Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Pilsen Parishioners Camping Outside Former Catholic Church To Block Archdiocese From Removing Beloved La Pietà Statue

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Parishioners are vowing to stop the Archdiocese of Chicago from removing a beloved statue from a former Catholic church in Pilsen they fought to save.

On Friday morning, about 16 former parishioners staged a protest outside St. Adalbert Church, 1650 W. 17th St. after Rosemarie Dominguez, a member of the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, sent out a mass text Thursday night asking residents to gather outside the church gate.

Judy Vasquez, who also lives in Pilsen, said she was told archdiocese workers were tasked with taking down the replica of Michelangelo’s La Pietà statue that sits in the former St. Adalbert church, prompting former parishioners to protest. The archdiocese plans to move it to St. Paul Catholic Church in Pilsen, a spokesperson said.

Now, residents plan to rotate shifts, camping outside to block the statue from being removed.

“We don’t know if they will come at night and try to take something out [of the church],” said Maria Mendez, a Pilsen resident.

In 2016, the archdiocese announced it would consolidate six Pilsen churches into three. As part of the merger, St. Adalbert would close. The archdiocese cited changing demographics, low Mass attendance and a decline in the number of priests as reasons for the reconfiguration.

Polish and Mexican parishioners fought for years to save the church, which was founded in 1874 by Polish immigrants and built in Pilsen in 1912. The church hosted its final mass in 2019.

On Friday morning, Dominguez and a Polish parishioner were the first to arrive to the church, she said. Three construction workers and a gatekeeper arrived shortly after they did, Dominguez said.

While the two women were propping pieces of wood on the church gate on the west side of the church, the gatekeeper told them they didn’t have the right to stand in the way of efforts to remove the statue.

Dominguez said she promptly sat down in front of the gate to block the statue from being removed.

“I was ready to chain myself to the gate,” she said.

More parishioners arrived later and prayed outside the gate. At about 8:30 a.m., police arrived but left shortly after, the parishioners said.

Marcelina Cerrano, another parishioner, said the police leaving was a small victory but that the archdiocese continues to “destroy our church.” 

In a statement, archdiocese officials said they plan to move it to St. Paul’s nearby, “an active, vibrant church within the same Pilsen community.”

“Parishioners will have access to worship before and better enjoy the sculpture in its new home. Moreover, this valued community treasure can be better safeguarded and preserved in an active parish church,” archdiocese officials said.

But Dominguez said residents and groups like the St. Adalbert Preservation Society, The Resurrection Project and Polish National Alliance have tried to speak with the archdiocese about how to move forward with the building property.

“There hasn’t been much reasoning, let alone open conversation,” she said.

The transfer of the statue to St. Paul raises concerns among parishioners about whether the archdiocese will properly seal the hole once the statue is removed and if it will accelerate the demolition of the parish. 

Vasquez said she believes if the statue is removed it should be “gifted to the Polish community and allow her to live in one of their churches” because the church was founded by Polish immigrants.

Although St. Adalbert’s Polish and Mexican former parishioners often don’t speak the same language, fighting for the church has brought them together, Mendez said.

 “When they sing, we accompany them to sing and follow their rhythm, and when we sing they follow our lead, it’s a beautiful community,” Mendez said. 

Josefa Reyes, an active St. Adalbert’s parishioner for many years said their ultimate goal is to see the church reopen.

“It’s a beautiful church and we have a lot of memories here. I ask for it to open with all of my heart,” she said.

St. Adalbert’s future

In the last four years, the Archdiocese of Chicago has twice gone under contract to sell the property — once to a music school and another time to a residential developer — but both deals have fallen through. 

The property — consisting of the sanctuary, rectory, convent, school and a parking lot — spans 2.1 acres in the heart of the changing neighborhood.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) has been working to downzone the church site for years in an effort to force any developer to engage with Pilsen neighbors and St. Adalbert’s former parishioners.

Sigcho-Lopez’s ordinance passed the zoning committee in May, despite a representative from the archdiocese at the time saying it would likely sue the city if it passed. It was set to go before the next City Council meeting, but allies of the mayor blocked the vote.

Sigcho-Lopez subsequently filed a complaint with the Inspector General’s office against Mayor Lori Lightfoot, accusing the mayor of interfering in the rezoning to help the archdiocese.