On the shuttered doors of St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen is a portrait of the Virgin Mary, peeking through bright green, white, and red silk curtains that together make the Mexican flag. She stands in her familiar posture: hands in prayer, head bowed. A small lantern sits at her feet in front of a bouquet of fresh roses.
On December 9, a cold and damp Friday night, I visited the 108-year-old church. Its baroque and crumbling 185-foot-tall towers overlook the neighborhood. For close to a decade, they’ve been wrapped in metal scaffolding. Despite protests from parishioners and an appeal filed to the Catholic Church’s highest court, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the doors to St. Adalbert in 2019, saying that it could no longer afford the extensive repairs.
Since then, many of the Polish parishioners who built the church and once filled the pews have moved away. Bartolomé de las Casas Elementary, once a public school for children of immigrants, is now a charter school. The marble church, a replica of the Basilica of St. Paul, is empty inside.
But that night, on the front steps, in the shadow of the rose-colored granite columns, were two encampments. Three men wrapped in blankets huddled next to a small fire. A blue tarp hung from the scaffolding, protecting them from the icy wind.
“She takes care of us,” said Juan Fuentes, gesturing to the painting of La Virgen. Credit: Eddie Quiñones for Chicago Reader
“She takes care of us,” Juan Fuentes told me in Spanish, gesturing to the painting of La Virgen. The 55-year-old with a salt-and-pepper mustache has lived in Pilsen for most of his life, finding jobs where he can as a truck driver. Alberto Martinez, who works as a roofer, sat next to him wearing layers of winter jackets, staring at the fire. A third man, Xavier, wrapped in a scarf with only his eyes and nose poking out, added paper to the fire. They had been living on the steps for several months.
“The irony is that even though this is a church, we’re out here sleeping in the street,” Martinez said. The men reminisced about their past lives: their mothers, the journey here from Mexico, and long, hot showers. If the Archdiocese sells the church, they told me, they will lose what little they have left.
Fifteen minutes later, a procession of several Chevys and Hyundais parked in front of the church on 17th Street. Half a dozen older white women stepped out of the cars in fur boots, fastened their coats, and slipped on winter gloves. Since the church closed, parishioners and community members, worried that the Archdiocese will soon sell the property, have fought to protect St. Adalbert. Just a few weeks ago, five parishioners were arrested by Chicago police after attempting to block the removal of La Pieta, a beloved statue replicating Michelangelo’s original sculpture. The statue was moved to nearby St. Paul Catholic Church. The women walked toward the painting of the Virgin Mary. One carried a plastic folding chair. I talked to the only Spanish speaker to exit a car.
“We’re here for our weekly prayer,” Linda Ruiz told me matter-of-factly. She said she drove there from Berwyn. Every Friday from 7 to 9 PM, the parishioners, both Polish and Mexican, gather outside the closed doors of St. Adalbert to host a vigil. “Pray with us to save St. Adalbert Church,” a sign nailed to wooden scaffolding reads. “Uniting in Prayer.”
Credit: Eddie Quiñones for Chicago Reader
“There are so many churches they’ve closed but haven’t destroyed,” Ruiz told me. “Why destroy this one?”
We were interrupted by screaming.
“This is our church. You have St. Paul! St. Paul! Go!” yelled a white woman in a dark purple puffer jacket and pink pompom hat. She insisted the men move to the church a mile away.
“Go back to Polonia!” replied Fuentes, in English. “I’m from Mexico!” Ruiz told me the parishioners were worried the fire was too close to the marble floors outside of the church. But the men insisted the floor was noncombustible because it was actually concrete. Besides, they said, they needed the fire to stay warm. The woman in the puffer jacket insisted they leave.
Without thinking (probably because of my Catholic upbringing) I asked her where the men were supposed to go.
“That’s what we want to know too,” Ruiz told me. “It’s the city and the Archdiocese’s job of helping the poor.” The woman in the puffer jacket began untying the ropes that attached the tarp to the scaffolding, saying it belonged to the rosary group. Then a man shoved a video camera in my face.
“Are you with Lori Lightfoot?” he demanded.
I told him I worked at the Chicago Reader.
“So you’re with the city!” (I would find out later that he was a reporter with Polvision TV 62.1, the Polish-language news channel in Chicago.)
Meanwhile, the woman in the puffer jacket continued untying the ropes. She tossed a few of the men’s belongings to the sidewalk. The other parishioners stood and watched. Martinez pleaded that the man with the camera stop recording. Fuentes retreated.
And then, as if nothing had happened, the parishioners began singing in worship. Some read from music sheets. “Matka Boska!” they cried to the picture of the Virgin Mary, whose gaze fell on the three men who cowered in a corner.
A woman unties the ropes that attached the tarp to the scaffolding.. Credit: Eddie Quiñones for Chicago Reader
Founded by the Polish Catholic community, St. Adalbert has opened its doors for immigrants settling into the neighborhood for years. When the Mexican population grew in the mid-1970s, the church began offering bilingual Mass in Spanish and Polish to meet the needs of its new parishioners. For Ruiz, St. Adalbert was the centerpiece in her life, where she celebrated baptisms, communions, and weddings, and attended funerals.
“You’re always going to want to cherish memories of your first home,” she told me. “It makes you want to come back every day and we have.”
But her concerns grew in the last decade because of new leadership. She slowly began hearing rumors that the Archdiocese would close St. Adalbert. “Father Michael Enright told us for a long time that they were never going to close the church,” Ruiz said.
In 2015, the Archdiocese began consolidating and closing churches in Pilsen, citing low attendance and fewer priests. At the time, Father Enright was also in charge of St. Paul, leaving parishioners worried that St. Adalbert wouldn’t have someone to advocate on its behalf.
In 2017, one year after announcing it was closing St. Adalbert, the Archdiocese had reportedly entered into contract negotiations with the Chicago Academy of Music to buy the church, but the sale fell through. In 2019, the Archdiocese attempted to sell the church to City Pads, a development company, for $4 million. But, again, the sale fell through.
A document provided to the Reader by 25th Ward alderperson Byron Sigcho-Lopez shows a recent attempt by the Archdiocese to sell the church property to ANEW LLC, a Miami-based real estate company owned by Daniel Davidson. Davidson has a long history as a redeveloper. In 2003, he converted a Miami synagogue into an upscale private event venue and named it The Temple House. Davidson did not respond to a request for comment before publication.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese declined to comment on the document but said “the church is still for sale” to whoever can put it to good use for the community and honor its history.
As the parishioners sang, Sigcho-Lopez arrived with an aide. Since being elected in 2019, he’s made several attempts to prevent the redevelopment of the church property. That year, after St. Adalbert closed, he introduced an ordinance to the City Council to downzone the property to avoid residential construction. The ordinance was never called to a vote. A few months later, he asked the city’s Department of Planning and Development to preserve the church by giving it a landmark designation. His pleas were ignored.
In a last-ditch attempt to save the church, Sigcho-Lopez reintroduced his ordinance to City Council earlier this year. This time the city warned him that the Archdiocese could sue based on property owner rights. The ordinance passed the zoning committee, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s allies, alderpeople Nicholas Sposato and Ariel Reboyras, blocked a full council vote. In a heated exchange with the mayor, Sigcho-Lopez accused Lightfoot of intervening in ward matters to save face with the Archdiocese. The ordinance has since been stalled.
“The mayor’s office, by blocking the vote, is blindsiding the community and pushing forward a proposal without due process,” he said.
An Ecuadorian immigrant himself, Sigcho-Lopez leveled with the parishioners and the men gathering their belongings. He and parishioner Judy Vazquez discussed alternative solutions for the men, who were now shivering.
The police were the last to arrive. The two officers reassured everyone that the encampments could not be removed because the church is private property. They said the authority falls on the Archdiocese. The men were allowed to stay, so long as there was no fire.
Soon the soft whispers of prayers died out. The women got back in their cars and left. The men returned to their spots. The only light that remained was from the lantern shining at the Virgin Mary.
The Archdiocese of Chicago closed the doors to St. Adalbert in 2019, saying that it could no longer afford the extensive repairs. Credit: Eddie Quiñones for Chicago Reader
On the Virgin Mary’s Feast Day, Mexicans celebrate to mark her appearance in 1531 to a young Indigenous man walking toward the Hill of Tepeyac. We celebrate the occasion like any family member’s birthday, preparing tamales and champurrado.
On Sunday morning, the eve of the Feast Day, I returned to St. Adalbert. Dozens had gathered on the cloudy day. The crowd reminded me of a family party too: a mix of Spanish and Polish, young and old, practicing Catholics and lapsed Catholics. Fuentes, Martinez, and Xavier were nowhere to be seen, though their belongings were still there. The woman in the puffer jacket was there too, though in a lighter mood.
At the front of the crowd, facing the Virgin Mary, was a four-member mariachi band. As they rehearsed, people chatted and hugged. A few parishioners set up a small table on the sidewalk, giving out pan dulce.
I heard the strings of a violin. It was the Spanish singer Rocío Dúrcal’s “Amor Eterno,” a ballad about a love that knows no end. I remembered listening to my mother singing this song in our house, as she grieved the loss of her own mother who she never got to say goodbye to. Hearing the song again that morning, I realized I still knew all the words. Tú eres la tristeza, ay, de mis ojos/ Que lloran en silencio por tu amor. The voices of what’s left of St. Adalbert’s parish rose to the top of the towers, where the church bells once chimed.