Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Another church, another story

It's not uncommon for churches to front on parks, the open space gives plenty of room to take in the architecture of what is often the most imposing building in the neighborhood. Congregations obviously like to build their houses of worship on these prominent spots, and from a planning standpoint, parkside churches give their neighborhood a focus and a sense of stability. It's Chicago's version of a town square.

Ever since I made this picture at the southern tip of the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side in 1995, I've thought of this as one of the loveliest spots in Chicago. It is the view of beautiful Sherman Park, terminating with the twin towers of Henry Schlack's St. John of God Church.

Sherman Park is one of the city's finest parks. The grand church formed a memorable ensemble with the architectural features of the park, the splendid fieldhouse, barely visible to the left in the photo, the pergola connecting the fieldhouse and swimming pool, and the four bridges that span the lagoon. The park is the work of the Olmsted Brothers, sons of the great Frederick Law Olmsted. Sherman Park and the neighborhood in which it resides have gone through some rough times, but as is the case with many of Chicago's parks, much love and care has gone into it in recent years. Today it retains much of its original glory, admittedly with some rough spots here and there.

I'm sad to say however that St. John of God Church is slowly disappearing.

The view in the photograph above is gone forever.

This is how the church looked last month. In this case there is a silver lining of sorts. The exterior of St. John of God is being dismantled stone by stone, and being carted up to a town by the name of Old Mill Creek, Illinois, just south of the Wisconsin border. There it will be re-assembled and become St. Raphael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church. The interior of the new church will be made up of much of what remains of another shuttered Chicago church, St. Peter Canisius in the Austin neighborhood on the west side. In addition, the new church will get the organ that was removed from Medina Temple when it was turned into a department store. The reaction over the dismantlement of St. John of God has been mixed in the preservation community. One comment from an anonymous source went like this:

"The churches that are closed and the most endangered are those in the poorest city neighborhoods. Do we now remove these buildings from the area and original context, rather than keep them there and find a way to reuse them as assets to the community?"

And what a context it was. The church was built several years after the park, and it was clearly designed with the park in mind. Its departure leaves a void in the park landscape that will likely never be filled.

If you may recall, I've written in this space before about another church fronting a park that was closed in the early nineties. St. Boniface Church in Eckhart Park, was also designed by Henry Schlacks. Like St. John of God, St. Boniface has been vacant for twenty years. Unlike SJG, there was interest from the outside in purchasing that shuttered church and re-developing it into another use. It appears at this writing that St. Boniface will be saved in tact and turned into a facility for the housing of senior citizens. Unfortunately there was no such interest in keeping St. John of God in the community.

Moving the church is by no means the perfect solution. A dwindling congregation could no longer support the church. It would have been ideal if another congregation could have moved into SJG as was the case with Little Flower Parish, also on the South Side. Unfortunately, like the Eckhart Park neighborhood, Back of the Yards is saturated with beautiful old churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, many of whom have already been purchased by other congregations. Reusing the church in some other function, like the solution found at St. Boniface, would have at least kept the building in the neighborhood along with its distinctive profile.

Not apparent in the photograph at the top of this post, is the fact that St. John of God was already closed at the time the picture was taken. While still beautiful from within the park, from directly across the street you could see that the windows that were not boarded up were broken, and pigeons were roosting inside of them. Despite its magnificent silhouette, the shuttered church only emphasized the neighborhood's decrepitude. I have not heard of any neighborhood objections to the re-location of St. John of God. An abandoned building with no hope of revival sucks the life out of a neighborhood, and at some point you have to defer to the neighbors who have to live next to it.

Still, these pictures break my heart.

Think of all the the baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals that took place within that church, all the hope and prayer through the good times and bad, all the memories that lie inside those crumbling walls. But this final picture testifies that as the workers carefully pile up the bricks in stacks for shipment, out of old life comes new life, which is really what faith is all about.

Or to put it into a strictly secular context, moving St. John of God to the suburbs is better than the whole building ending up in a landfill.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am very excited for the St.John of god church to be coming to my neighborhood to be the St.Rapheal church. St.Raheal church actually was a barn before this magnificent building came here. I read a little about the St.John of gods church and it realy intersted me. I know that this Church will be more safe and more appreaciated here than it was in Chicago.