First a church, then an arts center, now a secretive mission.
First a church, then an arts center, now a secretive mission. Credit: Andrea Bauer

When the fourth annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival wraps up April 15, so will the Wicker Park Art Center, anchor venue for the fest and a low-rent option for some of the city’s edgiest art groups. The Near Northwest Arts Council, which established the center in Saint Paul’s Community Church at 2215 W. North in 2008 and originally planned to buy the building, is being booted: they have until April 18 to clear out. The handsome old church with its towering spire, crafted by Norwegian immigrants 120 years ago, has been sold to the Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission.

Founded 20 years ago as a Catholic Bible-study group, LHTBM is headed by Agnes Kyo McDonald and suspended Chicago priest Len Kruzel. It offers religious literature in English and Polish and has spread into parts of Iowa and Wisconsin. But over the last seven years, as claims have surfaced that it operates in cultlike secrecy and cuts members off from their families, it has fallen from favor with the archdiocese of Chicago and been banned from meeting in its facilities.

Ostensibly based in Chicago, LHTBM hasn’t had much of a visible presence here since 2006, when it took down prominent signs at its headquarters at 7011-7017 W. Diversey after being fined for zoning violations. Calls to the group’s Chicago phone number have not been returned.

All of which has generated some buzz. Channel Five has done a series of stories (starting in 2005, when LHTBM recruited an Iowa teenager over the objections of some of her family members, and most recently last week), and First Ward alderman Joe Moreno says he was warned by former 36th Ward alderman William Banks (whose ward included the Diversey buildings) to be very careful dealing with the group. LHTBM has attempted to establish living quarters on property it’s acquired elsewhere, including a thwarted plan to purchase a hospital in Belvidere, and it’s assumed that’ll be part of their plan for Saint Paul’s. But Moreno wants the building to maintain a community-arts component, and says that without it, he won’t look favorably on the permits required to turn any part of it into residential space, or even to allow gatherings of more than 20 people.

“I’m disappointed in the board of the former church,” Moreno says. “When they came to talk to me, I asked them, because of their not-for-profit status, to commit to [a purchaser with] an arts element integrated into the space.” As it stands, “I don’t know what they’re going to be able to operate in there.”

NNWAC has had its own issues, however. Saint Paul’s Community Church treasurer Petrina Lee Patti says NNWAC stopped paying rent and utilities in February 2011. According to Patti, Missio Dei, a church group that had been subleasing space from NNWAC for services, chose to put their rent into escrow rather than pay it to NNWAC executive director Laura Weathered. Patti says that last October Missio Dei paid $16,700 directly from that account to Saint Paul’s; the payment was credited to NNWAC, which at the time owed the church $17,000.

Because the congregation at Saint Paul’s had dwindled over the years, it couldn’t maintain the building, which needs a new roof, among other repairs. The board thought it had found a buyer when it entered into an agreement with NNWAC to rent for two years and then to purchase, for about $500,000. But when the 2010 purchase deadline came, NNWAC, which says it spent $120,000 on a feasibility study, didn’t have the money.

“They wanted us to finance the sale, and we’re not in a position to have done that,” Patti says. When Weathered (who notes that real estate values had dropped by then) suggested that the church sell NNWAC the building for a dollar, Patti says she knew she had to put it on the open market. After a year and several price reductions, it was purchased on behalf of LHTBM last December for $300,000. Patti says proceeds from the sale will be donated to charity, and then Saint Paul’s will officially fold.

And she doesn’t have any qualms about the new occupants. “The mission group is fine,” Patti says. “Are they accused of any crime? Unless they’re breaking the law, I will stand up for their rights. This is a lot of innuendo, people kicking up dust so you don’t see their own dirt.”