Where Saints Have Tread

Six years ago this week, very early on a Monday morning, residents around Wicker Park in Chicago were awakened to a huge sound and rumbling, which some compared to an earthquake. When the dust settled, it became clear that the empty church building located at 1903-05 W. Schiller street. 1903-05 W. Schiller St. had collapsed.

The church had belonged to a congregation called Mision Cristiana for many years, but as I wandered through the neighborhood one day in around 2007, it was almost immediately apparent to me that the church had not been built for this Spanish-speaking Protestant congregation, but had once been an Orthodox church. This was particularly interesting because the area already has a number of Orthodox Churches, and it was intriguing to find that there had once been yet another one. (I was also struck as to how oddly-shaped the church was, being situated on a triangular-shaped lot.)

As it turns out, the church was the original home of Holy Resurrection Cathedral, and the parish had moved to a bigger church further northwest in the city in the 1970s. The address of the church had originally been 8 Fowler Street, but with the changes to addresses and hundreds of street names that took place in Chicago between 1895 and 1920 (over 500 in 1913 alone!) the address of the original church would become 1905 W. Schiller. However, the church purchased parcels that would be known as 1903 W. Schiller, 1905 W. Schiller, and 1907 W. Schiller.

In the beginning, there was a two-story building at 1905 W. Schiller, as can be seen at this link: https://oururbantimes.com/development/historic-mystery-revealed-proposed-conversion-wicker-park-church. It seems as though there may have also been a building at what became 1907 W. Schiller, and the two buildings were incorporated into the church complex when the church building was constructed in the early 1930s. (That anything was being built in Chicago at that time was a miracle – the Chicago Tribune made the claim in 1932 that this church and the post office were the only buildings being built in the entire city at that time.)

Getting back to the early 1900s, though, the priest in charge of organizing this new parish was none other than Archimandrite Sebastian (Dabovich), who had, in 1905, been chosen to head the Serbian Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States. In 2015, this remarkable priest would be glorified of a saint of the Orthodox Church – St. Sebastian. Fr. Sebastian was such a remarkable priest already, having helped establish churches in multiple US states. Archbishp Tikhon (Bellavin) – who would also be glorified as an Orthodox saint – would come to Chicago, to the little church at 8 Fowler, to give Fr. Sebastian the rank of archimandrite.

A photo from 1905, from a series of photos by the Chicago Daily News, of the newly constructed Holy Trinity Cathedral. Holy Trinity is located about 10 minutes by foot from 8 Fowler Street. The priest here isn’t named, but is almost certainly St. Sebastian.

In any case, St. Sebastian would stay in Chicago for the next few years, working to build up Holy Resurrection while, at the same time, working to administer to the needs of all Orthodox Serbs in the United States. Although he met with many challenges, his influence on the Orthodox Church in the United States is indelible.

Even though the parish moved to a larger church in the 1970s, many people still remember the old church and held it dear. According to one commenter at the “Our Urban Times” link above, it was written into the contract for the sale of the church that it remain a church for at least 50 years after the sale. However, like many small (and some large) churches in Chicago that find themselves on very valuable property, the parish decided to sell the complex of “1903-1907 W. Schiller” and the property was purchased by a condominium developer who planned to redevelop the church and the living areas into condos.

I remember in 2007, I believe, a Chicago publication – whether it was the Red Eye or some other publication, I’m not sure – ran an April Fool’s joke article claiming that Holy Trinity was going to be rehabbed into condos. Mind you, of all the churches out there, Holy Trinity is probably one of the least likely to be a candidate for this, not just because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, but because its style would make it ridiculously difficult to have any decent living space in the church itself. So I could laugh about it. I could even be happy that Holy Trinity was getting a bit of press. However, the priest of Holy Trinity at the time was close to apoplectic, and he commented online on the article about how unfunny and inappropriate the piece was, and he even wanted an apology.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral 2007
Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in 2007

As I’ve gotten older, and seen what is happening to churches in the US; how so many small parishes are closing up, and how many church buildings are being “repurposed” for condos, I can be much more sympathetic to this priest’s reaction. That that which was once dedicated to God is being profaned by mundane use should not be considered lightly.

No one knows exactly what happened that Monday morning. One man said he heard a great wind before the church collapsed. The fact of the matter is that it happened at a point in time where not a single person was killed – or even injured. Considering how much foot traffic takes place there, especially being across the street from a park in a neighborhood known for its nightlife, one has to consider a miracle.

Even though some, even in the Serbian community, would have rather that the building be preserved to some extent, I also consider the possibility that considering that this was where St. Sebastian lived and worked for years, that the complex was not going to be permitted to be profaned. One of the theories is that one of the walls that had formerly been exterior had collapsed, but even so, the damage was so extensive to all three parts of the complex that the City of Chicago ordered that the entire thing be demolished immediately. (There are also good before and after pictures there.)

In the end, there was some settlement between the developers and the city as far as permit violations and work being done that exceeded what the permits allowed. New buildings were constructed. Yet it is good to remember that the saints walk and have walked among us, redeeming time, and sanctifying those places where they have worked and dwelt among us.

dore canto 31 white rose

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