Second life for closed churches

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OLD MILL CREEK, Ill. - The shell of the new St. Raphael the Archangel Church is up in Old Mill Creek, but this is not just any new parish building under construction.

It includes the facade of the now-demolished St. John of God Church from Chicago's South Side and will include the interior of another closed church, St. Peter Canisius, in another part of the city.

St. Raphael, the newest parish in the Chicago Archdiocese, undertook an effort to give new life to the closed churches by recycling their materials in a new structure. It also enabled the parish to build a classical structure at a fraction of the present-day cost.

"Nothing like this has been built in the Archdiocese of Chicago for a hundred years," Father John Jamnicky, St. Raphael's pastor, told the Catholic New World, Chicago's archdiocesan newspaper, during an open house at the new building Jan. 27.

He was referring to the quality of workmanship in the facade from St. John of God; it includes a front balcony, bell towers, three bells and 20 wood doors, each of which stand 11 feet tall. Of the doors, Father Jamnicky said, "They would cost you $15,000 a piece for each door if you were to buy them."

The pastor said he hopes what is being done at St. Raphael's could be a model for other parishes around the country.

"Throughout the country, people have been contacting us because they are in the same situation," he said. Many dioceses have church buildings in inner cities that are going unused that could be given new life if parts are used in other areas of the dioceses where the population has shifted.

"If we can make this work, it can be a prototype for other dioceses and archdioceses across the country," he said.

Last October in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput dedicated a new church in Montgomery County, Pa., Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, which contains artistic and architectural elements from five closed Catholic churches and a Catholic hospital. Recycled items in the new church include a towering 37-foot-high main altar piece in the sanctuary and stained-glass windows.

At St. Raphael in Old Mill Creek, roughly 40 miles northwest of Chicago, construction continued on the steeples and bells, the exterior colonnades and organ. The church will hold 900 people and should be operational in a year.

The idea to use the facade of St. John of God actually came from an offhand comment made by Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George when he came to officially open St. Raphael Parish in Antioch in 2007, Father Jamnicky said.

After working for months to create a viable worship site in an old machine shed, the pastor remarked that it was time to start thinking about a permanent church. Cardinal George said that he should give them St. John of God, Father Jamnicky recalled. The pastor was aware of the church and had a similar idea.

In the machine shed worship site, the parish already was using pews, statues, confessionals, an altar and other things pulled from closed parish buildings, so parish leaders were open to the idea of giving new life to items from closed churches.

It cost $2 million to remove the facade of St. John of God and rebuild it in Old Mill Creek. The entire project will cost $15 million and the parish is still raising funds for construction. Father Jamnicky believes a project like this would cost around $150 million if it were being built from scratch. A parish couldn't afford to build a church of this quality today, he said.

Architect Simon Batistich said "it was fun" to work on this project even though many people said "it can't be done."

"It's not rebuilding a church, it's taking pieces of two churches and making a new church," Batistich said.

The interior fittings, including marble furnishings, pews and stained-glass windows, will come from St. Peter Canisius Church on Chicago's North Avenue; it closed in 2007. The interior of St. John of God was not usable - the stained-glass windows were missing, much of the interior was demolished and the altar was plaster and couldn't be moved.

The stained-glass from St. Peter Canisius is "museum quality" and "worth over $2 million," Father Jamnicky said.

The church is being built with modern innovations and meeting current building codes while preserving the unique work and architecture of the older churches. The bell towers were even reconstructed to withstand an earthquake.

"This is the only church in the Archdiocese of Chicago built under seismic specifications," Father Jamnicky said. "This church is going to stand for the next hundred, 200 years."

Keeping with the theme of giving new life to existing beauty, the Austin organ that will be installed in the parish loft came from the Medinah Temple. Three bells for the second tower were acquired from a Bellwood Catholic church and the stations of the cross came from yet another Chicago church.

Parishioner Bob Eberhardt sold part of his farm land to the archdiocese to build St. Raphael and called the church "awesome."

"It's like God calling us," he said of the building. "We're all excited."

Duriga is editor of the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013