Church Renovation

Preservationists Throw a "Hail Mary Pass"

Preservationists Throw a "Hail Mary Pass" for St. Gelasius Roman Catholic Church in Woodlawn, But Blocking Demolition of the 80 Year Old Structure Is Unlikely to Succeed: Reading the Writing on the Wall

9/7/2003 9:39:00 PM By Karl Maurer - Catholic Citizens News Service

Chicago, September 8, 2003 - Woodlawn neighborhood residents, the Archdiocese of Chicago and the City Council continue their standoff in the controversy over plans to demolish St. Gelasius Church on Chicago’s south side. Built in the 1920’s, this massive church has fallen into serious disrepair after decades of neglect. With only 100 families left in a church built for 4,000 families, the Archdiocese decided last summer to demolish the building rather than spend the estimated $1 million needed to repair it. When the demolition was announced efforts to save the building were launched by a coalition of parishioners, community activists, and preservationists. Last second maneuvering has resulted in a 90 day delay, but the survival of the structure beyond that is doubtful.

Landmark Architecture and Economic Reality

St. Gelasius is an imposing architectural structure. It was designed in a Renaissance Revival style by Henry J. Schlacks, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Chicago based Prairie School of architectural design. Its features include an ornate exterior, a cavernous interior, detailed windows, and a 120 foot bell tower can be seen from miles around.

In spite of its architectural legacy, Archdiocese of Chicago spokesman Jim Dwyer said recently that economic reality is driving the decision to demolish the dilapidated structure. "We have a responsibility to spend our resources on still viable churches and schools, and it would be irresponsible for us to spend those resources on a building no longer in use," Dwyer said recently.

"In our estimation it would take possibly $1 million to keep the building safe for an indefinite period of time," Dwyer said. "We don't have that kind of money to spend on a building we're not using anymore when we have churches, schools and parishes that are functioning and need the money more." St. Gelasius has been closed since the summer of 2002.

But not everyone agrees with the decision to raze the church. Sister Connie Driscoll runs a family shelter in the former St. Clara School building next door to St. Gelasius. She was told by archdiocese officials last year that the church would be spared. In August, she was forced to block contractors from shutting off the church's electricity and gas because it would have also cut the power at the shelter. "This church is so beautiful," Driscoll said. "Why would you destroy that gorgeous structure?"

In a letter published by the diocesan newspaper, Bishop Joseph N. Perry attempted to answer that question. “The continued deterioration of St. Gelasius and the cost of maintaining what is now a vacant building led to the decision to seek demolition,” said Perry, who added that the demolition did not mean the Archdiocese was abandoning the neighborhood. “The archdiocese plans on holding the site as vacant property for use in the future. Members of Amate House, the archdiocese’s young adult volunteer program, reside in the rectory of St. Gelasius, and half of them serve in schools in inner city neighborhoods. The St. Gelasius site is also home to a food pantry operated by St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, where former St. Gelasius parishioners are now served.”

Preservationist Dilemma

But local preservationists and community activists are unmoved by these explanations. "Why the archdiocese of Chicago would want to so actively erase their own history is astonishing," said Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, an advocacy group. "This is an organization that claims to serve the community, yet they take action on things that hasten the destruction of the community."

Several activists have lobbied the City Council to designate St. Gelasius as a historic site to save it from the wrecking ball, but due to a clause in the ordinances, “houses of worship” are exempted from being designated historic landmarks against the wishes of their owners. In an unusually broad interpretation of the ordinances, city officials contend that St. Gelasius, because it has been closed, is no longer a “house of worship.”

"It is a vacant building that used to be a church," claims Alicia Berg, the city's planning commissioner. "It has been a visual landmark in Woodlawn for 80 years. We are within the bounds of the ordinance, and we just think this is the right thing to do."

With plans to demolish the building on ice for 90 days due a technicality discovered in the demolition permit in August, Berg asked the city's Commission on Landmarks to abide by recommendations of preliminary landmark status made by the City of Chicago’s Planning Department. Berg is asking that the Archdiocese's now pending demolition permit be denied. If these requests are approved, a public hearing will be held at the end of September, with a City Council vote to follow. Whatever the outcome in the Council, litigation and further delays are certain.

Preservationists and religious organizations have been feuding over demolition of churches in Chicago since the 1980s, when the City Council revised ordinances for landmark protection. At that time, Alderman Burton Natarus insisted that because church architecture was integral to religious worship, the government could not mandate buildings be saved without violating the civil rights of worshippers. The fact that the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Natarus’ ward was in the midst of renovation was no coincidence.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Natarus defended his record. "These preservationists - it's a one-way street with them… They believe that a building lasts forever and either you are with them or against them. And if you are against them, they equate it with evil. I think ... it is up to the church [leaders] to decide what to do with churches."

Natarus’ clause leaves the City with little leverage in the case of St. Gelasius. "We are open to new ideas that would preserve more landmark quality buildings, but ultimately it is up to the aldermen who wrote this ordinance so long ago," said Pete Scales, a spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development, which oversees the city's Commission on Landmarks.

Efforts by preservationists to get past the ordinances protecting churches have not been successful in the past. In 1990 the Landmarks Preservation Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation lost a law suit in U.S. District Court. They claimed the ordinances were unconstitutional, but before the case could be judged on its merits, it was dismissed because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove they had a vested stake in the outcome.

The Race Card

The conflict has aggravated tensions between the African American community in Woodlawn and the Archdiocese. All this boiled over when Alderman Trautman chastised the Catholic Church, alleging they were abandoning the Woodlawn. Trautman angrily demanded a meeting with Archdiocese officials, who responded by pointing out that they had been trying to get Trautman to sit down with them for weeks already.

“I am happy to read published reports that Ald. Arenda Trautman wants to meet with Archdiocesan officials about our reasons for the demolition of St. Gelasius,” said Archdiocese Chancellor Jim Lago. “Maybe now Ald. Trautman will respond to a written request I made more than a month ago, followed up by telephone, to meet with her regarding the reasons for the demolition, the need to retain the property for future ministerial use and, most importantly, to explain the significant presence that parishes, schools and Catholic Charities programs have in her ward. Along with pastors of the parishes located in her ward, I am seeking time on her busy schedule to engage in meaningful discussions about our plans.”

It’s hard to believe that a church with such a storied past to could end this way. Woodlawn once sustained three Catholic parishes. But then, as it’s said in Chicago, “the neighborhood changed.” Today, Woodlawn is beset with crime, single parent homes, unemployment, poverty, and a chronic absence of Catholics. Under the circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the demolition of St. Gelasius has become highly symbolic to both the community and the Archdiocese.

Where Have All the Missions Gone?

Faced with the costs of restoring St. Gelasius, the Archdiocese’s decision to demolish it is hardly unreasonable. But neither are the desires of the community to see an irreplaceable architectural gem spared the wrecking ball. After all, they aren’t building churches like St. Gelasius anymore.

Several groups have already come forward willing to accept the building in its current condition in an effort to save it. The "Woodlawn Coalition to Save St. Gelasius" is led by Todd Martin, who wants it reused as a community center and claims to have commitments from at least two investors.

Given the emphasis the Pope John Paul II has placed on evangelization and missionary work, it’s difficult to imagine a place more in need of such efforts than Woodlawn. There are plenty of missionary Catholic orders of priests who would jump at the chance to take over St. Gelasius from the Carmelites, the order affiliated with the parish prior to its closing.

It wouldn’t be the first time this happened either. In the 1990’s Rev. Frank Phillips established the Society of St. John Cantius and convinced Cardinal Bernardin to spare St. John Cantius, a dilapidated turn-of-the-century structure that today is lovingly restored and thriving. Traditional Latin Masses are accompanied by choruses, orchestras and a monstrous organ. Cardinal George recently approved of a new religious order under the tutelage of Rev. Phillips, where there are several priests in training.

In Rockford, the Institute of Christ the King took over the struggling St. Mary’s in the downtown district, and it has become a thriving traditional and orthodox community. The restored church includes some of the best examples of late nineteenth century stained glass windows in the nation.

By the grace of God, in dozens of down and out urban areas across the country there are small bands of Catholic priests and brothers taking on impossible tasks in facilities far more dilapidated than St. Gelasius. Is there no order of priests left in the United States devoted to helping the poor and preaching the gospel who would be willing to take over St. Gelasius?

No More Catholics: No More Churches

In the end, the demise of St. Gelasius is not due to the Archdiocese abandoning the Woodlawn community, but the Woodlawn community abandoning St. Gelasius. In spite of the hyperbolic accusations of racially motivated activists, the Catholic Church will continue to feed the poor, nurse the sick, shelter the homeless, and give hope to the hopeless in Woodlawn long after the conflict has ended. But that's not the point.

If St. Gelasius must go, it's because it stands like a 120 foot tombstone marking the spot where once hundreds of thousands of faithful Roman Catholics praised God and took the Sacraments. Today the structure stands barren and empty, worshippers gone, silently begging to be put out of its misery. It was built by Roman Catholics for a spirituality that no longer has supporters in Woodlawn. No one contests this. Of course it’s a beautiful building, and its loss is a shame, but it is a Roman Catholic Church, built by Catholics for Catholics. The fact is, the residents of Woodlawn have abandoned the Catholic faith, and in so doing, they dismantled St. Gelasius, not the Archdiocese.

It took decades, but it’s done now. All that’s left for the Archdiocese to do is to salvage the building materials. For Roman Catholics watching the petty squabbling over an empty building, beautiful as it was, the real tragedy is the spiritual void that will remain long after the church is gone and the last Mass offered there is a distant memory.

Karl Maurer is a CPA who lives in Chicago. He is the Web Editor of

For a history of St. Gelasius parish, started by the Germans in the late 1800's as St. Clare's and later renamed after the African pontiff Gelasius, see

St. Gelasius initiated the feast of Roman martyr St. Valentinius, which we now celebrate on February 14th each year as Valentines Day.

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