Saturday, March 7, 2009

St. Boniface...

Yesterday, March 6th, marked the end of the 90 waiting period after the application for a demolition permit was filed by the Archdiocese of Chicago in order to demolish St. Boniface Church in West Town.

The church was closed in 1990 and since then has been a point of contention between the neighborhood and preservation communities and the Archdiocese. Designed at the turn of the last century by the foremost architect of the Chicago Catholic Church, Henry Schlacks, St. Boniface has been a landmark in the community, standing as a poignant backdrop to Eckhart Park at the intersection of Noble and Chestnut streets. The Romanesque Revival building is a work of wonderful proportion and exquisite craftsmanship reflecting the working class German community that built it. Its asymmetrical towers are a fixture in the near northwest side skyline, one of the pentateuch of great churches visible from the 2 mile stretch of the Kennedy expressway between Armitage and Chicago Avenues.

There have been numerous attempts in the past 18 years to find new uses for the building, including the possibility of its being taken over by the Orthodox Coptic Rite, but all have proven either impractical or unacceptable to the Archdiocese.

Unfortunately since its closing, the building has suffered from the ravages of time and neglect and today faces so many building code violations that it has been deemed to be a severe liability. The Archdiocese filed the demolition permit last December.

That a church of this significance and beauty should meet such a fate is truly a lamentable situation. The preservation community is correct in doing everything possible to save the building. However I think that much of the severe criticism I have read that has been leveled at the Archdiocese has been unwarranted.

Foremost in the criticism is the Archdiocese's greed in wanting to sell the property to the highest bidder, presumably to a developer who would build condominiums, rather than preserving a historic building.

The fact is that there are more church buildings in Chicago than the Church can reasonably accommodate. It is not unusual in Chicago to find five or six Catholic churches in an area of one square mile or less. This is a testament to the number of immigrants coming to the city from Europe a century ago, with each distinct ethnic group desiring a church solely dedicated to itself. The neighborhood where St. Boniface stands is such a case.

The predominately Irish, German, and Polish immigrants who built these churches eventually left the neighborhood, and the need for churches catering to their individual needs diminished.

Declining church membership obviously has taken quite a toll as well. It is very difficult to sustain a parish both financially and spiritually whose membership consists only of a handful of families. This was the case with many parishes in Chicago. During his tenure as archbishop, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin was forced with the heartbreaking decision of consolidating neighboring parishes, and closing churches, including St. Boniface.

Clearly, financial matters weighed heavily in the decision. This is simply a fact of life in which none of us is immune, not even the Church.

But "greed" is an unnecessarily harsh and inappropriate criticism in this case. The Catholic Church sees its mission first and foremost to serve the spiritual and physical needs of the people. This includes its major role in providing food and shelter for the poor of the city.

It is very difficult, especially in this difficult economic climate to for the Church to justify spending money on buildings rather than people.

Still there is some hope at this eleventh hour that some solution other than demolition will occur. There are rumors afloat that the city may present a land swap option, offering the Archdiocese a parcel of land in exchange for the St. Boniface site, pursue landmark status for the shuttered building, and work to convert it to an alternate use. Although the landmarking of churches is not permissible because of the separation of Church and State, this does not apply here because St. Boniface has not been an active church for almost 20 years.

I truly understand the pain of the community, especially those whose lives are tied to St. Boniface. It is a remarkable, historic and beautiful building whose loss would be profound.

But as with most preservation issues, this is complicated, and thoughtless accusations and lack of understanding will do nothing to prevent its loss.

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