Sunday, February 21, 2016

St. Adalbert

Approaching Pilsen, and the church of  St. Adalbert from the north.
Outside of the Loop, Chicago's skyline is punctuated by towers that represent the prevailing forces that drove the city during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, namely industry and the Church. You see it all over town but it is most apparent when you are on the expressway or the elevated tracks on the near south side where old residential neighborhoods stand cheek by jowl with the industries and railroads who once employed their residents.

The churches that anchored those communities are numerous, sometimes you see two or three of them within the space of a block or two. These buildings represent different denominations to an extent, but the vast majority of them are Roman Catholic. There are so many Catholic churches in Chicago because despite sharing a faith and a liturgical language (at least until fifty years ago), every Catholic ethnic group who came to this city felt compelled to build churches of their own.

It's well known that in Chicago, long time residents, even non-Catholics, are more likely to identify themselves with the local Catholic parish, rather than the neighborhood in which they grew up. One of those neighborhoods is Pilsen on the city's lower west side, which currently boasts six Roman Catholic parishes. As the community wears it's heart on its sleeve, it doesn't take much of an urban archaeologist to read Pilsen like a book. The sunken yards of sturdy working class homes date those buildings to the time in the 19th century before the streets and sidewalks were raised several feet above grade level. The simplified baroque ornamentation of those homes, the Czech names spelled out on the entablatures of commercial buildings, even the very name of the community (the Anglo/Germanic spelling of a city in western Bohemia best known for its delicious beer), are a testament to the ethnic group who once called the neighborhood home. The bodegas, taquerias, and storefronts of 18th Street, and institutions such as the National Museum of Mexican Art and Casa Aztlan. testify to the ethnic group for whom the neighborhood has been closely identified with for at least the past half century. And the trendy coffee shops, bars and art galleries speak of the current state of the community which is once again facing change, a condition not entirely welcomed by the folks who have been around for a while.

Through all the changes, since 1874, the parish dedicated to Adalbert of Prague, Bishop and Martyr, has stood at 17th Street and Paulina, in the heart of Pilsen. St. Adalbert was instrumental in evangelizing the Bohemains, Poles and Hungarians in the 10th century, and is venerated by all three groups. Despite that, the church of St. Adalbert was founded as a Polish parish, it is in fact recognized as the mother church of all Polish parishes on the south and west sides of the city. In true Chicago fashion, Bohemians in Pilsen, built a church of their own, St. Vitus, a block away.

The current St. Adalbert church building was consecrated in 1914. It's architect was Henry Schlacks, the pre-eminent architect of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Schlacks was a master of the contemporary interpretation of historical styles. As such he is responsible for several of the most beautiful Catholic churches in the city, including the High Gothic St. Ita, the Renaissance Revival St. Ignatius, and a 20th century version of a Roman Basilica, St. Mary of the Lake, all on the far north side. The south and west sides were even more blessed with Schlacks churches, unfortunately many of them have closed their doors and have either succumbed to, or await the wrecker's ball.

I've written extensively about two of them. St. Boniface Church on the near west side was Schlacks's most intimate church, a lovely building in the Romanesque style which at this writing continues to stand despite its increasing decrepitude, still proudly framing the northern boundary of Eckhart Park. An adaptive reuse plan that was in the works unfortunately fell through and the future of the de-consecrated church building is very much in doubt.

The church of St. John of God at one time sat on perhaps the most prominent site of any church in the city, just past the northern boundary of Sherman Park. Its twin towers, much like those of St. Adalbert's once defined the still gorgeous park and the neighborhood it served. Sadly that church was demolished in 2012, leaving a gaping hole and a sad reminder of what once was.

Scaffolding today hides the magnificent twin towers of St. Adalbert,
making them even more prominent features of the Pilsen skyline.
There was more promise with St. Clara, later St. Galatius, and finally known as The Shrine of Christ the King in Woodlawn. An Italian Renaissance inspired church that endured many indignities over the years, the building survived intact until suffering the cruelest fate of all, a fire that started during its latest restoration last October. That fire all but destroyed the church. Its ultimate fate is still to be determined but despite a congregation who is strongly in favor if saving the burned out building, there is a chance the structure may be too far gone and will need to come down.

Arguably, Schlacks's two finest works are on the lower west side, only about a mile from one another. Visible for miles are the twin spires of St. Paul Church in West Pilsen. Schlacks's St. Paul is Gothic to the core but with a twist; the church is built entirely of brick. It was lovingly constructed by German craftsmen who belonged to the parish in the 1890s and to this day you will find no finer brick work in the city. Modeled after the cathedral of the French commune of Quimper, the spires of St. Paul, the church's most distinctive feature, give the building its imposing silhouette, dominating the two story homes of the surrounding neighborhood. Of all the churches in Chicago, St. Paul comes the closest to resembling a Medieval European cathedral.

St. Adalbert's inspiration is much older. Schlacks modeled his great Polish cathedral in Pilsen after one of the four papal churches of Rome, St. Paul Outside the Walls. That fourth century church, (with subsequent alterations), was built above the site, so it's said, of the final resting place of the apostle whose name it bears. St. Adalbert, like its Roman counterpart, is based upon the plan of the ancient Roman basilica which features a wide nave, flanked by narrow aisles separated by rows of columns. In contrast to the ethereal feeling of a Gothic church where the eye is naturally drawn upward by means of the vaulted ceilings, the flat ceiling of a basilica grounds the visitor whose focus is ever forward, toward the altar. The interior of St. Adalbert rewards that natural inclination by featuring richly carved marble and exquisite stained glass work at the front of the church, including a dome executed by the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.That dome sits above the altar covered by an elaborate marble baldachino (the canopy above the altar), supported by ten spiral columns. The stained glass windows along the sides of the building were executed by F.X.Zeitler of Munich, who supplied the windows to a great many Chicago churches. The interior also features magnificent frescoes that frame the sanctuary, and an enormous Kimball pipe organ.

As glorious as the interior is, it is the imposing facade and towers of St. Adalbert that makes the church such an important landmark in the community. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune quoted a lifelong parishioner of St. Adalbert as saying: "When you get off the 'L' and stop and see the towers, you know you are home." That article unfortunately was written to spell out the Archdiocese of Chicago's plan to close St. Adalbert. As you can see in the photographs, the two towers of the church are covered in scaffolding which was constructed over one year ago as a precaution against bricks coming loose and crashing to the ground. As you can imagine, St. Adalbert like any old building, is vulnerable to time, gravity, the elements, and above all, differed maintenance. Repairs to the facade of the towers which have suffered significant damage due to erosion, are estimated to cost three million dollars. When that assessment was made, parishioners hung huge banners from the scaffolding urging passersby to "save the towers", and launched an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign to raise the repair funds. This past Saturday, Valentines Day, the Archdiocese announced its plans to close St. Adalbert and reorganize the remaining five Catholic parishes in Pilsen, including St. Paul which is to remain open, at least for now. In addition to the cost of the necessary repairs, the ever dwindling number of priests available to serve shrinking congregations were sited as the primary reasons for the planned closure.

Depressing as that sounds, it gets worse. Speculation is running rampant that in the next decade, up to 100 currently active churches in the Chicago Archdiocese will close, and their congregations, at least the members who choose to stay aboard the sinking ship, will be absorbed into neighboring parishes. According to the Archdiocese of Chicago web site, there are currently 351 parishes in the archdiocese, so doing the math, nearly 30 percent of its parishes would close. The archdiocese while not denying there will be draconian cuts in the future, claims the number of 100 hundred churches closing is high.

"When you get off the 'L' stop and see the towers, you know you are home." 
This is the view of St. Adalberts as  described in that comment.
I've gone on record in this space expressing both sorrow, and understanding of the need to close some churches. Much as we'd like to think that money should have little or no influence in the lives of the faithful, it takes money, lots of it, to keep a church building going. Even in the case of a benefactor or congregation successfully raising the money to keep an old church running, a compelling argument could be made for putting that money to better use by spending it on ministering to people and feeding the poor rather than throwing good money after bad on old, crumbling buildings. If consolidation of parishes and/or new buildings could be more efficient than decrepit churches filled to a fraction of their capacity the argument goes, it would certainly be prudent to close the old, mostly empty buildings and move their remaining worshipers someplace else.

Of course a church is more than just a building. As we've seen, church buildings anchor and define neighborhoods, both visually and historically. Some of the  most important moments in the lives of a community take place inside its church. Families welcome new members there, and say their last goodbyes to loved ones as well. Countless people go there to seek peace, guidance, solace, shelter, or simple companionship. Church buildings are often used as community centers where neighbors can vent their grievances about injustices taking place within their neighborhood. Most churches run food pantries and clothing drives to feed and clothe the poor. Many people send their children to schools run by the churches. Even people outside the faith have a special relationship (not always a happy one) with the neighborhood church, simply by living within the sound of its bells. Above all, a church is a community tied together by a bond forged by belief, and ideally, love, compassion and forgiveness. Consequently the church building is the spiritual home of the community.

As a community of believers who places a great deal of importance in signs and symbols, Catholics of all people should never take the closing and demolition of a church lightly, least of all its leaders. The symbolism of the closing of a church is so serious, Catholics hold a de-consecration rite, performed inside the church about to close. However, that rite does not erase history nor the memories of the people who once called it home. Nor does the rite take away the very real impact a church building has upon the community in which it inhabits.

St. Adalbert reflected in the window of a home across the street.

There's a different story behind every church closing. St. Boniface closed because it was located in a largely Catholic neighborhood that was still over-saturated with Catholic churches. There were viable options presented for adaptive reuse of the building, but all fell through. St. John of God closed because it was located in a poor, mostly non-Catholic neighborhood. Another church I wrote about, St. James in the Bronzeville neighborhood, closed because the 150 year old building was deemed structurally unsound and its parishioners decided (though not unanimously), they would best be served by a new and smaller building. In each case, well-intentioned preservationists threw up their hands and said this should never happen and what a shame it was to lose these magnificent buildings. Unfortunately they presented no viable solutions to keep those churches going.

A sign urging the community to contribute to the restoration of the towers of St. Adalbert.
So far the effort has failed.
In St. Adalbert's case, a combination of all of the above issues apply. Lots of churches built by different ethnic groups who have since moved on make it difficult for any one church in a neighborhood to attract enough parishioners. That wasn't so much of a problem in Pilsen for a long time as its predominantly Mexican-Catholic population virtually assured a steady stream of bodies in the pews for Sunday and weekday mass. Slowly but surely the tide turned as the neighborhood began to change. People still came to mass at the Pilsen churches, but more and more of them lived in other neighborhoods meaning they were there on Sundays, but didn't contribute much to day to day life of the church. Then came the three million dollar repair bill and the inability of the congregation to come up with the money.

Despite the issues with the towers, the rest of the building reportedly is in good shape bringing into question the decision by the Archdiocese to close the church.
Three million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a parish to come up with on its own. Since individual parishes are responsible for paying their own way when it comes to building maintenance, we can expect to see many more problems like this in the near future. From what I know, the issues facing the structure of St. Adalbert are mostly superficial; yes the bricks of the facade of the towers are in jeopardy of falling off, but the towers themselves are structurally sound. As far as I can tell, there are no other major issues with the rest of the building which recently underwent restoration. In other words,with the scaffolding in place, there seems to be no reason to suspect there is an urgent need to shut the building down due to safety concerns, as was the case with St. James. That brings us to another thorny issue that has been brought up. Could it be that the church now sits upon valuable land that developers are itchy to get their hands on?

Drawn by cheap rents and property, for decades artists and "urban pioneers" have moved down to Pilsen, That bohemian atmosphere, (in the other sense of that word), has turned Pilsen into an attractive neighborhood for many young professionals. Only fifteen minutes away from the Loop on the "L", Pilsen could not be more convenient for the crowd who works in Chicago's financial district and the burgeoning West Loop. Sitting two miles below Chicago's literal and psychological north/south barrier Madison Street, means that the price of land is still relatively cheap. It's a good time to buy in Pilsen and some have speculated that at least part of the incentive to close St Adalbert over the other Pilsen churches is that by virtue of its proximity to the "L" and 18th Street, the commercial heart of the neighborhood, the land the church sits upon would command a large return.

Could it be all about the money? Well of course it is. The question we have to ask is this, is it moral and ethical to treat church property just like any other property?

I have to say that church leaders, just like others responsible for the well being of any institution large or small, have to concern themselves at least at some point with the bottom line. Simply put, financial issues will not go away by willing them to do so. The Catholic Church, just like any other institution needs a steady stream of income in order to survive. The question is, if the Archdiocese does close St. Adalbert and sell off its property, would it not be foolish and irresponsible of them not to seek the greatest return possible?

Could it be that the sacrifice of St. Adalbert would ultimately benefit the Catholic community of Pilsen as a whole? I would like to think that is exactly the mindset of Archbishop Cupich and his auxiliary bishops, and have no reason to believe it is not.

Having said that, I believe there are more compelling reasons to keep St.Adalbert open and functioning as a Catholic parish than there are to close it and sell the property. First and foremost, there is the tremendous history of the parish and the connection it has to the community. The south side Polish community began right at the doors of St. Adalbert and as the founding church of that community, all of south side Polonia owes it a debt of recognition and gratitude, whether they know it or not.

The same goes for the Mexican community who have made the church theirs for the past fifty years. Of all the annual events that take place in the church, perhaps the most significant one takes place on Good Friday, where St. Adalbert has traditionally served as the culmination point of the annual Passion Play or Via Crusis that winds through the streets of Pilsen. Born out of the poverty, drug abuse and violence that have plagued Pilsen for so many years, the play which reenacts the final hours of the earthly life of Jesus, consciously draws a parallel between that story and the ongoing story of the suffering of the community which exists to this day, despite the changing population. Traditionally following the Via Crusis, the archbishop of Chicago shows up at St. Adalbert. to lead the faithful in prayer. This should be so as St. Adalbert is the largest and most important church in the neighborhood.

Beyond its historical significance. St. Adalbert's physical presence in the neighborhood cannot be overlooked. It is a landmark of Pilsen much the same way the Water Tower is to North Michigan Avenue and the Marshall Field clocks are to State Street. You could not draw an illustration of Pilsen without including an image the towers of St. Adalbert. Just as the parishioner told the Tribune, whenever he sees those towers, he knows he's home. Distinctive buildings are what give a neighborhood a sense of place. Take them away and you destroy a piece of the identity of that place.

Finally there is the architecture. Chicago prides itself of its architecture, it uses it as a drawing card to lure tourists, and as a piece of evidence to bolster its claim of being a "world class city", whatever that means. But the truth is we don't take very good care of our buildings and seem to be willing to let them go whenever it's convenient. Granted churches present a whole different set of problems when it comes to preservation, as no governmental body can make laws or contribute any sum of money toward the preservation of a church. That doesn't mean that individuals or groups not affiliated with the government cannot contribute to the cause. Clearly we can't save every church that cannot support itself, but I strongly believe that as a community that values its built environment as we claim to do, we have to come together to save certain buildings, even churches. St. Adalbert is one of the most important works by the most significant architect of ecclesiastical buildings in the  city of Chicago. Everyone who cares about architecture in this town should be aboard the save St. Adalbert bandwagon.

The first thing the preservation community needs to do is make a compelling case to the people in power, that is to say church, community and civic leaders, that in the long run, the benefits to  Pilsen, its Catholic community, and ultimately the city of Chicago, of saving St.Adalbert will in fact be much greater than the costs.

Once that is hopefully accomplished, I believe it's time for preservation groups, the city, and the Catholic Church to work together to save this magnificent building and others, not by marching or wringing hands and saying what a shame, but by coming up with creative solutions to make it possible for the building(s) to be around for future generations to experience and enjoy. Perhaps some of the work needed to be done on the towers could be accomplished by enlisting local youth in an apprenticeship program that would teach them practical and valuable skills in the building trade. Perhaps a better effort could be made to reach out to other parishes in town to help out, especially Polish and Mexican ones, for whom this particular church is so important to their history. Maybe these are dumb ideas that are unworkable, but they're a start.

There is a precedent for this sort of thing. Two churches immediately come to mind that were slated to be closed by the Archdiocese but were saved through the will and hard work of the community. One was Holy Family Church, also on the Lower West Side, which survived the Great Chicago Fire but almost didn't survive the massive wave of church closings of the 1990s. The other is St. Mary of the Angels, the great Polish Cathedral on the north side, instantly recognizable to drivers along the Kennedy Expressway for its massive dome.

Another survivor is Old St. Pats in the West Loop, Chicago's oldest church. While I believe it never was officially slated to close, at its lowest point in the seventies it was down to a mere handful of families. Today with the residential boom of the neighborhood, and with considerable PR effort from the parish and its community, the church is so full at times, they have to turn people away.

In all three cases there is no evidence that other parishes suffered because these three churches were saved. On the contrary, there has been a resurgence of faith in those communities, and the open and I might add, thriving churches are great assets to the neighborhoods they serve. Being historic and architectural landmarks as well as works of art, Chicago itself would be all the poorer without them.

There's no reason to believe the same cannot be true for St. Adalbert.

So what about the argument that money spent on an old building would better be used to help the poor? There is an interesting passage in the Gospels that sheds some light on this question. Jesus and his disciples were visiting a home in Bethany when a woman came up to him and anointed his head with precious oil. His disciples were troubled that Jesus allowed the woman to do this as she could have sold the oil for a great deal of money and given that money to the poor. Jesus told his disciples:
She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. (Mark 14, 6-9)
My point is this, money spent on preserving a magnificent building with an important history is an investment in the future. Once a building like St. Adalbert is gone, it can never be replaced. The building and its parish represent years of tireless work and devotion of people of many different backgrounds who built something beautiful, meaningful and profound. St. Adalbert's is a work of art as well as a sacred space and an important landmark not just for Pilsen, but the entire city.

As symbols are meaningful to the secular world as well as the spiritual one, we have to ask ourselves this question: What will the symbol of a wrecking ball smashing through the beautiful rose window of St. Adalbert's be, the inexorable march of progress, a difficult but necessary sacrifice for the betterment of the community and its people, or simply a misguided act of wanton destruction?

The answer lies somewhere in the future.

Like it of not, we will be judged by our actions by those who follow us. Will we be remembered for taking the time and energy to preserve an important part of our past for future generations, or for destroying it as a matter of convenience?

We should choose carefully and wisely.

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