Monday, March 18, 2013

A Parish Divided and This Blogger Saddened

Monday greetings from Chicago.

Well, folks, I guess this particular post has been long in the making, but I feel the need to share this with you.

You all know of my love and affection for, and dedication to my parish, Saint James, on Chicago's near south side. From the very first day I went to Mass there--it will be ten years next month--I felt at home; I felt that this was a parish where I would be nourished and where I could make a contribution of time, talent, and treasure. Our old church building, while certainly a beautiful building, to me was always simply a house for this church community. This church community has had many houses over its long history.

We used perhaps a third of the actual space. Half the pews were never re-installed after a devastating fire in the early 1970's. All of the pews in the side transepts were roped off and never occupied. Basically, we were a small community in a church designed to fit a much larger community. After the fire, any interior art was white-washed. Most of the stained glass windows were lost in the fire. The historic pipe organ was badly in need of repair. The 20 tower bells were still able to be played from a small keyboard in the building. While the music program had been a fairly strong one, the hundred or so of us who gathered for Mass simply could not fill the space with our singing. The architectural details within the building were beautiful, no doubt. But this house wasn't serving the liturgical needs of this small community, dedicated to feeding the poor and ministering to the forgotten on the near South Side of Chicago.

There were more drawbacks to worshipping in this place. The Chicago Transit Authority's Green Line elevated subway tracks were built about twenty feet behind our sanctuary. So, at Mass, many trains would drive by, going north, going south. Often the lector, priest, or deacon would need to pause because, especially when the church's windows were open, the noise was a huge distraction. The floor of the church was made up of linoleum square tiles, installed after the fire. Many were coming up, and most were warped.

Four years ago, after a fire at Holy Name Cathedral here in Chicago, there were structural questions raised about the design of Holy Name; and our parish, Saint James, was designed by the same architect. So the city of Chicago and archdiocesan officials inspected our church building and an engineering firm was contracted. The result was that our church building was closed, deemed unsafe.

Since that time, we have been worshipping in our hall, which once served as the now closed Catholic school's auditorium. This has been the house for this parish community now for four years.

In August, it was announced that the Archdiocese has acquired land for a new house for this parish community; a new church to be built a few blocks east, away from the elevated tracks and actually in a neighborhood where people live. The hope was expressed that this would be a place that would be visible, in a neighborhood that is thriving. The archdiocesan officials explained that restoring our old church building was cost prohibitive and that a new building was the only viable answer. Those of you who follow this blog know of my excitement about this very hopeful news.

My unhappy distinction has been the fact that I am on the "demolition" committee; a sad fact indeed. But there are two main treasures to be saved from our old building: the historic pipe organ and the bells in our bell tower.

Several months ago, some new faces began to appear at Saint James. Preservationists began coming to Mass. I respect their intentions and their work in trying to save this old church building. Since then, however, these preservationists have drawn many parishioners into their cause. A rally was held yesterday outside the front of our old church building. There was a bagpiper there and people carried signs.

I am now part of a parish community that is deeply divided. This is the saddest chapter in my own Catholic parish life. I have asked people in our community why they did not speak up when the archdiocese was present; why they did not speak up when the parish formulated a letter of support to the Cardinal when we were asked to express our opinions. The answer, "I didn't feel it was my place."

Well, folks, it has become more and more difficult to celebrate Mass at Saint James. Many people, my Catholic brothers and sisters, have somehow been duped into thinking that if we save the church building, somehow we will be able to afford its restoration and, more importantly, the upkeep, maintenance, and heating costs in the future. My question is: "Where will the preservationsists be once we move back in? Will they be helping to pay our bills?"

This is a sad time, personally, for me. I told two members of our parish staff yesterday that it simply hurts to go to Mass at Saint James, in the middle of such division.

I honestly don't know where all of this will lead. I have decided to continue to be involved at my parish. Unfortunately, worshipping there has now become a cross that I reluctantly embrace.

I share this today simply to ask you to pray for Saint James parish and to pray for me. And I know that it all could be much, much worse. We simply could have been closed as a parish. But the Archdiocese has decided that there must be a thriving Catholic parish in our neighborhood. We have not been able to be that parish in our current building, on basically a dead end street underneath the tracks, with little housing nearby. The new building offers me hope, and I am hoping (perhaps against hope) that my brothers and sisters who are fighting now with the preservationists against demolition will somehow be led to see that re-inhabiting the current building just makes very little sense.

Thanks for listening and, once again, please pray for the parish community of Saint James.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


VRK said...


Know of my prayers for the Parish Community of St. James and the Neighborhood that it ministers. Buildings do not make the Church, but the community of believers makes the Parish. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that our faith is in Christ, not the church buildings in which we worship.


Anonymous said...

Jerry, today's post saddens me. I have heard and witnessed your love for this parish community and their ability to be a sign of God's presence. I shall continue to hold in prayer the parish community and all who have been called to minister and lead at St. James Parish.

Rory Cooney said...

Ouch, Jerry. I am so sorry, I know first-hand how this kind of project can divide a community. To an outsider, it's easier to see both sides of the story, even the belated sense of empowerment, but it just makes the pain more acute. I think your strategy is good, be patient, wait for the gospel to do its work, right? There will always be an occasion to shake the dust off if the division becomes mortal. I hope it doesn't come to that.

Anonymous said...

Luke 12:32. My prayers are with the people of Saint James. Hope to see you there for the Easter Vigil. JD

FJH 3rd said...

Very troubling. Will pray for your parish.

On a happier note, I'll be interested n your observations on the music at the papal inauguration Mass early Tuesday morning.

Chris Ferraro said...

Jerry, you and your parish community will be in our prayers.

Anonymous said...

As one who considers himself a member of the historic preservation community, the tactics of these preservationists makes me very sad. It gives those of us who care about historic buildings a bad name.

Where was the historic preservation community four years ago when the church was condemned in the first place?

If we really want to save historic church buildings like this, we need to come alongside the folks that worship and minister there. We need to truly HELP them - not lead protests and write scathing editorials.

I can only think of how this situation could have been different if the preservation community would have stepped forward to HELP right away, rather than waiting until demolition was looming on the horizon.

Jerry, be assured of my prayers. Whatever enables St. James Parish to most effectively minister to its members and the greater neighborhood is the right decision.

Mary Worden said...


I feel exactly the same way and have a similar ache. What has always been so great about St. James is the sense of community; we are surely hurting now.

Fr. Larry L├ęger said...

I have listened to you speak and I have read your Blog entries about St. James and I can "feel" your pain in today's post. The entire community is held in prayer as you journey through these stormy waters.

Damaris Thillet said...

Jerry, my prayers are with the beautiful community of faith of St James. Blessings!

Denise Morency Gannon said...

Jerry, I know this journey so well, living it and helping with other transitions and divisions with neighboring parishes. There is a living spring of water in what now seems frozen over and it will pour out but with a lot of 'chipping.' In my experience, theological reflection best serves a divided community. Prayer and dialogue shaped and led consistently by leaders who live the wounds but can open paths of peace through reconciliation take time and effort. Perhaps God may be calling you to lead a new effort in this regard. You're in my prayers.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed hard for the Church to be a Sacrament of Unity when it is in upheaval.
I pray for unification, healing, and acceptance.
We are one family --- a family called to remember.
When the family fails to remember, it does, in essence, dismember.
-bari colombari
@ ocp in portland

Mr. C said...

Dr. Jerry,
Prayers and empathy from the West for your parish and parishioners winging heavenward.
There never seems to be consensus much less certainty when issues of parish facilities, not just houses of worship, require ultimate decisions regarding viability. I don't think this territoriality is at all just an "American thing."
But it does reinforce the sensibility and charity in Huijber's hymn text: "What is this place, where we are meeting? Only a house..."
This, too, shall pass.