In Chicago, a Battle Over a Religious Statue Is About Much More Than Religion

The city’s Pilsen neighborhood used to be home to Polish immigrants. Now it’s mostly Latino. Both groups see much at stake in the fate of a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. Two communities in Chicago have seen their future tied to the fate of a beloved religious statue.


CHICAGO — On a cold Tuesday morning in Chicago, police officers lined an alley on the West Side. Across a chain-link fence, a group of people in parkas paced nervously in a backyard.

Then the officers stepped aside. A three-ton statue wrapped in blue cloths was loaded from the vacant St. Adalbert Church onto the bed of a truck, beginning its slow journey down the alley.

Even shrouded in blankets, the statue had a lifelike quality: It was a replica, still visible in silhouette, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, the marbled figure of Mary cradling the body of Jesus.

“Don’t take her away!” shouted Judy Vazquez, one of the people in the backyard, as the statue passed by.

“Alleluia!” said another protester, Bronislawa Stekala, clutching a rosary of brown wooden beads and raising her fist in anger.

For more than five years, a group of Polish and Latino Catholics from Chicago and its suburbs has been waging a fierce but quixotic fight against the Archdiocese of Chicago.

They first objected to the closure in 2019 of St. Adalbert, a towering brick structure in the Pilsen neighborhood, part of a wave of parish consolidations tied to shrinking attendance and the exorbitant cost of repairing antiquated buildings. Then the group turned its efforts to the statue inside, which was slated to be moved to another Catholic parish, St. Paul, a mile away.

Their mission was about more than the statue. For the Polish members of the group, the church and the statue were monuments to their ancestors and a reminder of their ties to Pilsen, which was once an entry point in Chicago for Polish immigrants. For the Latinos, the fight was to preserve community anchors including churches, as the neighborhood becomes increasingly gentrified and working-class Mexican families are being forced out by rising rents.

“If they sell the property of St. Adalbert’s, it’s going to change the fabric of Pilsen,” Ms. Vazquez said. “This is unacceptable that they want to sell every piece of church property to developers. The developers will have carte blanche. They’re going to continue to develop Pilsen. They’ll take the culture away from the neighborhood.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago says the changes reflect reality: The number of weekend churchgoers at St. Adalbert had shrunk to about 200, far less than is needed to sustain a church of its size. And the building required millions in repairs because of its crumbling brick facade, a decades-old problem that was explained in detail to parishioners before St. Adalbert merged with a neighboring parish.

Moving the statue to that parish, also in Pilsen, will give the beloved Pietà a home, the archdiocese said, a place where it can be protected and preserved for the community.

“We understand that change is difficult and many have worshiped at St. Adalbert or have family history with the church,” Manuel Gonzales, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said in an email. “We truly hope the small number of former St. Adalbert parishioners, who are among the protesters, will join with their neighbors to help the unification succeed.”

I watched the protesters one morning in November as they gathered for one of their regular prayer sessions in the alley. They drank coffee, shared memories of the church and prayed the rosary with their eyes lowered. Most of the group carried memories of what St. Adalbert was like more than a half-century ago, when it was a thriving parish with a school and a vast convent that was home to dozens of nuns.

Byron Sigcho-Lopez, the alderman who represents Pilsen on the Chicago City Council, stood among the prayer group, recalling all the history of the church and the multicultural effort to save it. In front of St. Adalbert, a faded sign still notes a Mass schedule, with separate services in Polish and Spanish.

“Both communities are trying to save St. Adalbert,” he said. “It’s a sacred and important site for both communities.”

Mr. Sigcho-Lopez had pushed for a zoning change that would give the community more input into the fate of the church building, should it be sold.

“The objective is to find somebody that could repurpose the building,” said Raul Serrato, a member of the finance council at St. Paul’s. “That’s been the difficulty because obviously nobody, including us, wants the building torn down. It’s a beautiful structure.”

On the day of the statue’s removal, Ms. Vazquez and the other members of her group would not let it leave without a fight.

For weeks, they had waited anxiously, knowing that it could be moved at any time. Then Ms. Vazquez heard on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving that crews had arrived at the church. Members of the group raced over and stood in a backyard, watching for hours as workers took the statue out of the church and loaded it onto a truck.

Stanley Rydzewski, 68, reminisced about baptisms and weddings at St. Adalbert, saying that the building was more than a parish, a repository of vital Polish history.

“Polish people built this church,” he said. He had long since left his home in the old neighborhood for the suburbs, he said, but was bitter about the slow dismantling of a parish he loved.

After workers removed the statue, the truck turned onto the street in front of the church, headed toward St. Paul. Ms. Vazquez and several other protesters positioned themselves in front of the truck, locking arms and refusing to move.

Julio Delgado, who lives across the street, emerged from his house and shook his head at the commotion.

“The church is a lost cause, the statue is a lost cause, and it’s been a lost cause for years,” said Mr. Delgado, who regularly attended St. Adalbert when it was open.

After an extended standoff, police officers arrested the protesters, and the statue continued its journey to St. Paul’s church.

One week later, Father Michael Enright, the pastor of St. Paul, opened the door of the rectory and led me into the darkened, silent church.

There was the statue, cut from Carrara marble, in its new perch in front of Gothic arches and stained-glass windows.

He declined to comment on the conflict over the statue; the protest group has been angry with him for years over the closing of St. Adalbert. But he is now the statue’s caretaker of sorts, and an unusually qualified one: He happens to be a hobbyist stonecutter who has carved pieces in the church, including a lectern that stands on the altar.

When the Pietà arrived at St. Paul’s in November, it was covered in dust and dirt from the move. Father Enright carefully vacuumed some of the debris and wiped the statue down with paper towels.

Standing before the marble form of Mary and Jesus, he said he could see why it had inspired such passion and devotion.

“There is something to be said for beauty,” he said.

Ms. Vazquez cannot bring herself to attend Mass at St. Paul’s. But she has visited the statue twice in its new home, she said this week, popping in and saying a prayer.

“I was just talking to her, giving her my pain, saying ‘Ave Maria,’” she said. “I just had to be by her.”

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