Chicago Academy of Music in talks to save, renovate St. Adalbert church (2023)

The awe-inspiring architecture that for more than a century has housed worshippers at St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church could eventually host young musical prodigies from around the world.

The Chicago Archdiocese is in preliminary discussions with the Chicago Academy of Music about purchasing the property and converting the church's adjacent convent into dormitories for students, its rectory into housing for master musicians and its Italian marble sanctuary into a concert stage.


Yet parishioners, who have been protesting the church's closing for months, plan to file appeals to the Vatican on Friday to keep their Pilsen parish open or, at the very least, hallowed. Their appeals fall on the same day two decrees by Archbishop Blase Cupich go into effect: The first assigns St. Adalbert's parishioners and assets to nearby St. Paul's Catholic Church. The second reduces St. Adalbert to a state that permits activities besides worship, paving the way for a prospective purchase and renovation of the decaying church and crumbling towers.

"One of the reasons we're excited about the potential reuse is their intention is to preserve the building, not only physically but as a resource to the community, which quite often is what these churches were," said Eric Wollan, director of capital assets for the archdiocese. "We talk about serving the mission of the church. We have an opportunity to preserve the building for a use that is very positive in the neighborhood."


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Organist Ewa Kovak rehearses at St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood before the start of 10 a.m. Mass on June 26, 2016. Parishioners and supporters are holding prayer vigils and rallies to save their century-old parish from closure. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

The "conceptual conversations" between the church and the conservatory could signal a victory for preservationists who initiated the deal in hopes of saving one of the city's endangered architectural gems. As the nation's third largest Catholic diocese reckons with dilapidated buildings it can't afford to maintain, preservationists see the prospective sale as a hopeful sign before a radical overhaul by the archdiocese that could shutter many of Chicago's Catholic houses of worship by 2030.

"The archdiocese has been operating at a deficit for a very long time," said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, who introduced church officials to founders of the academy last year amid suggestions that St. Adalbert would be razed. "They have to make some very tough decisions. … Our outreach and wrestling with this great dilemma resulted in now nobody talking about demolition."

The archdiocese announced Cupich's decision to close St. Adalbert in February as part of a reconfiguration of six Pilsen parishes. Though the process was not intended to be a pilot for the wider consolidation, the community conversations that led to the decision are considered a template for the churchwide reorganization in months and years to come.

Still, parishioners have staged weekly prayer vigils, most recently outside Holy Name Cathedral, where Cupich regularly celebrates Mass and lives in the rectory. Though the decree that reduces the church from its sacred status goes into effect Friday, parishioners have been told they can continue to worship there as long as the building remains structurally sound and appeals are under way.

Blanca Torres grew up going to St. Adalbert school and lived across the street as a child. Shortly after the archdiocese tried to shutter the historically Polish parish in 1974, her parents, both Mexican immigrants, requested a Spanish-language Mass, which still exists today.

"They present it sort of nicely as they have this music school that wants to buy the church and they're offering landmark status," said Torres, who still worships there. "The ones who have access to the church first in canon law are the parishioners. We should be able to say this is what we propose."

But preservationists fear the academy might be the only entity that can save the building. For more than a year, scaffolding has been erected to contain the crumbling facades of the two iconic towers. If the parish can't afford to maintain that web of steel — on top of the necessary repairs — then the scaffolding comes down and so must the church, they say.

The Chicago Academy of Music has applied for a multimillion dollar loan from the Illinois Facilities Fund and the Chicago Community Loan Fund — two Chicago lenders that finance nonprofit ventures aimed at creating opportunities for low-income and other marginalized communities.


Map: Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago St. Adalbert

The conservatory aims to immerse students in jazz, blues, classical and world music in neighborhoods where children ordinarily might not have access to music education. The academy, where master musicians serve as instructors, offers scholarships for families who can't afford lessons. Faculty include master trumpet improvisers Corey Wilkes and Victor Garcia, pianists Robert Irving III and Edwin Sanchez, guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque and renowned jazz bassist Harrison Bankhead.

While the academy has opened a West Loop location in addition to its headquarters inside University Church in Hyde Park, officials hope to make St. Adalbert a flagship campus with a residential component.

"For us, it's always been the intent to create Julliard in Chicago," said the academy's executive director Michael Scott Carter.

In addition to other revenue streams, the academy has partnered with developers who share space and a percentage of their revenue.

Two such developments in the works include the former St. Boniface Catholic Church in Chicago's West Town and Epiphany Episcopal Church on the Near West Side, one of the first examples in Chicago of Richardsonian Romanesque, a dominant architectural style in the latter half of the 19th century. Like the St. Adalbert discussions, both deals were initiated by Preservation Chicago.

The St. Adalbert project would be different. The academy would own the property outright and revenue would come from tuition, student housing, a restaurant, a recording studio and cellphone towers. Through partnerships with the DuSable Museum of African-American History and other institutions, the building's iconic towers would house musical archives of Latin and Afro-Latin music. Performance space would feature concerts by local musicians and internationally acclaimed artists.


Chicago Academy of Music in talks to save, renovate St. Adalbert church (41)

The church "was built with a science of vocal sonority," said Kahil El Zabar, executive creative director of the academy. "All of the old churches in their design were made so that acoustic performances would naturally be embellished. It's hard to find that same acoustic sensibility in new structures. ... We're looking at taking what was a space of worship and reinventing it as a sacred space of performance, of creative performance, not only with music but dance and visual art and performance art."

Carter said it would be possible for parishioners to continue having Sunday Mass after a renovation was complete, and that the academy already has a history of sharing space with faith communities.

But Torres, the parishioner, insists it should be the other way around.

"We're willing to work with the music school afterward if we get access to the building," she said. "We would love to have concerts and stuff, but we would have to be the ones who are in charge of our sacred space at the time."

In the last month, a group of parishioners working to save the church have formed a nonprofit called the St. Adalbert Preservation Society. With the help of Brody Hale, a lawyer who heads the Catholic Church Preservation Society, they have filed appeals to the archdiocese and contacted a canon lawyer in Rome to argue on their behalf. Hale has drafted the appeal to Rome that will be filed Friday, he said, adding that the Vatican has overturned 34 church closings in seven dioceses since 2011. St. Adalbert resembles many of those examples, he said, but it stands out for its architectural grandeur.

"It's an ecclesiastical edifice constructed by people who clearly wanted to leave a tangible testament to their belief and gratitude to God for helping them to be settled in a new land," Hale said.


While the appeals process prevents any sale of the property, it does not suspend the decrees, which Hale plans to argue in his appeal are flawed. After all, worshippers can't continue to worship in a space that has been decreed unsacred, he said.

The archdiocese said it will not stand in the way of the parishioners' right to appeal. But spokeswoman Colleen Tunney-Ryan said for the most part, the parish has been in favor of discussions that could potentially lead to reuse of the buildings.

"The appeal process is being driven by a small group of parishioners, supported by organizations outside of the parish," she said.

El Zabar said the academy's plans for St. Adalbert sustain at least part of the congregation's contribution to the neighborhood.

"We would hope the parishioners would see value in our desire to continue that legacy of gathering in a different way," El Zabar said. "It's using music as a celebration of that through education, through preservation and broader exposure that we believe brings people together."


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