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The Catholic New World

Bishop John R. Manz

Chicago Católico / Luis Reyes

September 26, 2004

Four Catholic centers’ goal: boost West Side presence
Planning process continuing for 10 parishes

By Michelle Martin
Staff writer

For Father Daniel McCormack, pastor of St. Agatha Parish, plans to center Catholic life on the West Side on four geographically chosen sites mean a stronger church presence in the African-American neighborhoods there.

For Betty Freeman, 50 years a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes, they mean anything but that.

Pastors and parishioners who spent two years contributing to a planning process for the West Side got their first look at the decision the weekend of Sept. 11-12, when letters from Auxiliary Bishop John Manz explaining Cardinal George’s decision were distributed.

The plan calls for the 10 parishes that were part of the process to be divided up among four worship centers. Members of those communities will begin meeting soon to talk about exactly how they will come together, and each of the four implementation teams will present their plans to the archdiocese by July 1, 2005.

“The goal of the West Side Planning Process was to create and sustain a vital and vibrant Catholic presence on the West Side,” wrote Bishop Manz in a Sept. 8 letter to parishioners. “We will focus on creating four vibrant, strong and engaged Catholic communities, utilizing existing physical structures and resources in the most effective and efficient manner possible.”

The letter designates St. Malachy Parish, 2251 W. Washington Blvd., as the center for the Near West Side, incorporating people from Precious Blood Parish, 2411 W. Congress Parkway. Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, 3121 W. Jackson Blvd., will remain the center for the Garfield Park neighborhood. St. Martin de Porres Parish, 5112 W. Washington Blvd.—the product of an earlier three-parish merge—will be the center for the Austin neighborhood, integrating St. Angela, 5758 W. Potomac Ave., and Our Lady Help of Christians, 832 N. LeClaire Ave.

St. Agatha, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd., will be the center for the North Lawndale neighborhood, taking in Blessed Sacrament, 2153 S. Millard Ave.; Presentation Parish, 734 S. Springfield Ave.; and Our Lady of Lourdes, 1444 S. Keeler Ave.

“The key is to get people to understand what’s happening,” said Father Tom Walsh, pastor of Presentation. “The letter is still open-ended. We need to create plans.”

“It was something that needed to happen,” said St. Agatha’s McCormack. “People realized we needed to cut back to grow.”

He knows members of parishes not chosen as worship centers will see the decision differently, although most understand the need for changes. For the new communities to take hold, even the site centers will have to change quite a bit, McCormack said.

“We will be a very different church in a year, if we welcome people well,” he said. “I hear their pain. There’s going to be a lot of anger.

“We want to keep Catholic presence in those communities. Ministries will stay, maybe some youth outreach, food pantries, the continuation of education on some of these sites. … We don’t know what it will look like. That will come after July 2005. It’s going to happen quickly.”

While none of the parishes have been officially closed, Freeman said she and her grown children are talking about what they will do when Our Lady of Lourdes is gone.

“It’s really devastating,” said Freeman, recalling the baptisms, first Communions and confirmations of her children and grandchildren that took place in the church. “In the meetings we had over the past two years, there was some discussion that maybe we could keep some of the sites open, maybe just for Mass on Sunday, like satellites. I was hoping we could be one of them. But that didn’t happen.”

While Freeman is considering moving to St. Agatha, her children, who are members of Our Lady of Lourdes even though they have left the neighborhood, will not, she said. They intend to join parishes closer to their homes, and Freeman said she also is considering joining them.

“At least that way, we all would be together,” she said.

Redemptorist Father Ramon Dompke, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, said many of his parishioners are in similar situations. The success of the plan depends on how well such issues are handled, he said.

“I think it depends on the preparation that goes into this. It depends on the creativity of the welcoming parishes and the creativity on the part of the people who will be blended in—blended into more than one site, most likely,” Dompke said.

The lead time to figure out how the consolidations will happen might help soften the blow for some, he said.

“In past times, decisions were made and things got terminated very quickly,” he said. “It left a lot of people extremely angry. There could still be angry people, of course. But they can’t say they were not informed.”

There is a contrast between Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Agatha, located a little more than a mile apart. St. Agatha has a large church in a prominent location at a major intersection. Last October, it averaged about 500 worshippers every weekend. McCormack said.

The archdiocese traditionally counts worshippers during October, after summer vacationers have returned and before the major holidays.

Our Lady of Lourdes had the smallest October count in the archdiocese last year, with an average of 87 worshippers.

Overall, the 10 parishes included in the plan had a total of 2,500 worshippers last October, which should be enough to sustain four full-service parishes, said Jean Welter, the archdiocese’s director of research and planning. Welter helped facilitate the West Side planning process, and hopes to use similar processes for planning in other areas of the archdiocese.

“Our goal has always been a vital, vibrant Catholic community on the West Side, and I think this will allow us to accomplish that,” she said. “Parishes will be coming together as larger worship communities that will be able offer more of the programs and services that we associate with a vibrant faith community.”

McCormack said that by offering more, Catholic parishes could offer a more attractive option for neighborhood residents looking for a faith home.

“It’s an exciting thing,” he said. “This should have happened 40 or 50 years ago. If it had happened then, I think there would be more black Catholics on the West Side. … We really have been speaking from weakness. Now we can speak from strength. People will see the Catholic Church as a viable option.”

That’s what Walsh is hoping for.

“It’s not just a question of money,” he said, noting that his parish is not in debt and does not receive archdiocesan grants. But its pastoral staff consists of him and a part-time minister of care. “It’s a question of what’s most effective.”

Now Walsh wants to make sure everyone knows about the planning process and that there is still a long way to go as the clusters find ways to keep ministries open.

For example, the food pantry at Presentation is self-sufficient, an ex-offender program has federal and state funding and Our Lady of the Westside School, a multi-parish institution, will remain open. The parish already houses a Department of Children and Family Services transitional home for youngsters leaving group homes, and there us a state-funded after-school program.

“That’s the point we’re at now,” Walsh said. “Putting the plans together for what will remain in the future. … If this place was shut down and the buildings boarded up, this community would be in chaos. This church has been a source of stability in the neighborhood.”

For the archdiocese, Welter said, the goal is to keep those good things going, only on a stronger footing.

“We hope to be bigger and better and stronger in terms of the ongoing good work that we do,” Welter said.



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