The future of Pilsen’s historic St. Adalbert Church hangs in balance following heated landmark hearing

A yearslong battle over a historic Polish church in Pilsen moved from the streets into the chambers of Chicago’s City Council on Friday as church supporters who want it protected as a city landmark clashed with leaders of the Chicago Archdiocese who fear landmarking the church will halt any efforts to repurpose the property.

During a daylong Commission on Chicago Landmarks hearing, dozens who back landmarking St. Adalbert Church provided fiery testimony and characterized the Archdiocese of Chicago and the nearby parish that now oversees the church property as greedy and disrespectful of St. Adalbert’s heritage.

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Anina Jakubowski joined many of the landmark supporters in the crowd in saying she placed her hopes not just in the church receiving protected status but in a dream that the church, which closed in 2019, might one day reopen. Jakubowski grew up attending masses at St. Adalbert and her mother fought a planned closure of the church in 1974, Jakubowski said.

“It was built as a house of God,” said Jakubowski, now a Downers Grove resident. “How can you have so many thousands of people who have been in that church and prayed? Where do those prayers go?”

But archdiocese leaders said they opposed the protective designation because it would create restrictions so strict that the church building could become stuck in disrepair and cost the nearby St. Paul Parish that inherited St. Adalbert’s assets millions of dollars in upkeep costs.

“The future vitality of St. Paul’s depends on its ability to use all of the resources it owns, including the assets of the closed St. Adalbert’s parish,” said Bishop Robert Lombardo, who called the potential landmark status “an offense to our right to religious self governance.”

The landmarks commission did not vote on whether it would recommend a landmark designation for St. Adalbert, but is scheduled to do so June 6. If the recommendation is made, the landmark status question would go to the full City Council for final approval. The status would trigger a series of restrictions on what could be done to the church building and landmarks commission reviews of any redevelopment plans in order to protect the church complex’s “significant features” — including its Renaissance Revival facade. Still, a landmarks designation would not completely ban renovations and interior changes.

The church was called “one of the finest in Chicago” by the Tribune when it was completed in 1914 and, at its peak, served 4,000 families. But its membership declined as Pilsen shifted from a more heavily Polish community to predominantly Mexican, said Dan Klaiber, a Department of Planning and Development coordination planner.

Protesters, many of them proudly Polish, have ardently pushed back since the archdiocese shut down the church five years ago. They decried the removal of a statue from the site and led the charge for its landmark status. A 73-year-old woman last year was arrested for trespassing while protesting the removal of stained glass windows and art from the shuttered church. On Friday, she joined the spectating crowd at City Hall. And many have continued to pray the rosary outside the building every Friday.

But representatives with the archdiocese argued that the building is not significant enough to merit the landmark protections. It pales when compared to other neighborhood churches, isn’t made by a significant architect, does not add a distinctive presence in the neighborhood and had major structural issues that could require scaffolding to continue to cover its facade, urban planning consultant George Kisiel said.

A landmark status would effectively block efforts to reuse the land in Pilsen, which desperately needs more affordable housing, Lombardo said. Any money made from the archdiocese from selling St. Adalbert would go to St. Paul’s, located a mile away, he added.

Needed repairs to secure the church, long covered with scaffolding on its facade because of safety concerns, could cost as much $8 million, according to the archdiocese. The landmark designation would deter demolition, but would not compel rehabilitation.

The movement to protect St. Adalbert has drawn support from Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th. The Pilsen alderman gave a strident speech Friday that called for the protective status, arguing the complex must be saved “not only because of the structure, but because of the people … that built this structure with blood, sweat and tears.”

He harshly criticized the archdiocese, warning that “luxury apartments” would be built on the property if the church does not win protections. He called the arguments of archdiocese leaders “propaganda” and accused them of being like the moneychangers and merchants in the temple in Jerusalem that Jesus lambasted in the Gospel. The comparison drew eruptions of cheers and boos from the crowd.

The charged debate caused the meeting to be continually stalled due to repeated interruptions from the crowd.

“We are here for, literally, a hearing. That means we hear everybody,” said Adam Rubin, a landmarks commissioner as he tried to maintain decorum while running the meeting.

James Geoly, the Chicago Archdiocese’s general counsel, said later that Sigcho-Lopez had effectively blocked several proposals from developers who had pitched plans to convert the church building for other uses, such as a museum and an event venue. The archdiocese was under contract with a developer when the church complex was granted preliminary landmark status in August. The landmark status would protect the church building, as well as rectory, convent and school.

In at least one proposal, new developments on the 2-acre property would have included 40% affordable housing while preserving the main building, Geoly said. He held out faith that an agreement to develop the land while preserving the structure could be reached.

“Tomorrow this could all be solved,” he said.