Catholics in Chicago Work to Preserve Historic Century-Old Parish

The archdiocese announced the Lourdes parish merger in 2021.

Outer details of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Chicago.
Outer details of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Chicago. (photo: Eric Allix Rogers)

Catholics and city preservationists in Chicago are scrambling to try to preserve a historic parish on the city’s North Side, one that has survived a century of the city’s development including being fully moved to a new location after it was first built. 

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish will hold its final Mass on Sunday, May 19, before the parish merges with nearby St. Mary of the Lake. The consolidation is part of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s ongoing “Renew My Church” initiative that has closed and merged dozens of parishes in order to address shrinking budgets and priest shortages. 

The archdiocese announced the Lourdes parish merger in 2021. Katerina Garcia, the president of the Our Lady of Lourdes Church Preservation Society, told EWTN News Nightly anchor Tracy Sabol this week that parishioners at the parish dispute the archdiocese’s reasons for closing the church, particularly the claim that Mass attendance had dropped steadily there. 

“We disagree with that statement because before the merge, Our Lady of Lourdes Church had the highest attendance compared to [other nearby churches],” Garcia told Sabol. 

“They decreased the Masses that we had. So of course that’s going to decrease attendance,” she argued.

Even as the parish’s final Mass looms, Garcia said efforts are underway to save the parish, possibly by purchasing it from the archdiocese. She noted the parish’s remarkable history, including its wholesale move from one side of the street to the other. 

The parish was “literally across the street on the east side of Ashland Avenue,” she told Sabol. “And Daniel Burnham, who was a prominent architect and urban developer in Chicago, wanted to widen the [city streets].” 

“In order for them to widen Ashland Avenue, they had to move the church literally across the street,” she said. “They had 150 men and horses, and they put the 10,000-ton church on top of 400 rails and 3,000 rollers and literally moved it across the street, inching it.”

A view of the parish's historic move in 1929. Our Lady of Lourdes Preservation Society

A view of the parish's historic move in 1929. Our Lady of Lourdes Preservation Society

Once the building was moved to its new location, builders “rotated it 90 degrees” and then “cut the church in half and added a 30-foot insert,” increasing capacity by roughly 50%.

“Back then, 1929, that’s such a very … I can’t even think of the word. It’s just an engineering feat,” Garcia said. 

‘It’s Facing an Uncertain Future’

On its website, the Our Lady of Lourdes Preservation Society says its goal is to “preserve Our Lady of Lourdes Church as a historical landmark, reopen and revive it as a holy shrine.”

The group, formed in 2021 after the merger announcement, wrote on Facebook that it is “going full force to make sure [the property] is preserved as a historical landmark,” with group members aiming to “bring it back to its old glory with a new order in charge.”

Ward Miller, the executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Chicago, said his group has been working to get the building designated as a Chicago landmark. 

The group has highlighted the building’s historical qualities in the past. The parish was “modeled in the Spanish Renaissance-style architecture to resemble a church in Valladolid, Spain,” Preservation Chicago says. Among its many notable features includes a “faithful replica of the grotto in Lourdes, France,” which years ago was made a “perpetual adoration site” and remains ”the area’s only chapel open 24/7 for worship.”

The structure is “facing an uncertain future,” Miller told CNA on Wednesday. “We don’t know if it’s facing a demolition threat or not.”

The building is rated “orange” in the city’s Historic Resources Survey, Miller pointed out, which indicates that it “possesses potentially significant architectural or historical features.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago did not respond to a query on Wednesday regarding the status of the church building and what will become of it after the final Mass this week. 

The parish school, meanwhile — which closed in 2004 — has already been sold, with plans to turn the structure into apartments. 

Garcia told Block Club Chicago earlier this year that she attended the school and that her children were baptized in the parish.

The parish “just has a lot of memories,” she told the outlet. “I actually made the calligraphy on the sign by the grotto entrance, so there are parts of the church I was involved in. There’s so much history there for me and my family.” 

“Every part of that church is important to me,” she said.