CHICAGO, DEC. 26 -- Generations of immigrants built churches as symbols and focal points of their tightly knit neighborhoods, but congregations are dwindling and Roman Catholic officials have announced plans to close two of the landmark buildings.
The archdiocese intimated that as many as 25 other inner-city churches with deteriorating structures and shrinking flocks may share that fate.
"We don't want to be left sitting on museums," said John Philbin, director of finance for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.
"It really is an emotional thing for a lot of people, and we hate to see churches go down," he added, "but who is going to pay the tab to keep them up?"
A week ago the Jesuit Order announced that Holy Family Catholic Church, a stone edifice that survived the Chicago Fire of 1871, is scheduled for demolition next year.
The Jesuits, who own and operate Holy Family, considered the estimated $3.5 million cost of repairs an unrealistic burden for its 250 parishioners, mostly aged Italians on pensions and poor black and Hispanic families.
In 1895, Holy Family had a congregation of 25,000 and the contribution of even pennies per family totaled a considerable sum. Weekly donations now average only $350.
For the past two years, the city's 435 parishes collectively have spent more than they have taken in.
The archdiocese said last week that similar problems required the closing indefinitely of St. Mary of the Angels, which is considered one of the country's finest examples of Roman Renaissance architecture. The church is capped by a terra cotta dome modeled upon the one created by Michelangelo for St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
For decades, churches like Holy Family and St. Mary's were the focal points of teeming tenement-filled neighborhoods and working-class enclaves.
Now, many of their descendants have moved to the suburbs.
In some instances, they have been replaced by blacks who are Baptists and Methodists. In other instances, white ethnics have been replaced by a largely Catholic population like Hispanics, but many of the jobs that were the community's economic backbone have gone elsewhere.
"Unlike say, Protestant churches, where the congregations tend to be more free-floating, the parishes were fixed geographical sites, badges of identification," said Ed Marciniak, professor of urban studies at Loyola University and author of "Reclaiming the Inner City."
"In some instances, you had dense population areas housing different ethnic groups and each insisted on building its own church," Marciniak said.
The near South Side community of Pilsen, for example, now is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, but it still houses Holy Trinity Croatian Church, the Providence of God Church (Lithuanian), St. Adalbert's (Polish) and St. Procopius (Bohemian).
"That kind of situation was almost impossible to sustain and so, first the parishes disappeared," Marciniak said, "and now the churches -- some of them 50, 75, 100 years old -- are following suit."
That trend is hardly limited to Chicago, or even Catholic churches.
In New York, city officials and preservationists are opposing a proposal to build a 59-story tower over a community building belonging to St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, which also suffers high upkeep and a dwindling congregation.
The tower would loom next to the Byzantine-style church built in 1919 in the heart of what is now premier commercial property on Park Avenue.
A lawsuit seeking to block the church from leasing the air rights over the community building is pending in court and may wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, said Joan Pomeranc of the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks.