Landmarked rectory at St. Sylvester in demolition dispute

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, October 7, 2012

The rectory at St. Sylvester Parish, 2157 North Humboldt Boulevard. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

The old rectory at St. Sylvester Parish isn’t much to look at.

The building, at 2157 N. Humboldt Blvd., seems a bit worn out, with an unmatching porch on the front and mortar coming out from between bricks. But it is connected by a brick archway to the historic church, and over the years it has functioned almost as an extension of the main structure. It has housed seminarians and priests, who prepared for Masses there, and has been the site of prayer meetings, the preparation of candidates for the sacraments and countless confessions.

It was even the site of the wedding of the baptismal sponsors of the current administrator, Father Paul Stein — who notes that they can’t be called “godparents” for the same reason they couldn’t be married in the church proper: while his godmother is Catholic, her husband (a “Christian witness to baptism”) is Lutheran.

So it boggles Stein’s mind that the city of Chicago has included the old rectory in the Logan Square Boulevard Landmark District, under an ordinance that specifically exempts “houses of worship.” Since the rectory is not considered a house of worship, the parish can’t get permission to demolish the rectory, which would free up money for other needs.

In doing so, Stein said, the city is impeding St. Sylvester in the “free exercise” of its religion in violation of the First Amendment. Stein said he and architects he’s consulted also wonder how this building could have landmark architectural qualities, especially after a number of changes to its exterior that predate the creation of the landmark district.

The landmark district was created in 2005, and the former St. Sylvester pastor and archdiocesan attorneys objected to the inclusion of the rectory and other parish buildings at that time.

The parish wants to demolish the building because it has outlived its usefulness and has become uninhabitable, said Stein, who served as St. Sylvester pastor from 2007 until this summer, when he became rector-president of St. Joseph College Seminary. He is still serving St. Sylvester’s as administrator.

The money that it would cost to repair the building — Stein estimated it at $1.6 million — could better go to the social welfare and pastoral programs that the parish provides, and to maintaining and improving the church itself, he said.

Over the past year, the parish raised $770,000 in pledges to put toward fixing the church, and already contractors are replacing the front steps and creating a handicapped-accessible entrance. But many donors flat out told him that they didn’t want to pay to fix the old rectory, which they see as a lost cause.

A master plan the parish completed while Stein was pastor calls for the rectory eventually to be replaced by a new building, one that would serve as a link between the church and the parish hall. In the meantime, the parish would create a prayer garden in the space.

In 2009, parish offices, the food pantry and other services moved to the former parish convent, where there is more room. Stein moved out of the rectory in 2011, after a waste pipe broke and flooded the inside of a wall, leading to a bloom of mold. That wasn’t the only thing wrong, he said. The wiring was bad, making the electricity erratic, and the roof leaked.

Greg Veith, manager of the archdiocesan Office of Facilities and Construction, said there are so many problems with the rectory, it’s not worth saving it.

‘”It’s uninhabitable,” he said, “It’s plumbing, electricity, leaking, the masonry, the roof, mold.”

He thinks Stein’s estimate of $1.6 million to fix it is a little too low. Veith passed away on Sept. 27, before this article went to press.

But despite Stein’s entreaties — including gathering 1,000 signatures supporting demolition in one week, and an August march of more than 200 people to the office of 35th Ward Ald. Rey Colon, neither Colon nor the Chicago Landmarks Commission have budged. Colon has the support of Logan Square Preservation, which held a small counter-protest when parishioners marched to the alderman’s office.

“Encouraging people to lobby me for [the rectory’s] destruction continues to be a waste of precious time for everyone involved,” Colon wrote in a May 16 email to Stein. In the same email, he said there were people willing to buy the rectory. The parish is not interested in selling the property as it has long term parish plans for the site.

Colon doesn’t have the authority to allow the demolition on his own. The Landmarks Commission has said that it would block demolition. The parish hoped to enlist Colon’s support in persuading the commission to allow demolition.

Colon soon won’t have any authority over the site. In the ward remap that takes effect in November, the rectory will become part of Ald. Joe Moreno’s 1st Ward. Stein said he’d like the issue to be resolved by then, but if it’s not, he’ll continue to press his case with Moreno.