Tom Gull knows the Catholic Church in Chicago has a business problem.
A lifelong Catholic, Gull sings in the choir at Oak Park’s Ascension every Sunday. He served as the parish’s business manager for nine years, during which he wrote a small booklet offering advice to other parishes on how to navigate the changing financial landscape as church attendance drops.
“I just started to think of — what are the different business — I hate to say business practices, but business,” Gull paused. “There’s no better word. You know, business practices, how do you apply those to church?”
Such credentials made Gull a perfect candidate to participate in his parish’s “Renew My Church” effort.
Announced by the Archdiocese of Chicago five years ago, “Renew My Church” evaluated the church’s assets and how to streamline the organization as attendance dropped and financial pressures increased. No options were left off the table: Some parishes closed, some merged and others were turned into mission sites that are no longer used for mass.
The archdiocese created 100 such groups across the area to decide the future of their parishes. A pastor would invite five or six parishioners, such as Gull, to join the team, and the archdiocese sent representatives to follow up with the respective working groups.
The results of the 100 working groups are due by the end of the month. So far the archdiocese has decreased the number of parishes from 350 to 247, but the process has drawn mixed emotions for Catholics in the area. Some felt a sense of hope at the potential for their parish’s renewal; others felt lost after their usual house of worship was closed.
This was especially true for communities of color on Chicago’s South Side. According to data from the 2020 census, seven neighborhoods on the South Side experienced a double-digit percentage decline in their population. These large-scale population changes made it difficult for the Catholic Church to continue operating parishes in those areas.
Father Jason Malave, a liaison for Cardinal Blase Cupich who works directly on “Renew My Church,” acknowledged that the Catholic Church in the area has a resource issue.
“I think the structural renewal was pretty clear in that the numbers of priests … it was not increasing. The number of faithful at mass was not increasing. People’s generosity to their parishes was not increasing,” Malave said. “The only thing that was increasing was the amount of money that it costs to maintain the buildings in all the campuses we found ourselves serving people on.”
While parish working groups made suggestions, the archdiocese had the final say. Gull said he’s happy with the results of his working group — his parish will be joined with nearby St. Edmund’s to form Ascension and St. Edmund Parish, operating with a combined budget.
But east of him, Catholics like Rosie Dominguez in Pilsen are devastated.
“I feel like because of them closing my parish, it has affected my faith,” Dominguez said, wiping away a tear. “I do feel lost.”
Dominguez was a lifelong parishioner at St. Adalbert before it closed in 2019. An archdiocesan document states Sunday mass attendance at the church dropped 72% between the years 2000 and 2015.
Additionally, the church building itself is in “a very perilous state of repair,” according to the document. Dominguez said parishioners had wanted to fundraise and offer their skills to fix the building’s edifice, but the archdiocese says neither it nor the parish can afford the needed $3 million in repairs.
The closure has been a major trial for Dominguez as she hops from parish to parish for Sunday services.
“Occasionally I’ll go to St. Agnes over on 26th and Central Park because that’s the closest,” Dominguez said. “But I’ve tried St. Pius, I’ve been to St. Procopius, I’ve been to St. John Cantius, and it just doesn’t feel right.”
Despite not feeling “at home” at any of these parishes, Dominguez continues to go to mass.
“I’ll have conversations with my father and he’s like, ‘Rosie, you know the church is just the body of the people.’ And I’m like, ‘I understand that, but — like yes, I know I can worship elsewhere,” she said. “But it’s just not the same.”
In some parishes, there is no single narrative that both attendees and the archdiocese agree upon. Take St. Thomas More in Wrightwood-Ashburn — the parish will become a canonical mission — a designation that means the church will not offer the full range of ministry services.
While the archdiocese said the parish failed to reach out to the largely African American surrounding area, parishioner Kelly Smith said worshippers made efforts in that regard. And now she’s questioning where the money the parish has raised to stay open will go.
“It just seeds a deep distrust as everybody is wondering, all this money that was raised, all these goals, where is all this money going?” Smith said. “All these properties in good condition, what is going to happen to them? There are just so many unanswered questions, and there’s absolutely no transparency.”
Malave said that the archdiocese has been transparent, and that if some people feel out of the loop, it could be because their respective parishes did not communicate well with their congregations.
“There are parishes that did extraordinarily well, and there are parishes that may not have gotten the word out well enough,” Malave said. “Perhaps it was during COVID, or perhaps people weren’t aware at the time of the significance or reality of the changes that were pending or possible.”
While some of the closures and mergers may be emotionally difficult for some people, Malave said it is time to move forward.
The second component of Renew My Church focuses on spiritually revitalizing parishes, which he said will help avoid the problem that forced the Catholic Church to close some of its doors in the first place: empty pews.
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @adorakn.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said that St. Thomas More no longer offers masses. The parish may offer mass, but no longer offers the full range of ministry services.