Although the Chicago Archdiocese has come a long way from the of rank corruption of the time of John Cardinal Cody, the manner in which it runs its real estate empire remains an amalgam of arrogance and common avarice. Over the past decade, it has begun wrecking closed churches without a demolition permit, and came within a whisker of destroying the beautiful 1923 St. Gelasius on the South Side. [NOTE AND CORRECTION: the original version of this post included this sentence: "It did everything in its power to sweep away every last stone of Holy Family, the pre-fire church on Roosevelt Road that is one of the keystones of Chicago's cultural and spiritual history," A sharp eyed reader wrote to remind me that it was not the Chicago Archdiocese, but the Society of Jesuits that held title to Holy Family and had sought its demolition. We apologize for this error.]
Now it's the turn of St. Boniface, the iconic church at Chestnut and Noble whose towers have defined the skyline of Chicago's West Town neighborhood for over a century. After leaving St. Boniface to rot for nearly two decades, all but unsecured against the ravages of squatters, weather and decay, the Archdiocese has sent out a letter announcing demolition will begin on Friday. If everything goes on schedule, by March 23rd all traces of St. Boniface will be obliterated from the Eckert Park site it has anchored since 1902.
A 2003 Archdiocese competition for ideas for the church's reuse appears to have been little more than a sham. When the adjacent school building was demolished a short time later, the Archdiocese deflected criticism by saying it had placed the facade into storage to be reused in redevelopment of the site. What do you think are the odds that facade will ever be seen again?
The Archdiocese has rebuffed all efforts to save St. Boniface, including an ongoing campaign by the Coptic church to acquire it. Back in June in 2007, the Chicago Journal reported that the Archdiocese sent out a letter stating it was "too late to begin negotiations" with the Coptic Church, yet it would be more than a year later, September of 2008, before it sent out a request for proposals for the property.
The demolition timeline, itself, raises questions. The Chicago Journal reported that the Archdiocese filed for a demolition permit last December 5th. Because St. Boniface is rated "Orange" on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey for possessing potentially significant architectural or historic features, this would invoke an automatic 90 day hold on issuing the permit - for consideration of whether it qualifies for landmarking - that would push back doomsday to at least March 5th, but who knows? Perhaps the frequently supine Commission on Chicago Landmarks has already issued a ruling decreeing St. Boniface disposable. See if you agree.
photograph: Cary Primeau
Look at the photos accompanying this post, and here, here, and here. What do you think?
Again according to the Chicago Journal, in 2005, the Archdiocese estimated the cost of stabilizing the building at $6 million. In the fall of 2008, a spokesman told the Journal the figure would be $10 to $12 million. Only months later, in December, that same spokesman was telling the Chicago Tribune it couldn't be done for less than $25 million.
The website of Saint Boniface: A Community Concerned, representing activists seeking to block demolition of St. Boniface, has raised the alarm about St. Boniface's impending doom, urging calls to the local alderman, Walter Burnett, at 312-432-1995.
But the fix would appear to be in. Barring a last-minute reprieve, a century of history will soon be wiped from the earth, the character of a neighborhood decimated for a cookie-cutter condo development, or, perhaps more likely in our uncertain economic environment, a vacant lot, a suitable monument to the profane transgressions of a sacred institution.