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Episcopal Diocese of Chicago's Financial Woes and Loss of Parishioners Escalate

Episcopal Diocese of Chicago's Financial Woes and Loss of Parishioners Escalate

By David Duggan
June 17, 2022

As if the Diocese of Chicago didn't have enough to worry about with an incapacitated "bishop-elect" in rehab for aphasia which makes her painful to listen to, if not unintelligible, the "Bishop and Trustees" (supposedly the governing body in the absence of a duly consecrated bishop) has announced the sale of what is known as the "Diocesan Center."

Located at 65 E Huron St. a block off the once "Magnificent Mile" of high-end retailers, hotels and residences, the five-story glass-and-steel building has served the once prominent diocese for more than 60 years. Originally named the Burrill Center, after the much-loved Bishop Gerald Francis Burrill who built up the Diocese in the 1950s and 1960s, the building has had several incarnations since architect Peter Roesch, Mies van der Rohe's last surviving disciple, designed it. In addition to Diocesan offices, most recently it has housed the "Nicholas Center," an Airbnb sort of facility for short-term occupants, on the top floor.

Shortly before his exit 18 months ago, thankfully departed Bp Jeffrey Lee announced the prospective sale of the building which had held his offices for his dismal 12-year reign. Adjacent to the Cathedral of St. James which had served as the bishop's seat since the 1930s (the original cathedral, Sts. Peter & Paul had burned down in in 1921), the Diocesan Center shares washrooms, meeting rooms and a counseling center with the consecrated space, connected by a walkway. The Dean of the Cathedral, Dominic Barrington, a Brit has threatened litigation over this sale, and the Diocese's flaks haven't addressed this in their announcement that the building has been put on the market.

History repeats itself, supposedly said baptized heretic Karl Marx, first as tragedy, then as farce. Some 20 years ago, the Diocese announced that it was going to build atop the Diocesan Center, selling off the air-rights to insure its future. Pepper Construction Co., owned by a big-deal Episcopal family in northwest-suburban horse-country Barrington, had the contract for the redevelopment. In the face of the financial meltdown, these plans were quietly scrapped shortly after Lee's 2008 consecration.

Compounding the problem of an incapacitated bishop-elect and the prospective sale of the diocese's most valuable asset is that all five rectors of its "cardinal parishes" on Chicago's North Side have left or are leaving. Patrick Raymond, late of Anglo-Catholic Ascension, left at the end of February; Erika Takacs, late of Anglo-Catholic Atonement, left in April. Wes Smedley of evangelical St. Chrysostom's is leaving at the end of June, and Shane Patrick Gormley, who had closed down Advent in 2016, is leaving St. Peter's this month to continue his doctoral studies. Brian Hastings, the longest-tenured lakefront rector at Our Saviour's, announced his departure earlier this month. The question of course is who would want to come here given the turmoil and uncertain leadership.

The play here, however, was hinted at in Bp Lee's announcement that the Diocesan Center would be sold: "In recent years, as the reconfigured bishop's staff has spent more time out among congregations, a large centralized office has become unnecessary. What office space the bishop's staff and Episcopal Charities do need is available at many locations in the diocese, and nearly all provide easier access and more plentiful parking." Once 65 E Huron is sold, St. James Cathedral has no further reason to exist. Ascension lies less than a mile away and has a parking lot and an $18 million endowment.

The Diocese has been steadily running high six-to low-seven figure deficits since Lee's arrival (his $800,000 compensation package didn't help). Without St. James as a viable church, it too would be sold (churches cannot be landmarked in Chicago), and the cathedral would be moved to Ascension which hasn't been a viable parish for decades. (It pays less than 20% of its expenses from pledge and plate and post-Covid hasn't come anywhere near its 70-people in the pews pre-Covid ASA.) Ascension has been living off the largesse of its deceased rector William Stoskopf (a member of Yale's Brewster family) and his sister who left seven-figure trusts to pay for the church's upkeep. So, with the Diocesan Center sold, Ascension on death's door, and the need for a parking lot, the Diocese moves the Cathedral to Ascension, takes over the Convent of the Order of Ste Anne (which it has had its eyes on for years) for its offices, and assumes Ascension's endowment (remember the Soper Trust litigation in the Diocese of Washington DC?). Problem solved.

David Duggan is a lawyer living in Chicago and occasional contributor to Virtueonline

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