Saint Mary of Celle Catholic Parish and School is on the north side of Berwyn, surrounded by streets of working-class bungalows and two-flats originally occupied by Czech immigrants. For nearly a century the church, which takes its name from an Austrian shrine, has been a community anchor. So has SMC’s school, though today it functions under some duress. It serves around 200 white and Hispanic kids from preschool through eighth grade, and it’s usually starving for funds.

Late last year T-Mobile presented the parish with a proposal to lease the school chimney for cell transmission antennas, providing revenue that would help plug a budget deficit. “Nobody anticipated any difficulty,” says Father Richard Prendergast, then the pastor. But T-Mobile had to apply to the city of Berwyn for a zoning variance, causing word to spread among residents near the school that cell antennas were coming.

“We were alarmed,” says Aimee Sordelli, who lives within eyeshot of the school’s chimney. “See, those radio waves from antennas would be beaming right into our bedroom!”

The battle over the antennas pitted T-Mobile and Saint Mary of Celle against neighbors–led by Sordelli and her husband, Neal–who believed the electromagnetic radio waves could compromise their health. The set-to highlighted all the quirks of Berwyn politics, but it was typical of fights now cropping up around cash-strapped schools, churches, and condominium buildings everywhere, as wireless providers become more aggressive in snagging customers and a scattering of wary residents voice their distrust of the cell technology that surrounds them.

The Sordellis, a middle-aged couple without children, moved into their bungalow eight years ago and set about restoring it. They put on a new roof, replaced the furnace, and scrapped the pink plastic tile in the kitchen in favor of wallpaper showing pink, lavender, and green daisies. The worn hearth was stripped and reglazed. The Sordellis returned the mantel to its original oak finish. “We love our house,” says Aimee.

She and Neal also cherish their neighborhood, which has grown more heavily Latino over the last decade. “At the time we moved in no one on our block knew each other,” she says. “And so we organized a block party. We all came together, even the Spanish people who were moving in but were timid. But we got to know them, and they’d say, ‘Hi. How are you? We’ve just had a new baby. Come and see.’ We began to look out for each other.”

The Sordellis became involved in neighborhood politics when they opposed a Saturday-evening homeless shelter that Prendergast established at SMC. The venture, they said, was inappropriate for a residential area.

Prendergast, a tall, gregarious man who recently turned 50, arrived at SMC in 1992, after other assignments in the western suburbs. He had championed the shelter, part of a project launched by a number of area churches, and the Berwyn zoning board of appeals had approved it. But once it opened, in October 1998, the opposition intensified. “There were signs on the lawns against the shelter, get-out-of-here signs, like in Ghostbusters, and people taunted the homeless when they showed up,” says Prendergast. “It was like something you would see hillbillies doing in the movies.”

The homeless had to be bused in for a time, and the residents next pushed for a residential-parking zone on streets around the church (which Prendergast believes was an act of retaliation), but the shelter is still operating. The priest says he experienced more hostility when he instituted a Spanish mass on Sunday to accommodate the increased Latino presence in the parish.

That was about the time T-Mobile came into the picture.

The wireless industry, with $88 billion in annual revenue, counts 166 million subscribers in the U.S.–a tenfold increase over a decade ago. Enabling them to receive and transmit calls clearly and reliably requires thousands of antenna sites, costing between $500,000 and $1 million apiece. “Wireless calls without a network of antennas would be like a Volkswagen Beetle, which needs a road, traveling around without one,” says Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. “The antennas are critical to us.”

That’s been especially true recently, as demand for what’s called in-building coverage has grown. Customers now want to use their phones not just in the car and on the street but also in their living rooms and johns, and cell providers are driven to improve access, which means more antennas.

T-Mobile USA–a subsidiary of German-owned Deutsche Telekom and the nation’s fifth-largest carrier with 13 million customers–uses a low-power transmission system that requires more antennas than many of its competitors, says Laura Altschul, T-Mobile’s director of national siting policy.

T-Mobile employs zoning and real-estate specialists to target potential sites for these antennas. Locally the company has friendly relations with both the Chicago Public Schools and the Catholic Archdiocese as well as with many municipalities. “We’re on school smokestacks, church steeples, and city water tanks,” says Ray Shinkle, a T-Mobile site agent. “You name it, we’re on it.”

But the company occasionally encounters opposition. In 2002 T-Mobile angled to put antennas on the smokestack at Newton Bateman Elementary in Irving Park. The retiring principal, Barbara Peck, wanted the antennas for the dollars they’d bring, but some teachers and parents were concerned about adverse health effects. A couple of teachers leaned on the local school council to reject the project. “We had to go to the Board of Education downtown for the right to change the principal’s decision,” says Gabriel Gutierrez, then the LSC chairman, though a board representative says the LSCs always have final say on antennas. In January 2003 the LSC said no, handing T-Mobile a rare defeat–the first and only time its antennas have been rejected by the Chicago Public Schools, which has OKed about 50 other sites. About 20 of those are owned by T-Mobile. “T-Mobile was not happy,” says Gutierrez.

Last year, when T-Mobile site agent Scott Casanova went shopping to fill a coverage gap in north Berwyn, he first approached the public schools. Patrick Murphy, then the superintendent of North Berwyn School District 98, says he considered taking between $12,000 and $15,000 to put a cluster of antennas on the clock tower of Prairie Oak Elementary, but administrators didn’t like that T-Mobile needed 24-hour access or that some equipment would be installed on the ground. Murphy turned Casanova down.

Casanova next contacted Father Prendergast. The priest bumped the agent to Jim Disch, director of the radio and television office of the archdiocese, who fields cell-antenna requests. “We’re not trying to talk any parish or school into pursuing a deal, but if there’s interest we’ll process it,” Disch says. As to any health peril posed by the antennas, either to schoolchildren or to nearby residents, Disch says, “That situation is controlled by the federal government, and that gives us confidence. We also have assurances from the company involved.”

According to Prendergast, T-Mobile offered SMC $22,500 annually, on a lease potentially running to 30 years, with annual increases of 3 percent. Normally SMC parents must fund-raise feverishly just to keep the school afloat. Families help run a monthly raffle and a market day, sell T-shirts, wrapping paper, and gift certificates for food and department stores, organize a fall walkathon and a Mardi Gras silent auction, collect Campbell’s Soup labels, and more. All that to raise $100,000, about a sixth of the annual budget.

In December T-Mobile applied for a zoning variance that would allow the company to erect nine skinny, six-foot metal-and-plastic antennas around a single SMC chimney, plus a large, ground-level box containing radios and other electrical equipment. By March the school had slipped T-Mobile’s rent into the budget for the coming year. “This T-Mobile Antenna proposal is good for Berwyn, and for SMC School,” principal Ruth Ann Derbas wrote in a letter home to parents.

The Sordellis weren’t so sure. Aimee, an out-of-work Medicare specialist, started to surf the Internet, hunting for information on whether the radiation coming from the antennas could be harmful. She found plenty suggesting it could, and she and Neal grew increasingly livid.

“They don’t pay any taxes,” Aimee says, “so what do they do? They get set to take money from a corporation and threaten to close if they can’t. They need to budget their finances better.” Neal was worried that the value of his house, estimated at double its purchase price, would plummet, and that there’d be no one to pay for any disease the antennas might cause. “When they may discover that there are health ramifications, like they did with DDT, where’s the liability?” he says. “Who would we go to if we got sick? Not to Saint Mary of Celle. Not to the city of Berwyn.

“What this came down to was T-Mobile would profit, the school would profit, but those radio waves would be coming into our bedroom,” says Neal. “We’d have to live with this for years. Besides, antennas are ugly. They’re visual pollution. Who’s going to choose to live around them? People would leave the neighborhood. The idea of the school closing disturbs me–I like to have children running around–but this was too much.”

Aimee hooked up with local representatives of the EMR Network, a national group that opposes the installation of cell antennas in residential areas and on schools. (EMR stands for electromagnetic radiation.) The group argues that chronic exposure to even low-intensity waves from cell antennas–characterized by a frequency below that of microwave ovens but above that of UHF TV–may cause illness or impaired physical and mental function.

Aimee organized her neighbors, eventually amassing 150 signatures on a petition. Tensions rose between her and Prendergast, and the two had a particularly unpleasant phone conversation on March 16, the day the zoning board was set to consider the antennas. “Why does the school need that money?” Aimee asked. “Is it going to close for a mere $20,000?” Each says the other started to shout. “You’re not very nice, are you?” the priest said to her.

Some days later at a community meeting, Aimee heard someone call Prendergast an “asshole,” and she agreed. “Let’s be blunt,” she said. “He is an asshole.”

At the zoning appeals hearing, Aimee presented claims of adverse health effects. T-Mobile representatives argued that the antennas would give off emissions at a level far below the FCC guidelines.

But the zoning board voted narrowly to forward the variance application to the city without a recommendation, a victory for the Sordellis.

The FCC, leaning on recommendations from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, has set an exposure limit of 1,000 microwatts per square centimeter for antennas broadcasting at a frequency of 1,500 megahertz or more, associated with the PCS band, which is used by most cell phones. The limit is around 600 microwatts for waves sent at a lower frequency, roughly 900 megahertz, traditionally linked to analog phones. Under those limits, according to the FCC, radio waves from antennas do not cause any discernible nonthermal health problems in humans–that is, damage on a cellular level as opposed to burns a person might get from close proximity to a source of high-level radiation.

But some scientists have reported harmful effects at levels far below the FCC limits. Henry Lai, a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington, has compiled three dozen short-term studies of animals and humans in a bibliography that’s frequently cited by antenna critics. The papers report that electromagnetic-wave exposure at very low levels appears to damage DNA, harm the reproductive and immune systems, kill brain cells, and weaken the blood-brain barrier, which prevents bacteria and other germs from passing through capillary walls to enter brain tissue.

“We’re talking about studies that show disruptions and perhaps lasting damage,” says Bill Curry, a retired physicist who worked at Argonne National Laboratory and lives in Glen Ellyn. Curry is among the EMR Network’s founding fathers, and he lends a hand by taking radiation measurements, reporting on the latest scientific findings, and testifying against antennas whenever he can. “No one can say for sure that people aren’t going to end up in ill health–we won’t until there are extensive epidemiological examinations–but evidence is accumulating that they may.”

When asked what anti-antenna material he finds most compelling, Ted Litovitz, a retired physics professor from Catholic University of America whose work is respected among antenna critics, mentions a paper called “Extraordinary Behavior Disorders in Cows in Proximity to Transmission Stations.” (The paper’s not in Lai’s bibliography.) In the 1998 study, coauthored by a German army-college professor and a veterinary-school instructor, cows exposed to low-level antenna waves developed eye itching, conjunctivitis, and excessive tearing. “Many animals squeezed their heads in the breast area of their neighboring animal,” wrote the authors. “Thus, all animals ended up positioning their heads in the same direction.” The cows would graze for only a few minutes, then take cover in a stable away from the transmission tower. Many died. One cow “showed remarkable head motions, periodically moving the head back and forth . . . for as long as 30 minutes.”

Other scientists point out that papers showing no serious effects on health outnumber those that turn up some. “There are maybe 1,800 to 2,500 studies on this subject, and 30 or so support Henry Lai,” says John Moulder, a radiation biologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee who has studied the effects of electromagnetic fields on human health. “The effects that are talked about in Lai’s studies haven’t been repeated. In general we base science on effects that people can confirm to exist, rather than on something a person says he can find once.”

In a special issue of the periodical Bioelectromagnetics published last year, an Australian scientist concluded that “the weight of statistical evidence” points away from the possibility that radio waves, including those emitted from towers, could cause cancer in humans. Three U.S. researchers reached a similar finding elsewhere in the publication. In a 2000 article in the British medical journal Lancet, a Boston researcher minimized the peril from antenna radiation. “The beam is generally aimed at the horizon, so an antenna above the ground will not expose people standing directly under it,” wrote Kenneth Rothman, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University. “The signal fades rapidly with distance, and overall population exposure from base stations is thought to be low.” Studies, he said, have unearthed “no consistent finding of increased risk.”

In April Ronald Peterson, a physicist and consultant to cell companies including T-Mobile, testified at a joint hearing of the New York City Council health and housing and buildings committees that health risks arise only at radiation levels far above the FCC safety guidelines. He charged that studies such as those collected by Lai don’t stand up to scrutiny, yet create sensation in the press. “In many cases it is not the scientist who creates significance by postulating adversity,” Peterson said, “but rather the media because of the instant ‘newsworthiness’ of the story.”

The inconclusiveness about the science seriously undercuts Curry, Lai, and those who agree with them. So does the overarching affection that Americans now have for their cell phones, particularly the group most influential in setting cultural mores: “Teenagers think that if they don’t have a cell phone they’ll be hopelessly stunted,” says Janet Newton, another EMR Network founder. Whatever traction the opponents had gained by 2001 evaporated after September 11, when harrowing cell calls from doomed planes and the World Trade Center gave us intimate access to the victims’ final moments.

The cell phone companies also enjoy a political advantage over the activists by way of a provision knit into the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which governs cell transmission. The provision prevents local units of government, like the city of Berwyn, from turning down antenna requests due to “the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions” unless FCC guidelines are violated. Activists insist that the cell companies drafted the provision, but Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association spokesman Travis Larson says they had nothing to do with it. Some antenna foes sued to knock it out, but in 2000 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found their arguments wanting. “At most, the newly submitted evidence established that the existence of nonthermal effects is ‘controversial,'” wrote the court, “and that room for disagreement exists among experts in the field.”

According to T-Mobile’s Laura Altschul, 60 percent of people confronted with the cell antennas at their school or church initially raise questions. “Those are legitimate questions,” says Altschul, “but once we answer them 80 percent of the people have no problem with us. Twenty percent have preconceived notions that there is a danger from radio-frequency radiation. Some just don’t want to believe the government, or believe that the standards are based on very significant scientific research. But we’re still prevailing most of the time.”

Janet Newton still believes the antenna opponents can win: “If they prepare, if they argue that the antennas don’t fit the neighborhood, that the things are an eyesore, if they can present the medical information as a factor that will reduce property values, then they have a 50-50 chance.”

Aimee Sordelli pressed Berwyn officials to mount a forum on the Saint Mary of Celle antennas. She got one, on April 12 at the Berwyn Community Center, but T-Mobile turned out to be the convener. About 60 people packed the small room as a trio of T-Mobile reps began with a pitch for the company. “What, no Catherine Zeta-Jones?” muttered a man in the audience.

Ray Shinkle, the T-Mobile site agent now assigned to the SMC matter, reported that the firm maintains 1,066 antenna stations in a region stretching from Kenosha to Springfield and east toward Michigan City, Indiana.

Despite that, the several thousand T-Mobile subscribers in Berwyn are growing unhappy with their in-home reception, said Chris Fridrich, a tall, short-haired T-Mobile radio engineer. He displayed a multicolored map. Reds and oranges showed where reception was strong; black showed where it stunk. Fridrich pointed out present T-Mobile antenna sites in town–on the police station, on the Olympia Theater on Cermak–then indicated a green and blue area around Saint Mary of Celle. “That’s an enormous hole for us,” he said.

The antennas on the parish school would be positioned 50 feet off the ground and painted to match the chimney, Fridrich said. The equipment on the ground would be placed on a concrete slab and encased in a cabinet, so kids couldn’t get at it. “The last thing we’d want to do is build a new tower,” interjected Larry Beer, the burly T-Mobile zoning manager who was running the meeting, raising the specter of an affliction the audience hadn’t even considered. “You wouldn’t want a tall metal pole sticking out of the ground, would you?”

Beer addressed the property value question, sort of. “We have had a certified appraiser look at this, though I don’t have the results tonight,” he said. “But I can tell you that we’ve never found an instance of value being affected, either positively or negatively, by being next to an installation.” A discourse on health followed. “We’re within FCC regulations on the output of radiation,” said Beer. “We have an excellent record of complying. If we didn’t keep the site at a safe level, we’d be busted.”

Beer’s last remark came off harsh, and Fridrich broke in: “You are more exposed to harmful radiation sitting in front of a television or three feet away from a baby monitor than you are sitting underneath a cell tower.”

The T-Mobile crew had been speaking for nearly an hour when Beer invited Bill Curry to make his rejoinder. Although, according to the law, potential health effects aren’t supposed to enter into antenna decision making, they usually do.

Curry had scoped out the antenna site at Saint Mary of Celle, and on an overlay he depicted the route the radiation would take. “Here you can see, the path of radiation falls off by 37 and a half degrees from the point of origin,” he said. He estimated that the T-Mobile antennas would deliver radiation at .5 microwatts per square centimeter at 50 feet away on a dry day and .78 microwatts on a wet day–enough to constitute a threat to believers of the Lai studies. (He’s since revised those figures upward, based on new information he’s gotten about the antennas from T-Mobile reps.) Curry used terms that most of his listeners had probably forgotten after high school, like “logarithm,” and kept getting his overlays crooked on the projection surface.

“The biological effects from cell antenna radiation have been found at much lower levels than the FCC allows,” Curry said. He mentioned the weakening of the blood-brain barrier and the disruption of brain waves, but by then his clumsiness with the overlays had become the object of greatest interest. “I never did know how to put these slides on,” he said. Swells of extracurricular conversation overwhelmed the physicist. “Let the man speak,” demanded a musician in an army-fatigue jacket who lives near the Sordellis. “This is important.” But the chattering continued until one man asked in exasperation, “Look, doc, what I want to know is if this is worth the risk.”

“I don’t think it is, personally,” said Curry. “One day I was in Iowa City making a presentation, and this parent said to me, ‘I don’t want my child complaining to me 20 years from now that I could have done something about this.'”

“You could say that about anything,” said a man who had spoken in support of the antennas earlier.

“You could say that about margarine,” echoed another supporter.

Father Prendergast sat silent and hunched over on his folding chair. It fell to Perry Di Girolamo, cochair of the school board, to speak for the parish. “It benefits the whole community to have a Catholic school operating,” Di Girolamo said, “but we aren’t financially stable. With us not having those antennas, it’s going to hurt our school.

“How many of you have microwave ovens? Televisions? Fluorescent lights? They give off energy, and we don’t know the outcome. We could all elect to live in Montana instead of in Berwyn, and not be surrounded by anything.”

Donald Wink, a UIC chemistry professor with three kids at SMC, said he’d researched the health question and had found no cause to be upset. Wink, who wore a crisp oxford shirt, appeared confident, if not smug. Once he had finished, Aimee Sordelli, who had been sitting quietly up front, whipped around, long curls flying. “What difference will $22,500 make?” she bellowed in the direction of the SMC camp. “Raise your tuition!”

In March Prendergast had commented in Berwyn-Cicero Life that some antenna opponents were “very angry people” who displayed “some anti-Catholic bias.” That pissed Neal Sordelli off even more. “We’re not anti-Catholic, or anti-technology. We feel our concerns are legitimate,” he says. “I’m pro-me, pro-my well-being, physically and financially, and I’m against anyone who’s against my personal interests.”

Prendergast, in his office at the rectory, clarified his comments: “See, when I said all this had to do with anti-Catholic bias, what I meant was it’s either anti-Catholic or it’s anti-Saint Mary of Celle.” He also said Curry’s presentation at the meeting puzzled him: “What was that guy talking about? I’m certainly not equipped to say whether the antennas will muck up my health, but I’ll go with the federal government. I wouldn’t be living in the shadow of those antennas if they were going to fry my brain.”

The Sordellis figured they still had a shot at torpedoing the antenna lease, but the odds got slimmer with a decision by Pat Fortunato, the alderman of Saint Mary of Celle’s ward, who’s also a graduate of the school and a parishioner of the church. “After that meeting at the community center I changed my position,” Fortunato said. “I’m voting for the antennas. I empathize with neighbors, but that Dr. Curry, he didn’t have much of anything to say.” Another Berwyn alderman and SMC parishioner, Raymond Fron, cast his lot for the antennas too. “I have 16 grandchildren, and some of them have cell phones,” he explained. “I’m sure if there was any danger, their parents wouldn’t let them have those phones.”

Then the tide shifted again. T-Mobile had been trying to get permission to mount antennas on a 25-unit apartment building at 32nd and South Harlem, but Branko Bojovic, the local alderman, nixed the deal after some neighbors objected. “They didn’t want to go into their backyards and view a tower or stuff on that apartment building,” says Bojovic. “I spoke to one tenant in the building itself and he was unaware of anything about to happen. That didn’t seem right to me.” The Berwyn city council defeated a zoning variance for the apartment building on April 13–the day after the meeting about Saint Mary of Celle.

The council considered the SMC matter on the night of April 27. “We think this is a win-win situation,” said a cheery Ray Shinkle at a hearing beforehand. “The antennas will benefit our system, and the money will go to a very good school.”

“If this variance passes, Saint Mary of Celle is going to get more money,” Aimee Sordelli told the council. “What they’ll lose is the respect and support of the people who live around them. I just hope that your children and grandchildren will not ask you whether you supported these antennas. Don’t support them.”

From her council seat Pat Fortunato endorsed the antennas as expected. She thanked “friends” at Saint Mary of Celle. “But Mrs. Aimee Sordelli and the neighbors have their rights,” she said. “I ask each alderman here to vote his or her conscience.” Bojovic came down in favor of the variance. He said he saw “one difference” between the antennas at 32nd and Harlem and the ones in north Berwyn. He later defined the difference as the financial boon the T-Mobile rent would be to the school.

First Ward alderman Nona Chapman stood opposed. She said she worried that the antennas might topple in a strong wind. Later she explained that she wants any antennas posted on a high spot in town, such as on the water tower, to limit their unsightliness and provide better coverage. “My cell phone doesn’t work a lot,” she said. “It’s an aggravation.”

In the end the council voted six to one in favor of the antennas.

Laura Altschul predicts that cell antenna protests will rise in the near future, then take a dive as consumers become more educated about antenna safety and teens, “who are driving cell usage,” become adults. Others say the protests will continue unabated, since the cell phone invasion is so ripe an issue for 21st-century skeptics. “People are feeling under siege today, impotent, distant from the political process and from big business,” says Don DeBar, a title-company underwriter and Ralph Nader volunteer who four years ago succeeded in blocking antennas at the high school in his native Ossining, New York. “The other thing is that people hear radiation and immediately think cancer. Radiation. Cancer. This won’t die down.”

In Chicago cell antenna dustups have surfaced from the West Loop to West Rogers Park. The opponents usually lose. But some aldermen have taken enough flak from their constituents on the issue that they’re flexing their muscle, such as they can, to give cell companies trouble. Isaac “Ike” Carothers of the Austin neighborhood’s 29th Ward routinely puts a hold on building permits for antennas. “Maybe I can get the cell guys to look at another location, or maybe I can convince them not to come in at all,” he says. “At least this opens a dialogue. But I can only hold up a permit for so long.”

The cell antennas at Saint Mary of Celle took four weeks to erect. They were activated on Monday, July 12. Father Prendergast wasn’t there: at the end of June he was rotated from his post, having served the maximum dozen years the archdiocese allows a pastor to remain in one place. He is awaiting a new assignment.

The Sordellis are considering moving–that is, if they can’t pressure Prendergast’s successor to abandon the antenna lease.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.