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The shell of St. Boniface Parish
Devin Hunter / Flickr

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Saving Chicago’s historic churches: Challenges in adapting sacred space (Part II)

Developers have put forth several plans to save the shuttered St. Boniface Church

In a medieval German forest, Saint Boniface, the patron saint of Germany, chopped down Donar's Oak, an important religious symbol that was revered by pagan villagers. The removal of the tree was a part of his efforts as a Christian missionary to disrupt the community's worship of false idols. Saint Boniface's actions had a lasting effect, and earned him a place in history.

However, since 1990, his namesake Chicago church has stood empty. Symbolically, things are coming full circle. As the once dominant religion’s influence wanes, so does its symbols. And like Donar's Oak that Boniface dismantled over a millennia ago in the name of change, his church may also ultimately succumb to the whims of time.

Recently, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced that within 15 years, nearly 100 parishes could be closed, causing renewed concern for the future of these sacred spaces. The announcement marks the beginning of a new frontier for historic preservation in Chicago, as an unprecedented number of structures are at risk, and successful preservation efforts will require a tremendous amount of cooperation, community engagement, and economic creativity.

The struggle to save St. Boniface

When asked about his firm’s previous designs for the redevelopment of St. Boniface in Noble Square, Larry Booth, Principal and Director at Booth Hansen, made it abundantly clear why the project didn’t go very far. “We looked at that multiple times,” Booth said. “It would be impossible.”

Booth simply refused to sugarcoat the issue. The challenge for any redevelopment of the structure requires answers to two important questions. First, is there a use for the project? And second, can this be accomplished within an appropriate budget? This is particularly pronounced for complex adaptive reuse projects and even more so for ones that include purpose-designed spaces like a church.

According to Booth, there is plenty of creativity when it comes to thinking up designs to repurpose spaces like a religious structure. The fundamental problem remains economic.

“In the case of St. Boniface… it has all these costs,” Booth warns. “You can’t show that the costs will be covered.”

The future use of a site is also a very important element to consider when figuring the affordability of a project. Different uses will produce different returns, and in the case of St. Boniface, one of the biggest hurdles is creating an economic plan that can be achieved and still adapt the structure to accommodate housing, which is a long-term goal.

Over the course of the last six years, the two developers overseeing the possible redevelopment of St. Boniface have struggled to move forward. Requests for housing tax credits from the city and the State of Illinois were denied, and housing priorities were changed, derailing proposals.Proposals for various adaptive reuses of the shuttered St. Boniface have been put forward however. The two most recent began taking shape in 2010, after the City of Chicago organized a land swap, according to the Saint Boniface information website. Both intended to preserve all four steeples and significant parts of the facade.

Until January 2015, these proposed units were intended to become senior housing, then workforce rental units, and most recently, market rate housing geared towards families. “Housing has to meet a [strict] budget,” Booth said, adding that although it’s a beautiful church and would be a shame to see it go, that “it would be much more efficient and budget conscious to tear it down.”

For preservationists, ensuring developers have access to the tax credits like those made unavailable for St. Boniface is a significant hurdle to overcome to ensure historic structures get the financial plans needed to accomplish renovation and re-adaptation projects.

Photo by Laurie Chipps / Flickr

Landmarking and tax incentives work

Bonnie McDonald, President of Landmarks Illinois, said that these tax credits help developers “close the gap” in financing that can prevent a project from moving forward, especially if it is to create low-income housing or is for a non-profit organization.

Still, not all tax credits are as easily available as others. Some financial assistance is only available to buildings that already have landmark status. For those hoping to get access to these funds, the challenge isn’t getting landmark status for a building, but being able to finance the necessary maintenance on the front end.

The Stone Temple Baptist Church in North Lawndale is housed in a historic synagogue, for which Bishop Derrick Fitzpatrick, is working on securing landmark status. Bishop Fitzpatrick explained that he was lucky he could maintain the building over the years. When he began the application for landmark status he didn’t realize a major component of the application is guaranteeing financial wherewithal to maintain the building.

“Even now that we’re getting the landmark status, none of that takes the blood, sweat, and tears away,” he said.

While he hopes this opens up avenues to new funding to sustain the structure over time, this is not a guarantee and is an ongoing problem. Landmark status will ensure [a building] won’t be torn down,” he said, “but it won’t ensure it will be kept up.”

When historic religious structures go on the market, a whole new set of problems arise. Helen Jaeger Roth, a Chicago real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, looked into religious buildings on the market and found two things. First, it’s a very niche market.

“This year in Chicago, there were 15 churches on the market… this is absolutely a niche market,” she said.

Second, many of the prosperities were listed as foreclosures and as conversions or as vacant land without price variations. This indicates that many of the property owners are in some financial need and probably looking to cash in on their land as a financial lifeboat.

“A lot of the listings looked like they wanted a clean deal,” she said. “They weren’t concerned to see if [the buyers] could get financing.”

Adapting these spaces will require creativity

Despite challenges created by financial problems, they don’t always mean the end is near. With the right amount of creativity and will power, former religious spaces can find new life. A Gothic church in the Dutch city Maastricht became a bookstore and in Massachusetts and Louisiana other churches became homes.

Making the leap from a sacred space to a conventional residential or commercial property still isn’t easy. In the case of St. Boniface, the Archdiocese for many years played an active role determining the site’s fate.

Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, proposes treating sacred spaces like they’re treated in European cities. In Vienna for example, many classical musical performance groups use churches as performances spaces. This isn’t foreign to Chicago either. The Music of the Baroque chorus performs some concerts in religious spaces like St. Michael’s in Old Town.

Similar scenarios could potentially play out in the future, bringing new life to old churches, or even new revenue to struggling parishes. In a prepared statement, Susan Burritt, Media Relations Director for the Archdiocese of Chicago, did say that “if a parish community will no longer use a particular space, we will gladly explore other options.”

“I don’t think anybody wants to think of the services as secondary," Miller said. "But I think there’s something we’re overlooking.”

That something might be the very thing causing the issue being discussed, in spite of all other options and ideas. There are simply fewer financially vibrant parish communities. While the Archdiocese of Chicago may be able to breath life into some parishes through reorganization, this will inevitably be by consolidating and closing other parishes.

This is what made the difference for Old St. Pat’s in the Loop. The church’s rehabilitation had more to do with former pastor John Wall’s efforts to revitalize the parish community. This brought in new parishioners and needed financial resources.

"Truly, the answer is everybody has to start going to church," Booth said. With this scenario seeming unlikely, he added, "or, at least drop off an envelope."

Update: After three decades of vacancy and a questionable future, it was announced in March 2018 that St. Boniface Catholic Church would be developed into condominiums.

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