The case for saving Chicago’s old churches

Here is an argument for why the broader public should work to preserve dozens of older churches throughout Chicago:

The protection of religious structures presents a unique set of problems. A particularly formidable roadblock is the city’s inability to step in to designate threatened religious buildings as a landmark. The city has powers allowing it to move forward with landmark designations for non-religious buildings in spite of owner consent, however, a 1987 revision to the Landmark Ordinance states that “no building that is owned by a religious organization…shall be designated a historical landmark without the consent of its owner.” And without protections, many of these buildings are left to deteriorate and ultimately face demolition…

Chicago’s Catholic churches are among the most prominent visual connections to the city’s past and the ethnic communities that once dominated the neighborhoods. They provide clues to what ethnic communities make up Chicago’s diverse population through the languages engraved on facades, the style of buildings, and the saints for whom they were named…

For most Chicagoans, the interiors of sacred places remain a mystery, but Seidel’s anecdote indicates that people still care a great deal about the buildings in their neighborhoods, even when they might not necessarily understand or fully appreciate the Latin, Polish, Hebrew, or Greek spoken inside.

And this is the exact point that preservationists believe to be the most important. Even if the number of people attending religious services drops, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the general populace fails to recognize great architecture or stop using religious structures as spatial identifiers. It doesn’t mean that many of these struggling South Side neighborhoods don’t deserve to have culturally significant structures.

This comes after the archdiocese of Chicago announced it would close dozens of churches. This is interesting because historically it has been Protestant groups who have been happy to step away from their churches in big cities. Particularly after white flight, many of those Protestant churches were sold to other religious groups, converted to other uses, or demolished over recent decades. But, many Catholic churches stayed because of a commitment Catholics had to the building and neighborhoods as well as providing worship spaces to new waves of immigrants. The archdiocese suggests this is no longer tenable:

In his announcement, Blase indicated that the church is faced with a perfect storm: a shortage of priests joining the seminary, declining mass attendance, and the deferral of maintenance bills for churches that are in need of attention. All of these issues combined has put a squeeze on archdiocese resources and will force many parishes to either close or consolidate. And with the looming closure of potentially dozens of churches, there is now a threat of demolition for some of the city’s most important cultural and architectural icons.

But, I would guess it may be hard to mobilize many neighborhoods (and the necessary resources) to save old churches from religious groups that few attend or adhere to in those places. How many Americans are willing to sacrifice something to save old buildings for the sake of keeping them around? The argument laid out above is a typical one from preservationists: losing the buildings means losing a physical part of the place’s heritage. But, where are the resources to preserve these buildings if market forces – both in the economy and in American religion where attendees can choose among hundreds of options – are suggesting they are not worth much?

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