says Lavicka. "If they're missing a little mortar between the bricks, who cares? If you see a place where a brick's gonna fall out and hit someone, you fix it. I'd say $10,000 is all that's required there."

Lavicka goes through his report, point by point. The mechanical and electrical systems are out-of-date, but he says there are no problems. The old boiler is better than its modern counterparts and gets the steam up faster. The electrical fuses are exposed behind an easily opened door. "It's not up to code, but it works," he says. "So lock the door." Inside plastering and repair is estimated at $80,000, mostly because of the expense of scaffolding. Operations and overhead come in at $65,000.

"I'm a licensed special engineer. I've won lots of awards. I was hoping to make some money at $650,000--and I looked at it with a close eye. They could probably open the doors and have a service right now without doing anything--there's a net for the [falling] plaster. There's no structural catastrophe going to happen. After all, they filmed [Above the Law] in there just a few days after it was closed.

"At Notre Dame, we came in at one half of what they expected. That time, the archdiocese came to me. Now they seem to think I'm their enemy."

He blames what he calls "the storefront mentality that's coming up right now." Archdiocesan treasurer John Benware and archdiocesan property manager William Roache, he says, "both worshiped in storefront churches, and they think that's dandy. They think everybody should worship in a cheap little storefront church. But these buildings that Chicago has will never happen again. Nobody could ever duplicate the lines and the ornament. It's not just another piece of real estate--it's barbaric to look at it like that. When you go into these churches--if you're humble, or educated, or poor, or whatever--it knocks your breath out. If you live in a hovel, you're still welcome, it's still yours. If you're rich, it just takes your breath away that anything so beautiful could exist."

Roache refused to comment on any aspect of this story. Benware denies that he prefers storefront churches to more conventional ones; his response to a request for a response to the Lavicka report was "No comment."

The Resurrectionist order of priests originated in Poland. Today, they supply the priests of a number of traditionally Polish churches in Chicago, including Saint Mary's. The Reverend Francis Rog is the dean of area five, which includes Saint Mary's, and is the pastor of Saint Hyacinth's, the city's second largest Polish Roman Catholic parish. Rog served an unprecedented three consecutive terms of three years each--the maximum permitted--as provincial of the order. It was he who assigned the vastly unpopular pastor who served at Saint Mary's before the present one. Although Rog recently missed being consecrated an auxiliary bishop, an appointment he reportedly had expected, he is said to be very well connected politically within the archdiocese and his order. He favors closing Saint Mary's.

"This deterioration has been going on over the last 35 or 40 years," says Rog. "When the neighborhood was in--if you want to call it its heyday, or the likes thereof--people were able to patch up, paste up. Now they can't pay their heating bill or their electric bill without help from the diocese. It's going to cost $1.3 million, $1.4 million to fix up. Since people don't have that kind of money around there, they went to the archdiocese." He dismisses Lavicka's estimate of $650,000. "He wouldn't give an inch-by-inch price. And I don't consider them unless they give you that, or the likes thereof." (I was unable to find any real difference in form between Lavicka's study and the others.)

Rog denies rumors that the archdiocese has decided that one traditionally Polish church must be closed. "These are emotional statements that are so absolutely absurd. There is no kind of concern that a Polish church has to go. It's a question of the parochial area, how can this parochial area be served. The archdiocese is not in any way intending to close the parish. The archdiocese is committed to the existence of some kind of a parish building. But the maintenance of that building is horrendously great.

It's not just a question of a building. It's a question of a parish life. Does parish life demand this structure? No doubt this is a monument. The question is, how many monuments can the archdiocese afford? Are you going to have four empty churches when you can have all those people gathered into one church? There's a beautiful example in Englewood, where 11 churches are going to be combined into 3 or 4."

Like every other church official to whom I spoke, Rog danced around the questions of who would pay for the demolition--certain to be an expensive proposition because of the church's steel-reinforced concrete structure; Lavicka estimates $1 million and others even more--and who would pay for a new church if one were built. "That's the responsibility of the archdiocese," says Rog. "This is a parish, and a parish will be maintained in that area. What kind of building do you need for the 200 people that are there?

"The building is the property of the archdiocese. The congregation has absolutely nothing to say about razing or building," he says. "The engineers from two studies have said the building is unsafe. The deterioration took 30 years--it didn't happen in six months. But if you don't want to take the time to listen, you can be caught in a whole whirlwind of accusations."

"I can't make a generalization," says Bill Grosche, project architect for Holabird and Root, when asked whether the church is unsafe. "I did not have a sentence in the report that said that. I did not make any blanket statement. There are a few unsafe conditions, where something could fall off the church, but the report does not say it's unsafe."

"I said there were certain conditions that presented an unsafe condition," says Rich Koziol of Wiss Janney Elstner. "I'm not gonna comment on that. Talk to the archdiocese--it's all in the report."

Asked for an explanation of the parish's failure to maintain their building,, Gene Urbaszewski steams. "Take this down, write it down," he barks, pointing a stubby forefinger at my notepad. "When Cardinal Cody was approached--this would be what? 1973. Right before the jubilee. When we wanted to raise funds for repairs, we were told by the cardinal that if we raised more than $40,000, all excess funds would have to be given to the diocese. It cost maybe $20,000, $23,000 for the scaffolding--that didn't allow us to do much more than wash down the church, and apply some new pink paint to certain areas. The point is, we were constrained. This wasn't our choice. With that lack of support, the people felt, 'Why bother?'"

What about the deficits? Urbaszewski brandishes a sheaf of parish reports: in 1984, the parish was $60,844.82 in the black. "Father Rog says we can't afford to keep the church up, but until he assigned Father Grek, we could afford it. That space cadet just wrote checks until he wiped out our surplus. This is the only way the people can show they aren't happy with the way they're being treated by them--by sitting on their wallets."

The Reverend Richard J. Grek, who was assigned in 1984, lasted only a couple of years, and then quit. I was not able to track him down. He was replaced by the Reverend Edwin Lapinski on July 1, 1987. Lapinski's association with Saint Mary's parish has been mutually unhappy.

"It's a beautiful building, yes, but a beautiful building don't help me pay the bills," says Lapinski. "A beautiful building that stands 90 percent of the time empty doesn't help me pay the heat and the electric. The contributions are never enough to pay the maintenance. We have a humongous school, a corridor that links it to the rectory, a corridor that links it to the church itself. Even heating in just these places--just one month--it cost $9,000 for heating. We have four services--one Saturday, three Sunday--and we get 188 for each service. The church holds up to 1,800 people. It's far too big for our needs."

Father Lapinski is out of sympathy with his parishioners. He likes having services in the school auditorium. "The old church was uncomfortable; it had no air, no ventilation. The auditorium is air-conditioned. You'd think they'd appreciate that. People are closer to the altar now, it's more community-oriented--which is what it's supposed to be, instead of being scattered around, 10,000 miles from the altar. They'd all sit toward the middle and the back, and I'm looking at row and row and row of empty pews."

Lapinski, 62, didn't know when he was appointed that the church was to be shut down. "It was kind of a surprise when they told me to close it. I became the hatchet man, the object of opprobrium and hate, because I represent authority, I represent the hierarchy, I'm the one who locked the door. You're in the army, your general tells you to do something, You'd better do it, OK? That's the position I'm in."

He feels his congregation is being unrealistic about the finances involved. "People on the committee figure the diocese is trying to shaft us. But where are they going to get the money? The congregation has been working for seven months, they've had lots of TV coverage, and so far they have $132,000 in savings, $32,000 in checking, and some pledges.

"People are laid off; a lot of our people are on disabillity, old-age pensions, maybe on Social Security. Where are we going to get all these dollars and cents? Suppose we do fix it. Where and how are they going to maintain it? I figure we need $4,000 a week just to maintain it. We get $1,200, $1,300, $1,400 a Sunday. All they have is this emotional argument. As soon as you bring out a paper and pencil and start doing the arithmetic, they start screaming.

"My other question is this: a lot is being written today about justice, and poverty, and the poor, OK? Is it just to spend so much on a building when there are so many poor, so many hungry, so many in need of other services? There may be brothers and sisters in the neighborhood who are dying of loneliness, and these people are spending their time trying to save a church."

Lapinski, who reports that he has been shouted down at meetings, complains that he can't get parishioners interested in other projects. When he asked for a thousand dollars for videotapes and "other helpful items" for a recent novena, he says, "I could not get any help from any of the parish societies. For me, that's very frustrating. Nobody has come forward to tell me why so few people are coming in for confession. People don't feel any allegiance to their local parish today. They go to Saint Michael's, because they say the schedule is more convenient for them. They're very picky and choosy.

"To actions, you have to add a fervent life of spiritual prayer. I don't think that's always there. But if you want the church open, you have to not only work, you have to storm heaven, no?"

Lapinski feels that demolishing the old church would essentially pay for itself. "The contractors would bid on it. They can sell the gorgeous rose windows, the bricks, and make money."

Lapinski has not enjoyed his tenure at Saint Mary's, given the closing problems and a congregation he feels is hostile to him. "I'm stressed out by this. I've had three small strokes and an operation.

"I'm making a mistake, talking to you. People are going to read your article and nail me to the cross."

"We're concerned with saving people, not saving churches," says Jack Benware, the money man for the archdiocese. He waltzes gracefully around the question of the possible demolition of Saint Mary's. "There has never been a statement made by the archdiocese that we will demolish it. We would like to maintain it, but the cost will be in excess of $4 million if we do all the things that need to be done. The question, becomes, can the funds be raised?"

And if they can't? Will the church be torn down?

"I'm just so frustrated he says, "because we've never talked about demolition. It's not even in the cards."

But if the church is not repaired, it would become a hazard. Surely you will have to make a decision: repair it or tear it down?

"I realize I'm not really answering your questions," he acknowledges. "There's a point in time where we may come to it. I hope it doesn't. We realize the ties people have to this particular church. We have to take that into consideration." The Holabird and Root report has been out since June, and it still hasn't been released officially. Why not?

"Our approach is 'Let's not negotiate through the newspapers.' We're having dialogues. We're still open."

"I was assuming there wouldn't be any other rational choice," says retired archdiocesan treasurer John Philbin, the man who made the original decision to close Saint Mary's. "If it is demolished, there would be some form of worship space--the auditorium, or there's the possibility of a new building. We looked at the demographics, and we concluded that a parish was needed there. The school is reasonably healthy; we've put some money into it."

The hard-nosed, pragmatic Philbin does not think that the parish could afford to restore or maintain the present building. "The parish is predominantly lower-income; they're already on a grant from the archdiocese. They couldn't hack it. It's a backbreaking load on the people to maintain a building from another era."

He says he hadn't thought about what would be done with the site of the old church if it was demolished and no new worship space constructed. But he doesn't dismiss the idea of selling the land. Who would pay for a new church, he says, whose cost could be as high as $700,000 for a Spartan structure? "If they determine a new building is needed, it would probably be at least partially funded by the archdiocese. But they're not going to advertise that--people might not move their butt to raise money.

"Their only hope is for angels--the community that has moved away. I do not think it's fair to ask the general Polish community to kick in their support for all these old churches. These people have moved away; they have their own parishes to support. I suspect the fund-raising will have to be what could be raised locally. I am dubious that they can raise any significant amount of funds."

What does he think of the efforts of the restoration committee? "Maybe it will make them stronger as a community. Maybe it will teach them some of the bricks-and-mortar facts."

"[Benware] says they plan to maintain a parish in the area," says Gene Urbaszewski. "Well, they can maintain a parish in the area by maintaining Saint Hedwig's in Bucktown, a half mile away, or Saint Stanislaus Kostka, a half mile southeast of here.

"Father Lapinski talks about poor people in the parish, about working against poverty. We had a ham raffle at Easter as a fundraiser. Books were $20 each, and we were giving away one ham per book, so if you bought a whole book you were guaranteed of getting a ham. Some of the people who won one said they didn't want theirs, to give it to the poor in the parish. We called the parish office and asked for a list of the names of the poor--and they told us, 'We don't have any.' So we talked to the school, and they gave us some names of children from two families. So we were able to give away a couple of hams in the parish."

Urbaszewski's frustration with Lapinski is a constant theme in his conversations. When the restoration committee held a carnival recently, it took a series of confrontations to get the pastor to let them use the kitchen or the washrooms, even to let them drop off food in the kitchen until after the Saturday afternoon service.

They have also been denied use of other church facilities for fund-raising. "We asked Benware if we could at least use the basement of the church for fund-raising," says Urbaszewski. "He said he had to find out if it was safe. Well, in 1986 an insurance company report on hazards said, 'All doors for the dumbwaiter in the rectory should be closed.' That was it. How much can change in a couple of years?

"We got a five-page report from Benware. Most of it is minor repairs and common sense: 'The housekeeping in the basement should be improved.' Some of the stuff has been done already, and a lot of it could be done by volunteers--plastering, cleaning up. A lot of it would be done if the church had proper maintenance people who did their jobs and took pride in their work. [The report] complains that the emergency exit is through the kitchen door, and that this is 'not appropriate.' But the city code recognizes kitchen doors as a legitimate means of egress. If it's not inappropriate for every single restaurant in the city, why is it inappropriate for us?

"We had a report done by Facade Consultants International, out from New York, restoration experts. They concluded that the problems of the church were '20 percent repairability and 80 percent political.'"

"All this has nothing to do with the congregation itself," says Auxiliary Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Vicariate Three, which includes Saint Mary's. "Were only talking about a building, a physical structure that is weak and damaged. What makes it for them a big issue is that they're attached to a big monument of a church where their parents and grandparents went. Everyone has left the area, and it's very difficult to maintain.

"There has to be a judgment whether we invest in such repairs, or on the people in the community. We have been very conscientious, very considerate of the people who consider it as a monument. Some people are very emotive, but it is unjustifiable to invest lots and lots of money. Should we build another structure? We would have to think of something that's much more functional, more in reach of the local community."

Asked to comment on the restoration committee and its work, he hesitates, then answers in his softly Spanish-accented voice, "On one side it is nice to see the parish is interested. I would like to see them cooperate, work more closely with their pastor. They should be more realistic and work within the structure of the parish, especially the pastor. The restoration committee is committed to one direction only, to restore it only. They should see the overall needs of the parish."

He declines to comment on the issues of demolition and who pays. "We have to have priorities. They have to understand there have to be some changes. They should not be fearful. The cardinal has a tremendous good heart for these things.

"There is more to a community than a building. If we have outgrown these structures, we must move on. We take care to help people grow along the way. Sometimes when they don't agree, they want to push, they want to reverse things. When they see the handwriting on the wall, they have a fear."

It is not only parishioners and people in the community who are pushing to save Saint Mary's. Preservationists are concerned as well. "With its dramatic siting, it's an incredibly strong landmark in the most visceral sense," says Vincent Michael of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, editor of LPCI's newsletter. "It dominates the streetscape, it dominates the highway. It's the only landmark really belonging to the neighborhood; it defines the neighborhood, it provides a point of stability for the neighborhood, as a building and as an institution. The interior is quite beautifully painted. It's probably the best example of Roman Renaissance architecture in the United States. I think it's very important that it be preserved.

"Quite frankly, I'm impressed with the parish-community group that's trying to save it. They've raised $250,000 in less than a year; if they got permission to go ahead, I'm sure they could raise a half million, three-quarters of a million. Funds would be forthcoming; they could rent out the church. I've talked to an art historian in the neighborhood who wants to gain access."

But would it be safe to open the church at this point? "The thing to remember is that there isn't a building in Chicago that's safe according to the building code. If it wasn't completed in the last ten days there are going to be code violations. I've seen the amount of plaster that's fallen over a period of three years--it would maybe fill a shoebox.

"Saint Mary's is one of the more impressive--visually--churches in the city. The archdiocese has a real problem in all these big old churches they've got. They've got a lot of them, and they do soak up money. But once something's gone, you can't get it back--and they're resources, they really are."

"It's fabulous, absolutely fabulous. It appears the cardinal and his advisers have absolutely no idea what a building is, what architecture is," says Maurice Schickler. "One thing I can say: this would never happen in Europe. Never. The government would never permit it to happen. Never. There are paintings all over the ceiling, lots of gold leaf. It's absolutely a fabulous building! They spared no expense in building it; they didn't cut a corner. Nobody in his right mind would have any idea of tearing it down!"

Schickler and his wife, Laurel, are the proprietors of Facade Consultants International, Inc., of New York, and list themselves as "specialists in historic preservation and restoration." In June, while in town to report on Epiphany, a west-side church the Episcopal diocese of Chicago is committed to saving, they toured Saint Mary's and prepared a report with their suggestions for restoring it, free of charge. (They also looked over Holy Family Church, and, says Maurice, were instrumental in getting the rector and his higher-ups to reconsider their decision to knock it down.) Speaking in his heavy New York accent, Schickler is unequivocal in his praise of Saint Mary's.

"I told Gene [Urbaszewski]: if they won't let you do it, I will personally go to the Vatican and make your case to the pope. I know people there involved in restoring churches in Italy. If the cardinal says to knock it down, I will personally go--personally--to the pope."

He tells a story that he heard from the sexton of Epiphany about a group of Polish women visiting Chicago for the first time. They wanted to tour the city's Polish churches, but found them all locked. They ended up at Epiphany, where the doors were open. And because Epiphany's doors were open, they returned there on Sunday morning to worship. The Episcopalians, Schickler says, "intend to restore this church--in a bad neighborhood. And not just restore it; they intend to use it to bring the people back. This whole thing tells me something about the cardinal's advisers: if you're going to run a business, you've got to bring the people in, and keep the doors open, or you can't complain about people not supporting you.

"I think it's the political end, the finances. I think they want to knock it down and sell the property. First it's the church. Then they'll close the whole thing. They'd have a whole city block if they did that.

"Today, a couple of million dollars to restore a church to the way it was once is not a lot of money. You've got to do some promoting to bring people back in. When Oral Roberts said he had to raise all that money or God would call him home, he found it. That racetrack owner from Hialeah came up with the last couple of million. Somebody's got to be out there to let you do it. For the Catholic Church to come up with $2 million is nothing."

One of the Schicklers' suggestions was to start an apprenticeship program to train locals to work on the church restoration, an idea that originated in the Stoneyard Institute of the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. "You're training them to do the work with not very much money. You've got local people working on it. They get involved; if they see somebody writing graffiti, messing things up, they stop it, because it's theirs.

"Demolition is so shortsighted. If you don't want them, give them to someone else. You don't rip down Saint Mary of the Angels for condominiums to make a couple of million dollars from some developer. I'm telling you, I'd lay down in front of the bulldozers before I'd let them tear down Saint Mary of the Angels."

Ron Jasinski-Herbert is editor of Polonia Today, which he calls "the largest independent English-language Polish-oriented monthly newspaper--in the U.S., anyway." Its 17,000 subscribers live around the country, in Canada, in Europe, and as far afield as Turkey. Polonia Today has devoted a lot of press to Saint Mary's struggle. Jasinski-Herbert has no personal ties to the church.

"The church is of historical importance to the Polish community," he says, "and the paper is doing everything it can to support the effort to save the church. It's part of the Polish community's past--and its present. It's of ethnic interest, Chicago historical interest, and of religious interest that the church be saved. You have Hispanics working together with Poles to save the church."

Of the archdiocese's actions, he says, "I'm not surprised. Sometimes it appears the people in the chancery are more motivated by economics than anything else. I understand that, but sometimes you lose more than money when you're motivated by your pocketbook."

He thinks that church politics play a part. "Saint Hyacinth [where Francis Rog is the pastor] is deeply in debt. The archdiocese takes care of things; it's a church where a lot of immigrants come, but they don't contribute very much. The church seems to be more interested in newcomers than in the people who've been there all along, and there's some bad feeling because of that.

"There's been some highhandedness. People don't like to be told what to do, and the autocratic style of the church doesn't sit well. It causes more of a backlash.

"To that community in that area, that's the church--it's the focal point. The people should be part of the decision."

Of Urbazsewski and his associates on the restoration committee, he says, "The people who get involved are probably easy to criticize. I don't think they should be criticized. They're probably overly motivated, but that's necessary. They're people who are willing to go all out and take abuse and criticism. They're people who are willing to go through hell. I think they deserve medals.

"It would be much more typical of our community to sit around and gripe about it. It's not typical for Polish folks to fight the Church, either. This is a real American response."

John Jeffery thinks the archdiocese may be missing a bet by not giving the go-ahead to restoration. "The neighborhood is going up; that's not a matter of speculation. I bought my building for $15,500 12 years ago; now I'm seeing comparable buildings going for over $200,000. I would hope that the archdiocese would see that we're getting a very affluent group of people in the area. I would hope they could look at it from a marketing point of view."

Jeffery points out that among his neighbors are several ex-Roman Catholics who are leaning toward reinvolvement in the Church--but not on the old "do as we tell you, unquestioningly" terms. They are people, busily engaged in rehabbing their own property, who would support a grand old building, but aren't interested in worshiping in a soulless suburban-style church. "They don't want a God box," he says. "They don't want a totally insensitive pastor. They're not interested in driving all the way over to Saint Michael's." But, he feels, they would support a revitalized Saint Mary's. "The archdiocese has their heads stuck in their own rationales. They don't have much flexibility. But they could farm that area if they took a hard look at it."

In a neighborhood whose star is rising, as Bucktown-Saint Mary's clearly is the archdiocese might come to find the grand old building an asset. "Look at old Saint Pat's, just west of the Loop," says Bill Lavicka. "Four years ago, they maybe had four drunks in there. They were dying. Now it's a real strong parish. They just raised $4,000 with the 'World's Biggest Block Party.' They had people coming in from all over, big crowds. And it was all for the glory of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.

"The congregation at Saint Mary's is more unified than they have been in years. It could be such a pleasant revival."

In any discussion of Saint Mary's, the subject of Holy Family on the near west side comes up. Owned by the Jesuit order rather than the archdiocese, Holy Family is the second oldest church in Chicago--it survived the Chicago Fire--and has an even smaller and poorer congregation than Saint Mary's. Its sanctuary has not been used since 1983 because of leaks in the roof. It was scheduled for demolition this year, but the outcry from its 250 parishioners (three quarters of them black, one-quarter Hispanic, and a few Italian) as well as preservationists has led the pastor, the Reverend Bill Spine, and his confreres to consider other alternatives. The Save-the-Church Committee has been given two years to raise $5.5 million, $1.5 million of it for a maintenance fund.

"They were never planning to close down the parish. They were going to build a new, smaller church and community center, with a gym and cafeteria, which the school now lacks," says the Reverend Tom Gannon, S.J., a sociologist by training who is "special adviser" to Holy Family. He is sympathetic to Holy Family's parishioners, but points out that, as it is, they generate only 5 percent of the church's budget. "But because of the interest, we decided to stand back, and not build a new facility--to let the community see what it could do." All plans must still be approved by the archdiocese.

The Saint Mary of the Angels Restoration Committee has applied for not-for-profit status and is awaiting the OK from Washington. The committee has kept careful track of its donors, most of whose money would be returned if the church is not restored. Money that can't be traced--from the ham raffle, the $8 T-shirts in pink, blue, or silver, and the posters sold at the Bucktown Art Fair--will be given to another charity. "Maybe we'll give it to Holy Family," says Urbaszewski. "Our attitude is, either repair the church or damn the torpedos."

Urbaszewski wrote to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on August 6 requesting a go-ahead on repairs; the prelate's response was dated August 12. "I am willing to do all I can to facilitate the process, which will lead to a final decision," wrote Bernardin. But, he cautioned, "as the person canonically and civilly responsible for the fiscal well-being of the archdiocese and its parishes, I cannot give a 'go' signal to begin repairs until and unless a realistic plan has been developed."

"He thinks in terms of fiscal, and he thinks in terms of finances," says Urbaszewski, sounding discouraged. "I wonder if his focus shouldn't be more pastoral.

"It's interesting that all along through this mess, the people were never drawn into the discussion. All through this mess, nobody from the archdiocese said a plan was needed, or that it was up to us to come up with a plan. All of a sudden, it's all up to us. It's a grind. Every time we turn around, they set us up with another yoke."

He pulls out the parish bulletin of Saint Helen's, a church at Augusta and Oakley in the middle of the west side that needs a new roof at a cost of $29,000. "Mr. John Benware has come up with a plan for them, with the archdiocese giving them a grant of $18,000, and working out a loan and plans to get new money for the rest of it. He says he knows it's a poor parish, and money is tight. He says, 'It's important to have some sense of ownership of the parish.'"

Gene Urbaszewski and other members of the restoration committee will meet with architects and Jack Benware on September 8. He hopes it's not just another delay in the waiting game the archdiocese has been playing since late last year. "This is a strange business, because none of us ever walked this path before."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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