Pending Sale of Chicago Church to ‘Temple House’ Developer Raises Concerns Among Local Catholics and Canonists
An entrepreneur who previously turned a Miami synagogue into a venue that hosts ‘same-sex weddings’ and other scandalous events is trying to buy the shuttered St. Adalbert Church.
CHICAGO — Ever since their parish was suppressed in 2016, former parishioners and others connected to St. Adalbert Church in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood have tried to keep the church building in the community’s hands. But now, St. Adalbert members are facing the prospect that not only might they lose their bid to reacquire the church and keep it as a place of worship, but that it might be put to use in sacrilegious ways.
A developer who turned a Miami synagogue into an event venue that hosts “same-sex weddings” and was the site of a reported “simulated orgy” is currently the lead candidate to buy the historic Chicago church, which celebrated its last Mass in 2019.
The potential sale has left some Chicago Catholics connected to the former parish, once the pride of the Chicago Polish community and more recently home to a mostly Hispanic congregation, upset that what has taken place in the South Beach venue may soon be happening in the Pilsen neighborhood church where they received the sacraments and worshipped God — making the sale not just a blow to their bid to reopen St. Adalbert, but a possible violation of Church law that governs what is done with unused churches.
In a video taken over Memorial Day weekend and obtained by the Register, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich confirmed that Daniel Davidson, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who bought the Knesseth Israel synagogue in 2003 and converted it into the Temple House event center, is in the process of purchasing St. Adalbert.
“All I know is that the parish there at St. Paul’s has decided to go ahead and do that,” Cardinal Cupich said in the video, responding to a question about why St. Adalbert’s was being sold to Davidson, given the developer’s previous history of repurposing a religious building for what would be considered “sordid use” under canon law. St. Paul’s is the parish that St. Adalbert was merged into in 2016 by the archdiocese.
Reached by the Register on June 20, Davidson stopped short of confirming that he was buying the church, but nonetheless said that he was “simply stepping in at this late date to try to preserve the building and prevent what could be a catastrophic outcome for a beautiful and majestic property.” While the entrepreneur said he has “only the greatest respect for those that express dismay,” he pointed to the fact that no other use for the property has been agreed upon since the parish was closed.
Davidson was first linked to the property in a January 2022 letter of intent prepared for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the entrepreneur confirmed in January 2023 that engineers had begun to inspect the St. Adalbert property, which he said was “one of many steps … to determine if this is the right fit for us and the community.”
Canon 1222 prohibits allowing Catholic churches to be turned over for sordid use, even if they’ve been “relegated” for profane, or non-sacred, purposes. Other English-language versions of the code translate “sordid use” as “unbecoming purpose,” and the term is generally understood to mean a purpose that is immoral, sacrilegious or otherwise scandalous, especially including non-Christian worship.
Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canonist with a background in civil law, told the Register that the Congregation for the Clergy emphasized in a 2013 letter that “under no circumstances can [a relegated church] be alienated for use inconsistent with its inherent dignity.”
“No countervailing reason is able to overcome this prohibition in the law,” said the canonist, noting that “same-sex weddings” or a “simulated orgy” would most certainly be included in what the Church considers “sordid use.”
Neither Davidson, nor the archdiocese, nor St. Paul’s have publicly disclosed how the entrepreneur would use the historic Polish cathedral-style church, leading concerned parties to fear the worst.
But with no new filings on the property with the Cook County Clerk’s Office, the sale appears to not be finalized — and St. Adalbert community members like Anna Leja, who leads the Rosary group, hope it never is.
“We don’t want this church to be sold to begin with,” said Leja, who immigrated to Chicago from Poland in the 1970s and says the church is an important symbol of Polish-Catholic heritage. “And now if the planned sale goes through to Dan Davidson, that’s just horrendous because of what we know about what he did with the synagogue.”
Temple House 2.0?
The St. Adalbert community’s concern about how Davidson might use their beloved church stems from how he used the last religious property he acquired, the Knesseth Israel, once the largest synagogue in Miami Beach.
Now known as the Temple House, the building is, according to its website, “one of the most recognized event venues in the nation.” The “luxury party venue” uses “360-projecting mapping” for its swanky events, such as “celebrity-studded soirees” and high-profile product launches.
One Temple House event that drew significant media coverage was a 2019 fashion show that featured the daughter of pop star Madonna and included what several media outlets described as a “simulated orgy.”
The Temple House hosts several other event types that would seem to be forbidden in a relegated Catholic church under Canon 1222. Under a webpage section entitled “Equality and Love,” the venue notes that it hosts “same-sex” and “LGBTQ” weddings, as well as wedding ceremonies in a variety of religious traditions. An electronic and neon dance party, a photoshoot with a centerfold model, and a Miami swimsuit fashion show have also taken place at the Temple House, which also hosts corporate events and fundraising galas.
Davidson did not originally purchase the Knesseth Israel synagogue with the intention of turning it into an event venue. As he shared in an interview on the former place of worship, his original intent was to use the 13,100-square-foot property as a private residence.
But as noted by Aryeh Feit, who attended the Miami synagogue as a boy and whose father served on the board responsible for selling the synagogue and using the proceeds to support local Jewish organizations, Davidson “obviously started doing a whole lot of other things with this [building].”
Feit told the Register that he is “thoroughly revolted” about what the former synagogue has become as the Temple House, given the Jewish belief that a synagogue still retains its holiness even if it is no longer used for prayer. He also expressed solidarity with Chicago Catholics concerned that Davidson may use St. Adalbert as a Temple House 2.0.
“If this is truly what he is going to use it for, I feel bad for the Christian community that built that place, that built that church,” he said.
Davidson, however, said that the decision to use the space as an event venue only came after consultation with “community leaders and others,” adding that if he hadn’t purchased the synagogue, it would have been demolished.
“In short, my investment in the property prevented its certain destruction,” he told the Register.
In a 2017 interview with Observer, Davidson cited the former synagogue’s high ceilings, quality early 20th-century construction, and “enormity” of its interior as reasons he was initially attracted to the property in 2003 — all characteristics that St. Adalbert shares. Furthermore, Davidson indicated in a 2018 interview with VoyageMIA.com that the Temple House was looking “to expand our brand footprint to other major cities.”
“We are in that explanatory phase now,” he said at the time, which is echoed on a page on the Temple House’s website.
When asked about his planned use for St. Adalbert Church, Davidson said he could not provide comment “for now,” but that he would be “more than pleased” to speak with the Register “at the right time, as things evolve, and I am able to provide the info that you requested.”
St. Adalbert’s Saga
Local Catholics’ opposition to the sale of St. Adalbert to Davidson is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga over the iconic church, built in 1912, modeled after Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and once a flagship parish of Chicago’s Polish community, a source of pride even for those Poles who belonged to other area parishes.
The parish’s closure and incorporation into St. Paul’s in 2016 was part of the Chicago Archdiocese’s ongoing “Renew My Church” campaign, which closed more than 100 parishes, about one-third of all Chicago parishes, between 2016 and 2022, in response to decreasing numbers of priests, practicing Catholics and archdiocesan resources.
St. Adalbert alone had seen its weekly Mass attendance rate fall 63% between 2000 and 2015, and parishioners were attempting to raise $3 million to fix its 185-foot-tall crumbling bell towers. Though a significant donation was made to the church at the time, archdiocesan officials claimed it was not enough to keep St. Adalbert Church open.
After an initial suspension of worship, Mass continued to be celebrated at St. Adalbert between 2016 and 2019. But in June 2019, Cardinal Cupich accepted a petition from St. Paul’s pastor, Father Mike Enright, and decreed once more that the church would be “relegated to profane but not sordid use,” ending its use as a place of worship and opening up the possibility for the space to be sold for a non-sacred purpose, with St. Paul’s parish receiving any proceeds. St. Adalbert’s last Mass was celebrated on July 14, 2019.
Cardinal Cupich’s decision to close St. Adalbert and make the church available for sale has sparked continued resistance from both more recent parishioners, who are mostly Hispanic, as well as Polish Catholics who have ties to the church, many whom had been attending its monthly Polish-language Mass.
St. Adalbert’s Rosary Group often prays in front of the church, but also regularly protests outside of Holy Name Cathedral on Sundays to make their concerns more widely known. The group even sued then-Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot over allegedly giving illegal favoritism to developers and the archdiocese to facilitate the sale of the property.
In November 2022, the St. Adalbert faithful protested the removal of a beloved Pietà statute from the church, and five protesters were arrested.
A number of groups connected to the church community have also tried to acquire St. Adalbert over the years. The Society of St. Albert (SOSA), for instance, proposed turning the church into a national shrine to St. Adalbert, a patron saint of Poland, and funding upkeep by converting the convent to an Airbnb for “religious tourism.” The group even raised more than $1 million in pledges and in-kind donations to acquire the church, according to SOSA president Julie Sawicki, after she said the archdiocese initially accepted the group’s proposal before putting the church on the market.
In addition to significant resistance to any sale of St. Adalbert to an outsider, there are other particular challenges to selling the property.
According to Mary Gonzalez, a member of St. Paul’s finance committee and chairwoman of the social-justice committee, the church building is “breathtaking, but huge,” with a capacity for 1,200 congregants. Gonzalez said that the size and structure of the church presents serious challenges to anyone who would want to significantly alter the building.
“It’s not like we’ve had a long line of people in line wanting to purchase this property,” she told the Register. “It’s a difficult parcel of land to interest people into buying.”
Previously, the church was nearly sold to a music academy in 2017 and a housing developer in 2019, but both deals fell through. Gonzalez acknowledged that former parishioners and St. Adalbert community members have made bids to acquire the church, but have asked that the property be donated, which she says is unfeasible, given how much debt St. Paul’s has accrued in maintaining the church.
According to a fact sheet on St. Paul’s website, the parish took on $1.6 million of debt when St. Adalbert was merged into it, and St. Paul’s has paid an additional $105,300 per year for board-up fees, security patrols, electric and gas, and insurance since the church has been closed.
Gonzalez added that St. Paul’s has added incentive to sell St. Adalbert, given that, in its unused state, break-ins and vandalism are frequently reported. According to the fact sheet, in its state of disrepair, the building is “a potential public hazard.” In 2015, a young man was found dead on the property after police believe he fell from the scaffolding on the bell towers.
Canonists consulted by the Register said Davidson’s past use of a religious building raises serious concerns about his pending acquisition of St. Adalbert.
Laura Morrison, a canon lawyer who also served as a civil prosecutor in Chicago’s Cook County, said it was not only reasonable but logical to take into account what she described as “disgusting” and “disrespectful” events hosted at the Miami synagogue-turned-venue in assessing whether selling to Davidson will comply with the Church’s law.
“Perhaps there’s an understanding that nothing like this is to take place, but the guy’s track record with the Temple House is not a very good one,” said Morrison, noting that canon law emphasizes that there should be “heightened sensitivity” around the treatment of a dedicated church in which the Eucharistic “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ” was celebrated, distributed and reserved.
Father Pietrzyk added that even if the overall intention for the property is not sordid, “if any use contemplated in the furtherance of that end is sordid, it may not be sold.”
If such a scenario seems likely, “the bishop would either have to make sure that the legal documents of alienation (or land title deeds) prohibited the immoral acts or he would need to find another purchaser,” said the Dominican.
In several cases, though, dioceses have apparently not followed the Church’s own norms. One Catholic church in Minnesota has been repurposed as an Islamic community center, another in Buffalo is now a Hindu temple, and it’s not uncommon for relegated churches to end up as bars and night clubs.
The former civil lawyer added that deed restrictions can limit what a property can be used for after it is sold, but that they “require the seller to remain vigilant.”
“Rights ordinarily do not exercise themselves, so if a purchaser violated some restriction in the contract or deed, the diocese would have to bring a cause of action in the secular courts,” he said.
Morrison pointed out that the private nature of Davidson’s Temple House means that if the entrepreneur did purchase St. Adalbert and used it similarly, there would not necessarily be any way to keep tabs on what happens inside, which she said would be a source of scandal in its own right, given his track record.
Neither the Archdiocese of Chicago nor St. Paul’s Father Enright responded to requests for comment about how it would be ensured that, if he acquired the property, Davidson would not put St. Adalbert to “sordid use.”
With concerns about St. Adalbert’s sale to Davidson at a fever pitch, Cardinal Cupich has attempted to downplay the Archdiocese of Chicago’s involvement. In the Memorial Day weekend video, he said that concerned parties would need to speak to Father Enright, and later added that St. Paul’s parish, not the Archdiocese of Chicago, owns the St. Adalbert property.
However, when the Register called St. Paul’s, a parish representative said that all questions related to the sale of the St. Adalbert property would need to be directed to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Real Estate Office. That office did not return multiple calls from the Register regarding the sale of the Pilsen church.
Additionally, Cardinal Cupich’s claim that St. Adalbert is owned by St. Paul’s parish was contested by Gonzalez, who stated that the archdiocese owns the property. Cook County property records seem to confirm this, and the county assessor’s office said in an email that the St. Adalbert church was “exempt to the Catholic bishop, which would technically mean that they own it.”
In a different video shared with the Register, dated March 10, Cardinal Cupich told Leja with the St. Adalbert Rosary Group that he trusts the people of St. Paul’s work to sell St. Adalbert and that it “is really wrong" to criticize them, in response to her claims that the church was being sold to someone with a track record of sordid use.
Gonzalez, however, emphasized that the sale of St. Adalbert to Davidson is “a collaborative deal” between the parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“We have taken the leadership in trying to identify potential buyers,” she told the Register, clarifying that she is not on the particular St. Paul committee dedicated to selling the property. “But the archdiocese still has a lot to say about whether this happens or not.”
Furthermore, Sawicki contends that many of the former parishioners of St. Adalbert did not become parishioners at St. Paul when the former was merged into the latter, meaning that the community who had built the church and worshipped there for decades has effectively not been involved in determining its future use.
Gonzalez said her heart breaks for the St. Adalbert community that feels like it is losing an important part of their spiritual and cultural heritage, but she suggests that the fact that the Davidson deal is taking so long to finalize gives her confidence that those in responsibility are ensuring that the church will be used responsibly.
“If interest in this building was presented to us a year and a half ago and we’re still in the process, that tells me the archdiocese is looking at this very carefully,” she said.
Leja with St. Adalbert’s Rosary Group, however, is less convinced.
“Why would you believe somebody who has a history of using a synagogue for sordid use?” she asked rhetorically, adding that she doesn’t think any deed restrictions can ensure that Davidson won’t misuse the property.
Sawicki with SOSA said it is “troubling that Cardinal Cupich” would allow any potential sale to Davidson to move forward, adding that it is “scandalous” that Church leadership so often treats the sale of churches like getting rid of an old house when you have to “downsize.”
“The Catholic Church is plagued with issues,” she said, “and this lack of reverence for our sacred spaces is yet another reason that the faithful have turned away from the Catholic Church in droves.”