The fight for Chicago’s St. Adalbert

Zapisz Sw. Wojciecha! Proteger San Adalberto!

Recently I traveled down to Kansas City, a city I absolutely adore, and stayed overnight in a hotel whose walls were lined with historic photos of the town. One of the photos is centered on a gigantic sign that read in an old-timey font:


I wish I could find a photo now. It wasn’t an obvious advertisement, and I don’t know whose sign it was or what became of it. But in that moment, my heart ached a little bit for its loss. That sign was an outpouring of civic pride that somebody spent time and money to erect.

I get the same feeling looking at old pictures of Omaha, where I live now. Best I can tell, Omaha was a magnificent city with incredible old buildings and awesome signs until the 1960s. Then they knocked most of the cool ones down and now we have an oddly large number of two-story parking garages.

In talking with some Chicagoans over the last few week, the ongoing story of St. Adalbert parish has come to my attention.

St. Adalbert is one of these magnificent, old churches built by Polish immigrants in the late 1800s. In fact, it is one of the oldest Polish churches in all of Chicago, which boasts the largest number of Poles outside of Poland. The interior is all painted red and white after the Polish flag, and there are murals and windows with Polish emblems and symbols.

Today, because of changing demographics, Mass attendance at St. Adalbert has declined and the numbers just aren’t adding up. Now, parish members are working with city and archdiocesan officials to find a way to spare this church from demolition.

This Saturday, April 23, the parish will celebrate the feast of Saint Adalbert with Holy Mass in three languages: English, Spanish, and Polish. It will likely be the last large Mass at the parish if it is to close. I don’t know this for sure, but I’d guess there will be food in the vicinity afterwards. If you are in Chicagoland, you should go, at the very least least for the prospect of some pierogies.

What are we supposed to make of stories like this?

Art and Liturgy - Saint Edward Chicago
St. Ed’s, home of the Murray clan. (Photo from parish Facebook page)

I think it’s safe to say we can all sympathize. Another church in Chicago, St. Edward, has been the Murrays’ parish for 100 years. Although I only get back there anymore when a relative dies, I’d be out there on the picket line if it were facing closure. Maybe you feel the same way about some other church in your life. Why? Because churches — young or old, pretty or ugly — connect us physically to our history. Not only the history of the Church, but our families’ histories. There’s something special about being in the place where my great-grandfather came when he got off the boat from Ireland, where my grandparents were married, and so on. These churches give us a concrete sense of place in this big world, to say nothing of their worth as sacred dwelling places of the Living God.

But, what should we do with these churches who simply can’t make ends meet? Is the bishop a heartless tyrant if he closes the parish? Probably not. People move, physically and spiritually. There are tough decisions to be made, and I know I wouldn’t want to have to make them.

All the same, St. Adalbert’s is worth fighting for. So’s the old Italian church down the street, or the old Irish church across town, or whatever church is important to you. We’ll have more success saving these places if we don’t let it get to this dire point. So what can you and I do?

Give generously when you can.

Write letters to the bishop. Kind ones. He’s probably doing his best.

Have lots of babies and raise them in the church!

Pray your eyeballs out for priests, and for more of them.

Our ancestors worked so hard and gave so much to build these churches and the communities that surround them. We can’t honestly call for their preservation without being willing to make some sacrifice of our own. If we don’t, these spots will just become old photographs for our grandkids to find on hotel walls.

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