The Chicago Catholic Archdiocese is the Frank Sinatra of local religious organizations. This occurred to me last week as the archdiocese’s lawyer told the Chicago City Council’s landmarks committee that it had no business landmarking Saint Gelasius Church, at Woodlawn and 64th Street, closed since 2002. The archdiocese began trying to demolish the elegant limestone church last July.

It’s not the way Cardinal Francis George wears his hat–his red biretta. It’s the attitude. Like Frank, the archdiocese just doesn’t want anyone telling it what to do. For instance, it insisted from the beginning that Saint Gelasius was too expensive to maintain and another use couldn’t be found for it–but the archdiocese refused to sell it. A representative for a potential buyer referred by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) wasn’t allowed to tour the building. At the January 12 landmarks committee meeting, archdiocese attorney James Geoly practically burst into “My Way.” (I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.)

Eighty-year-old Saint Gelasius received the second-highest rating–orange–in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, an official city report, completed in 1995, that cataloged architecturally significant buildings citywide. Saint Gelasius was designed by Henry J. Schlacks, called “the master of Catholic church architecture in Chicago” by one church historian. Orange buildings are protected by an ordinance requiring a 90-day delay for demolition permits, time for the city to consider landmarking or to persuade the owner to do something else with the structure.

Mayor Daley was embarrassed into having the City Council pass the demolition delay ordinance last January, after several orange-rated buildings were mowed down. The mayor left in some loopholes nearly big enough to swing a wrecking ball through, but the ordinance is better than nothing.

The archdiocese assumed Saint Gelasius was still safe from landmarking because a 1987 amendment to the city’s landmarks ordinance exempts churches from designation without the owner’s consent. Initially, the city’s planning and development department agreed. But the permit delay gave Woodlawn community activists, preservationist groups, and Alderman Arenda Troutman time to raise hell, so to speak. Troutman, who chairs the council’s landmarks committee and whose ward includes Saint Gelasius, declared at an August rally on the church steps that she’d lie down before the bulldozers if necessary.

Daley’s administration was already getting bad publicity because the demolition delay ordinance had yet to save a single orange building. In September the city discovered a loophole in the owner-consent amendment for churches: only buildings being used primarily for religious purposes are exempt. Saint Gelasius hadn’t been used since it was closed thanks to a dwindling congregation. It was vacant.

Alicia Berg, commissioner of planning and development, announced the city would seek landmark status for Saint Gelasius. The archdiocese threatened to sue–an option it’s still considering, though the city’s law department remains confident it’s on safe legal ground. In addition, the archdiocese expressed interest in an idea from Troutman: trading Saint Gelasius for one of the numerous vacant lots surrounding the church in a swap brokered by the city. The exchange never happened, though Troutman says she’s told archdiocese chancellor Jimmy Lago the city is still willing to deal.

Three days before the landmarks committee met to vote on Saint Gelasius, the archdiocese announced that a conservative Wisconsin-based religious order will assume the church’s maintenance expenses and hold daily Latin masses there, with an unspecified starting date. Ergo–the archdiocese informed the city–Saint Gelasius was no longer vacant and therefore couldn’t be landmarked under the owner-consent amendment. And since it wouldn’t be demolished, it didn’t need to be landmarked.

Champions of Saint Gelasius were skeptical. Why? The church had almost bit the dust in July without even getting a 90-day permit delay. The demolition-permit application was somehow submitted to the city listing the wrong address–the rectory next door–and the city’s computer hadn’t recognized the property as an orange-rated building. A quick-thinking neighbor noticed workers tearing down the wrought-iron fence and made the phone calls that started the protest that saved the church.

The landmarks committee was skeptical too. It voted unanimously to landmark Saint Gelasius, a designation confirmed two days later by the full City Council despite Geoly’s best efforts. Ol’ Blue Eyes himself couldn’t have been more entertaining than the archdiocese’s attorney was.

Geoly refused to admit that Saint Gelasius isn’t used as a church anymore. “The closure of a Catholic parish doesn’t render the building a non-religious-ceremony building anymore,” he insisted. “It certainly affects the frequency of religious ceremonies in the building, but there was nothing to prevent the Catholic church from holding ceremonies in that building.”

LPCI president David Bahlman testified that Saint Gelasius “is a long-stripped and vacant building.” He said, “There are no pews, there is no altar, there are no religious statues or other icons.”

Geoly wouldn’t concede that either. “It really is not for the Landmarks Preservation Council or the City Council to decide what is appropriate for Catholic liturgy,” he argued. “The Roman Catholic Church can hold a liturgy in that building if it decides that it’s appropriate to hold a liturgy in that building….You don’t judge it by the amount of furniture in place.”

Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. questioned Geoly’s contention that Saint Gelasius isn’t vacant. “Assuming that the [demolition] permit had gone forward and the wrecking ball was there, at that point that the ball was about to swing, would [the church] have become vacant at that point?” he asked.

Geoly also insisted that the religious exemption should apply to Saint Gelasius because the archdiocese claims that the Wisconsin priests will say mass there someday. He conceded that if the Wisconsin priests were already in Chicago his argument would be stronger.

“Then it makes sense for this body to act now before you get someone in there,” said Brookins.

The aldermen puzzled long over why the archdiocese cares if Saint Gelasius is landmarked, as that wouldn’t affect its use as a church. The city had already landmarked 16 other religious buildings. Alderman Joe Moore pointed out that only the exterior would be landmarked; the interior could be restructured to accommodate any new use for the building. Brookins noted that the only harm to the archdiocese would be that it could no longer demolish Saint Gelasius.

“I think there’s an immediate harm to the archdiocese in losing its right to control the exterior look of the church,” Geoly argued. “The reason landmarking churches against the church’s wishes is a constitutional violation is that the church is more than a building. It’s a religious expression–and it is up to the church only to control what that building says.”

Of course the building wouldn’t say anything if it were smashed to bits. Maybe the archdiocese just wants to be able to say, “I did it my way.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.