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CHICAGO: Historic Episcopal church awaits next chapter after closing

CHICAGO: Historic Episcopal church awaits next chapter after closing

By Ronnie Reese
Chicago Tribune reporter
November 30, 2011

The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on the Near West Side was built in 1885 and has a firm place in Chicago history.

After Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. was assassinated in October 1893, a wake was held at the church at 201 S. Ashland Ave. In 1969, a memorial service was held there for slain Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton.

But after services Sunday, the church was closed, a decision made by its few remaining congregants. Now, the future of the striking stone and wood building is in question.

"They will never build this kind of a structure again," said Bill Lavicka, a member of the church and well-known city preservationist.

Designed by Edward Burling and Francis Whitehouse, the Church of the Epiphany was one of the first Chicago examples of Richardsonian Romanesque, a dominant architectural style in the latter half of the 19th Century. The church's exterior is protected from demolition because it is part of the Jackson Boulevard District, a section of row houses on West Adams and West Jackson streets designated a city landmark in 1976.

As of Sunday's final service, there were no more than six active members of the congregation. One member, Nikki Shields, said the decision to close was a sad and difficult one, but also part of a more practical reality.

"As a congregation, as a group of people, we were just too small to keep going," Shields said. "The resources it would have taken - such as the financial resources to heat it this winter - would have been just totally out of proportion to serving five or six people."

The building's future is in the hands of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago's Bishop and Trustees, a governing body that oversees properties owned by the diocese. It has yet to meet to discuss the future of the church and its surrounding properties.

"What we really are concerned about doing is preserving the building during the winter," said Jim Steen, director of ministries for the Diocese.

Peter Strazzabosco of the Department of Housing and Economic Development said in a statement that the city is reaching out to the diocese to discuss the building's future and how to help maintain the integrity of its interior.

Preservationists and older members like Lavicka worry about the potential for "demolition by neglect," now that the doors are closed and the congregation is moving on.

"That's what's going to be really important to know," said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, "because it really is a wonderful structure."

Ald. Bob Fioretti, 2nd (above), visited the church Tuesday and offered his support to a group of former churchgoers. Fioretti recalled a time when Ashland Avenue was one of Chicago's grandest boulevards, and Church of the Epiphany its anchor.

Shields hopes for those days to return.

"I have great faith that there will be fabulous things around the corner," she said.


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