Tuesday, March 10, 2009

St. Boniface, again...

As a practicing Catholic and someone who is passionate about Chicago history and architecture, I am torn over the fate of this church. On the one hand I believe that the loss of a treasure like this would be a terrible blow to the neighborhood, to the city, and mostly to the people who have called St. Boniface their spiritual home.

On the other hand, I truly believe that the Chicago Archdiocese does not take the closing of parishes and the demolition of churches lightly. The fact is that empty pews on Sundays are the rule rather than the exception in most churches across the city. The chronic shortage of priests is another serious problem. It is not uncommon to find a priest in Chicago saying mass in three different parishes on a given Sunday.

These days it is a constant struggle to keep a church open and functioning. If the Archdiocese operated on purely bottom line principles as has been suggested, the number of Catholic churches in Chicago would certainly be a small fraction of what it is today.

The example of Old St. Pat's Church Downtown was brought up elsewhere as a church once down to a handful of parishioners now on of our most vibrant parishes. One big difference, the population of the neighborhood of Old St. Pat's went overnight from virtually zero to several thousand with the construction of Presidential Towers. Another, the nearest Catholic church to St. Pat's stood at least a mile away.

St. Boniface in contrast sits in an established neighborhood that is saturated with churches. Standing in Eckhart Park across the street from St. Boniface, one can see church spires in all directions, three of them no more than two or three blocks away. At the turn of the last century, approximately 100,000 practicing Catholics lived in the community now referred to as West Town. I don't have the number living there today but one can assume that the number is significantly smaller.

Another example presented was that of Rome. Several churches there are lovingly preserved and kept open but have sparse attendance at best. This is true but of course the bishop of Rome is none other than the Pope. I think it's safe to say that he has more resources at hand and even more clout in his city than our archbishop.

My point in all this is not to justify tearing down St. Boniface. On the contrary, St. Boniface ever since I visited it in the early 80s has been one of my very favorite churches in the city. Nothing would please me more than to see it preserved, restored and preferably returned to function as a house of worship.

But I don't think the burden can lie squarely on the shoulders of the Archdiocese, especially in these terrible economic times. Their line, as it has been since Vatican II is that the Church's chief mission is to minister to people's needs, not to preserve buildings.

I would have to agree with that, to a point anyway. If the Church is choosing a "cold real estate decision" over their "historic responsibilities", well the cold reality is that the Church like the rest of us has to pay its bills.

I think that those of us who care about preserving Chicago's history, should seek out every possible means of saving St. Boniface, and other churches in the same situation. This will take hard work, planning, and prayers, but mostly it will take money. The city of Chicago can help to a certain extent but also it would take a private entity, a conservancy perhaps to set in motion the process of saving some of our most cherished buildings.

One final thought, at the risk of sounding like my old man, if all the folks who have expressed so much concern about losing St. Boniface actually attended the church of their choice on a regular basis, maybe we would not be having this discussion.

Just a suggestion!

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