Closing and Reopening Sanctuaries

Martin E. Marty

February 22, 2016

“Trending Now…” is a familiar category in pop culture. It usually refers to fashions of this season replacing those of last season, or changes in products for musical or film audiences new since last year’s awards season.

In the religious world some “trending now” is that-kind-of trendy, but, in general, historians of religion deal with changes through centuries more than through mere seasons. Therefore, some writers for Sightings pay attention but are not captive to trends reflected in, say, political-religion polls. Those longer looks notice changes that appear to be gradual but have long-term significance.

Recently in Sightings (Jan. 25) we noticed the natural (demographic, etc.) factors in the shuttering and abandonment of numberless rural churches, whose members have moved away from their locales, or died. This week we look at urban counterparts, which also may be subject to constant change, abandonment, or destruction.

Sightings today observes the home territory of its host headquarters, which means metropolitan Chicago. Fear not, this column is not going to turn provincial and ecologically self-centered. One could notice and write about similar long-term trends in, say, Boston or New York or Detroit or Philadelphia, which are often subject to scrutiny in “Trending Now…” columns.

Two front-page or section-front articles in the Chicago Tribune this February (Feb 7 and 8) inspired these comments.

Manya Brachear Pashman led off with the attention-worthy “Massive overhaul slated for Chicago Archdiocese,” announcing that priest shortages and aging buildings could mean scores of churches close. 

Patrick T. Reardon followed this with a full-page “The future of the Chicago Archdiocese,” featuring a half-page picture of Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, who has the unwelcome task of closing churches which are underused, underfunded and victims of the priest-shortage “trend.”

Pictured also is the crumbling church of St. Adalbert, a grand relic of Polish communal solidarity, which survived in a Latino neighborhood. The church is cherished by the few remaining communicants and nostalgic Catholics who have moved far away and hence lost their ties or any occasions to return except for “Save St. Adalbert”-type rallies. Not a chance.

This trend is by no means only Roman Catholic. A personal sample: during my post-ordination but still graduate-student days in the Chicago of the 1950s and 1960s I moonlighted in a dozen Lutheran parishes, and saw them struggle with sudden change as most white parishioners headed for the suburbs (where later as a suburban pastor for seven years I was on hand to help serve them and help them serve). Far from seeing all “white flight” inspired by anti-black racism, obvious though some was, I came to see up close other aspects of the change. Our members and judicatory leaders did what they could to fight red-lining and other practices by realtors, both Euro- and African-American, with politicians thrown in for bad measure.

Vivid to me still are examples of bonding that occurred between senior “white women” who could not afford to move or who loved their waning congregation and its place, on the one hand, and new energetic African-American members and pastors who did what they could to keep serving, but now with diminished resources.

Most of these stories do not end with demolitions of the sort that may await St. Adalbert and its cousins. In many cases, truly vital largely African- or Hispanic-American congregations took over and did and do their best to serve the people and their God in the “Trending Now…” dynamics of this or any other typical metropolis.

We do well to focus our sights on them, whether in Charleston, South Carolina, or North Philadelphia or South Chicago or North Milwaukee, or wherever worshipers take and deserve a longer look.


Marty, Martin E. “The Ups and Downs of Religion.” Sightings, January 25, 2016.

Brachear Pashman, Manya. “Massive overhaul slated for Chicago Archdiocese.” Chicago Tribune, February 7, 2016, News.

Reardon, Patrick T. “The future of the Chicago Archdiocese.” Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2016, Commentary.

Chicago Archdiocese To Close As Many As 100 Churches by 2030.” abc7 Eyewitness News, February 5, 2016, Chicago.

Duriga, Joyce. “Archdiocese announces consolidation of Pilsen parishes.” Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago, February 14, 2016, News.

Schlossberg, Tatiana. “Catholic Church Closings in New York Bring Sadness and Anger.” New York Times, July 31, 2015, N.Y./Region. Staff. “Archdiocese Releases Full List of Church Closures.”, June 1, 2014, Local News.
Image: St. Adalbert Church in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. Credit: Glenn Nagel / creative commons.

0.jpegAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


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Steve Wojcik (AM '86):

I am writing to set the record straight with respect to St. Adalbert church.  In Dr. Marty's article, he writes that "[t]he church is cherished by the few remaining [Polish] communicants and nostalgic Catholics who have moved far away and hence lost their ties or any occasions to return except for 'Save St. Adalbert'-type rallies."  His article implies that the parish is not supported by the Hispanic community surrounding it; rather it is supported only by members of the original Polish community who no longer live in the neighborhood.  The facts on the ground are very different and the situation is a lot more complicated than simple demographics.
Though there are some Polish-Americans involved, many of the people working to save the parish are largely Mexican-American.  A rally outside the church last Sunday consisted of about 15 people, only two of whom were not Hispanic. Univision was one of the TV networks filming the rally. Inside the church, apart from one Polish-American parishioner who lives across the street from the parish (and never moved away), the rest of the people staffing the petition table to save the church were Hispanic.  About two-thirds of the signers were Hispanic. Moreover, the gift shop was staffed by Hispanic parishioners.  Most importantly, the parish has a large Spanish-speaking population, comprising about 60-70% of the parish, according to survey data from the Archdiocese, and Mass is said in Spanish as well as English every Sunday.  Along with those of Polish descent, many people attending the English Mass are also Hispanic.  Each Good Friday, the parish is the site of a large and popular reenactment of the way of the cross and the passion of Christ, organized by the Mexican-American community and usually attended by the Archbishop.  Moreover, the parish is a founding member of the Resurrection Project, which supports social services for the community, and it also sponsors various volunteer activities to assist people in the community.
The parish is very much an integral part of the Mexican-American Pilsen community.  While Dr. Marty may ultimately be right about St. Adalbert's potential closing, the church will not go down without a fight, and it is the Mexican-American community that will be leading the charge, working with the remaining Polish-American parishioners.

See all articles by Martin E. Marty