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Brass Rubbings

Stand Guard

On Saint Boniface in Chicago.


On the near-west side of Chicago, just next to Interstate 90, sits Noble Square, a small, four-sided neighborhood truncated by the highway passing through its eastern flank. Noble Square contains two Catholic parishes: Holy Trinity and Saint Boniface. This is the heart of Polonia, Polish Chicago’s historical center of gravity, a neighborhood defined as much as anything by its feuds. Holy Trinity, for instance, was founded in a split from the nearby Saint Stanislaus Kostka in 1872, and was later placed under interdict. (The parish was only restored to communion with the Church after a visit from an apostolic delegate in 1893.) And just down the street is—or, rather, was—Saint Boniface, a German parish closed more than thirty years ago.

The trouble, if that is what it was, began with the building itself. Saint Boniface was established in 1865 by German immigrants, but the final church structure—and the heart of Noble Square—was built between 1902 and 1904. The church was designed by Henry J. Schlacks, a well-known Chicago-born ecclesiastical architect of the early twentieth century. It sits on a corner lot and takes a Romanesque, Latin cross form with four bell towers, three rose windows, and a grand arched main entrance. The exterior is composed almost completely of brown brick with few flourishes. Inside, the church contains fifty-foot ceilings with a central transept that terminates in a nave with a wonderful marble backstop behind the altar. Murals and stained glass windows surround the interior perimeter. It is a stately building that makes its presence known through its sheer mass. And because Saint Boniface sits on the corner of Noble and Chestnut streets, it also looks serenely over Eckhart Park, which one of the parish’s early pastors helped to establish.

As a work of sacred architecture, Saint Boniface is not even the best building on its street. That prize falls to Holy Trinity, which is just fifteen hundred feet north. But for its former parishioners and those who have become attached to it, Saint Boniface is a local treasure. The fact that it was designed during the Romanesque revival sets it apart from Holy Trinity and other nearby churches constructed in the Polish Cathedral style. Romanesque revival has its roots in Germany, and the architecture was in part introduced to the United States by German immigrants as they settled here in the mid-nineteenth century, precisely when Saint Boniface was established. Although “simple” in a superficial sense, Romanesque revival is a well-developed architectural style in its own right. Bulky masonry, wide arches, and piercing towers all contribute to a Romanesque revival building’s sense of place and permanence. These attributes naturally work well with geographically significant structures such as churches.

The “new” Saint Boniface was dedicated in 1904, replacing a smaller building near the same site. The parish flourished for eighty years. But in the mid-Eighties, as with so many other churches in Chicago, Saint Boniface faced stagnation and contraction. The school, opened in 1896, closed in 1983, and only seven years later the Archdiocese of Chicago shuttered the parish. (The last Mass was only two days away from what would have been the parish’s eighty-sixth anniversary in the new building.) But Saint Boniface never really went away. The parish closed thirty years ago, and was in decline much longer than that. Why, then, has the neighborhood stayed so loyal to its skeleton on the corner of Chestnut and Noble? It’s a simple structure in direct competition with other nearby parishes; it’s derelict; it’s not even really a Catholic church anymore. Still, for three decades neighborhood groups and the city have invested in preserving it, even after the Archdiocese washed its hands.

The answer is bound up in the same story of decay that all of Chicago underwent in the last century. After the installation of the highways in the 1950s and 1960s (during the era of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the hard-nosed Irish Catholic from the city’s South Side), the Noble Square neighborhood became somewhat of an enclave. The highways meant it was suddenly isolated from a significant part of the parishioner base. In a city defined as strongly by its neighborhoods as Chicago is, this was unfortunate. The closing of Saint Boniface only made matters worse. It created a scattering throughout the neighborhood: not only was the parish a literal bedrock because of its physical properties, it had also served as the foundation of the Noble Square community for more than a century. The parish’s size and relative longevity allowed multiple generations of families to experience the faith in one place. It allowed them to plant roots, and when the parish closed they held on closely to the physical remains of their spiritual home.

Demographic changes, though not as drastic as elsewhere in the city, further eroded the support Saint Boniface needed in order to survive. The parishioners who stayed put were, by extension, the most loyal and involved. By the time the parish closed for good, there were enough diehards left to fight for the building’s survival. That fight was not easy. Saint Boniface’s afterlife has arguably been more eventful than its life as an active church. Almost immediately after its closure, neighborhood groups, preservationists, developers, the city of Chicago, and other denominations fought to restore and repurpose the church building. First, neighbors and other interest groups fought with the Archdiocese. In 1999, ten years after the parish closed, the Archdiocese sought the first of two demolition permits for the property, simultaneously claiming it did not have the funds required for upkeep and that the property also could not be sold. Negotiations between the city, developers, and even a Coptic Church congregation continually hit dead ends, and in 2009 the Archdiocese submitted another demolition permit.

Despite the constant threat of demolition, in 2010 the Saint Boniface property was acquired by the city in a land swap with the Archdiocese and was immediately leased out to a developer with the intention of converting the old church building to a senior living complex. That plan was abandoned a year later due to engineering issues, and more attempts by the developer to restart the project were met with significant financial problems. By 2013, another developer with another senior living plan took over the property, but as before, market conditions were unfavorable. In 2016, another demolition permit was issued but rescinded when a development partnership acquired the property with a plan to build condominiums within the church structure. By late 2017, the development partnership had dissolved, but the church remained in the hands of the developer, who has retained ownership to the present.

Between 2017 and now, the development plan has stalled—again. Saint Boniface is still abandoned and derelict. The most recent attempt is marketed as “Urban Sanctuary. Divine Living.” and is pre-selling condo units, mockups of which can be found on Zillow. According to the frequently updated Saint Boniface community website, the new target completion date is sometime this year. In the meantime, as it has for one hundred and twenty years, Saint Boniface continues to stand guard over its corner.

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Dominic Lynch is a writer in Chicago. He publishes the New Chicagoan.