St. Raphael (travelers' patron) calls a pair of closed Chicago churches 50 miles north

June 24, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey)

In an architectural first for Chicago, the exterior of a shuttered South Side church and the interior of a near Northwest Side church will be disassembled and combined to form an entirely new religious edifice in north central Lake County, according to Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese officials.

Work is expected to begin next month to deconstruct the limestone facade, towers and other significant architectural details of St. John of God Roman Catholic Church, 1238 W. 52nd St (above).Workers would also remove the marble interior of the closed St. Peter Canisius, 5057 West North Avenue and the two structures would be joined as a part of the new 900-member St. Raphael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church to be built in Old Mill Creek, IL near the Wisconsin border, according to Richard A. Gambla, St. Raphael's business manager and a leader of the project. St. John's exterior would essentially reclad the back and front of a larger new building, with St. Canisius' insides composing a portion of the interior.

"It was a struggle to convince everybody--the first impression was 'You must be nuts,' '' Gambla said. "Then eventually they came on board."

The move marks a potential sea change in the Chicago archdiocese's position on shuttered churches. For decades, the archdiocese simply wrecked unused churches--an act that took some of the city's most breathtaking neighborhood architecture. In the last decade, Catholic officials began to keep and‚  batten down empty churches. The buildings were spared the wrecker's ball, but have been slowly ravaged by time and weather. Gambla said church officials see the St. Raphael effort as "something that may even occur more in the future. Because we are saving the patrimony of the diocese by reusing it."


(photo by Lee Bey)

However, not all applauded the efforts of St. Raphael. "Is it preservation?" asked one preservationists who did not want to be named. "The churches that are closed and the most endangered are those in the poorest city neighborhoods. Do we now remove these buildings from the area and original context, rather than keep them there and find a way to reuse them as assets to the community?"

Landmarks Illinois President Jim Peters, whose staff spent‚  spent several months working with city and church officials looking at reuse options for the church said it is "frustrating"‚  to see the building journey north, but added it "may be the best solution" for saving the church.

"A lot of time and energy has been spent, but at the end of the day, do you want to see this church fall down? Torn down?" Peters said. "Do we just say 'forget about it--we'd rather see this building thrown into a landfill?'

And in a email today, the group Preservation Chicago said it was "shocked" by the decision to move the church's facade to Lake County and urged supporters to write to the neighborhood's alderman in protest.

The idea to salvage the two beleaguered churches began in 2008 when the church began talks with Chicago Cardinal Francis George about transplanting a closed city church to Lake County for reuse. Gambla said George--noting St. Raphael was already reusing items and artifacts from former churches at its current temporary location in Antioch-- "off the cuff said 'How about St. John of God?' We all smiled because it is such a monumental building... there was talk of doing this 15 years ago--moving it to another diocese, but it never came to be."

Built in 1918 for a predominantly Polish congregation, the twin-towered St. John of God cuts a striking figure across from Sherman Park in the New City neighborhood. It has been closed since 1990. St. Peter Canisius, built in 1932 was closed in 2007. Under the plan, the entire front of St. John of God, through the narthex and all of the exterior would be reused. A new interior using the marble, detailing, altar and pews of St. Peter Canisius would be built inside the church. Gambla said it would take three months to deconstruct the buildings. The St. John of God site will be cleared and landscaped when the project is done. Nick Batistich Architects out of Burr Ridge is supervising the job.

The new church will also contain the powerful 92-stop pipe organ salvaged--at city expense--from the former Medinah Temple (now Bloomingdale's) at Wabash and Ohio, Gambla said. Groundbreaking is set for Sunday at Old Mill Creek. The church's pastor, the Rev. John Jamnicky told the Lake County News-Sun: "We're doing something that's never been done before in the history of church construction."