I have raised up a chosen man from my people, with my holy oil I have anointed him so that my hand is always with him and my arm strengthens him.
A year ago, on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Bishop Thomas G. Doran of the diocese of Rockford elevated a church downtown on Elm Street, St. Mary’s Shrine, to the status of an oratory. (See “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” The Rockford Files, October 2002). The declaration seemed the crowning moment in the five-year-long comeback of the second-oldest Catholic church in Rockford. Before the fall of 1997, when the bishop entrusted St. Mary’s to the care of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, the church had failed as a parish. Downtown Rockford simply no longer has enough residents—Catholic or otherwise—to sustain the massive red-brick Gothic structure. The Institute, which, at the invitation of Bishop Doran, ministers to the Latin Mass Community of Rockford, took on the task with gusto, under the leadership of St. Mary’s rector, Fr. Brian A.T. Bovee.
O God, who for the defense of the Catholic Faith and the restoration of all things in Christ didst fill Saint Pius, Supreme Pontiff, with heavenly wisdom and apostolic courage: grant in Thy loving kindness that by following his teachings and examples we may attain eternal rewards.
Between the first Sunday of Advent, 1997, and Christmas 2002, Father Bovee oversaw a massive renovation of the church. The altar rail was restored; two side altars were constructed, honoring the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph; the steep roof was replaced and the steeple repaired; and, at a cost of over $400,000, the stained-glass windows (“some of the finest in the Midwest,” according to stained-glass expert Frank Houtkamp) were removed, cleaned, repaired, and reinstalled. Organist and choir director Mark Dahlgren, at great personal expense, replaced St. Mary’s aging organ.
The restoration of the church was paralleled by the growth of its congregation. By this summer, average Sunday Mass attendance had reached 425; most Sunday liturgies were standing room only. Father Bovee raised the possibility of adding a second Sunday Mass. (He already celebrates two Masses on weekdays.)
And then, over Labor Day weekend, while Father Bovee, Bishop Doran, and other top diocesan officials were out of town, everything changed.
Last November, I mentioned Winnebago County’s plan to build a massive new jail over nine square blocks, across the street from St. Mary’s (see “The Cohn Zone,” The Rockford Files, November 2002). As I wrote,
It’s an open secret that the county has long desired the property on which St. Mary’s stands; now, since the jail would cover the lot in which most of the congregation parks, some parishioners have begun to suspect that Winnebago County hopes to solve the problem of public parking for the jail by making life uncomfortable for St. Mary’s.
No one quite knew just how uncomfortable, however. On Thursday, August 28, county-board member Rick Pollack sent an e-mail to the board’s secretary:
Sally, Here is my plan regarding the St. Mary’s Church: Please have a resolution written to enlarge the land acquisition area (include the church property) for appraisal and potential purchase. At our meeting on Sept. 3, we will vote on the resolution and bring it in to the full County Board Sept. 4.
I hope to have a representative from the diocese and Paul Logli to be present for moral support. I don’t want a media circus on this so I will talk to our board members. Tim Simms will check support for this at our caucus next week.
If Pollack did not want a “media circus,” he should have refrained from using e-mail. By Friday, fellow board member Mary Ann Aiello had obtained a copy of the message and alerted the media. By Sunday, Rockford Register Star reporter Pat Milhizer had tracked down the details, and columnist Chuck Sweeney blasted the plan, calling it, in the style of a 50’s B movie, “The Jail Monster That Ate Downtown,” “which would erase the diversity of downtown with a macabre monolith of incarceration.”
By Tuesday, September 2, the story had spread like wildfire, and Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli (himself a Catholic) found himself subjected to a heavy grilling by crusading local radio talk-show host Chris Bowman. At first, Logli argued that the possible loss of St. Mary’s was unimportant, claiming variously that few people worship there; that the church had suffered a fire in 1962 and had been “rebuilt,” so it was not the same building that was erected in 1885; and that, because the Oratory “is not a parish,” no one could be “married, buried, or baptized there.”
When Tom Fleming, coming on the Bowman show with Logli, pointed out that all of his claims were false (the congregation is sizeable; the fire, while devastating, had left the structure, including all but three of the stained-glass windows, intact; and marriages (including that of Tom’s daughter, Eleanor), baptisms (including those of three of my children), and even burials have all been performed at the Oratory, in accordance with canon law), the state’s attorney backpedaled. The county, he now claimed, was interested only in St. Mary’s school, which was last used in 1974. He apologized for any misunderstanding.
Supporters of St. Mary’s, however, weren’t buying his apology. When we posted a story on the threat to St. Mary’s on Chronicles’ website, e-mails poured in from across the United States and as far away as Norway and Australia. By Wednesday morning, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights had issued a press release. Catholic League President William Donohue had this to say:
We are contacting every member of the Winnebago County Board urging them to scratch this hastily drawn plan today. . . . Building a new county jail is important, but surely it can be done without demolishing a church of this significance. St. Mary’s sports a vibrant community and is led by one of America’s premier bishops. In short, it merits a special place in the Rockford community.
To bulldoze St. Mary’s so that local thugs can have a new home is more than insensitive—it’s insane. Because of the uniqueness of this church, Catholics from all over America will keep a close eye on how county officials react.
On The Chris Bowman Show that morning, Donohue pulled no punches, raising even the specter of a lawsuit over Logli’s comments the day before. And then the earth shook.
Bowman announced that Fr. John C. Fritz, secretary to Bishop Doran, was on the line. Father Fritz, coming on the air, asked a simple question: “Would you like to speak to the bishop?”
Bishop Doran, upon returning to town, had learned of the board members’ plans. Thanking Donohue for his efforts, Bishop Doran had harsh words for a local government that has grown a bit too big for its britches. The Catholic Church “has been around for 2,000 years; when America has been around that long, then the government can start bossing us around,” he said.
And that, anywhere else, might have been the end of the matter. Not, however, in Winnebago County.
Brethren, we had confidence in our God to preach to you the gospel of God amid much anxiety. For our exhortation was not from error, nor from impure motives, nor from guile. But as approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak not as pleasing men, but God, who proves our hearts. For at no time have we used words of flattery, as you know, nor any pretext for avarice, God is witness, nor have we sought glory from men, neither from you nor from others.
Privately, some county-board members claimed that the diocese was well aware of the county’s intentions and had even expressed an interest in selling the church. The claim, however, seems dubious, and not simply because of Bishop Doran’s vocal support for the Latin Mass Community and the Institute of Christ the King. The chancery must understand the grave consequences that accepting public money, generated by a controversial sales tax in an economically depressed city, would have for the diocese. Contributions from Catholics would surely drop. (“I already gave at the store.”) Furthermore, as Bishop Doran pointed out on the Bowman show, Catholics are a minority in this part of the Midwest. The chancery surely would not risk turning the non-Catholic majority actively anti-Catholic.
I have proclaimed thy justice in the great assembly: lo, I did not restrain my lips; Lord, thou knowest.
By Wednesday afternoon, Winnebago County Board Chairman Kristine Cohn, Sheriff Richard Meyers, and State’s Attorney Logli had issued a joint press release, stating that the county
has no plans to buy and/or destroy St. Mary’s Church. . . . The only land that may be impacted by a connecting tunnel or overhead walkway would be . . . the former grade school building. In the event that particular building is in any way affected, then appropriate and mutually beneficial arrangements will be made to preserve or relocate the heating plant currently located in the former school so as not to disrupt the Church or its congregation.
However, as county-board member John Terranova wrote in an e-mail to Bill Donohue,
a small minority of [board] members, and perhaps other officials, had initially planned to ram this proposal through without media scrutiny and serious Board oversight. They were caught, exposed and now are running for cover. If this issue were not as serious as it is, it would be amusing to hear the very members who brought this plan to resolution form now saying they would never have moved to tear down the church.
Wednesday night, at the board’s public safety committee meeting, Pollack, who denied that he had ever intended to threaten St. Mary’s, introduced a revised resolution that would expand the land-acquisition area to include St. Mary’s property “excluding the St. Mary’s Oratory.” (The school and the historic rectory would both be fair game.) However, the resolution goes on to state that “the Criminal Justice Project Director is authorized . . . to report the results of the investigation including any additional property required to the Public Safety Commission.” But the only additional property at St. Mary’s is the Oratory.
Parishioners from St. Mary’s filled the committee room to overflowing, and many showed up the next night at the county-board meeting. During public comments, Mark Dahlgren thanked the board for reconsidering and invited the 28 board members to come to Mass on Sunday so that they could better understand what they might be destroying. Board member Larry Bauer read a letter from parishioners David and Phyllis Monty issuing a similar invitation. (That Sunday, the only board member who accepted the invitations was Aiello.)
At the end of the meeting, board member Jim Hughes moved to have the public safety committee consider building the jail “on bare land”—in other words, outside of downtown. And so, at this writing, St. Mary’s fate is still up in the air, and her congregation is down on its knees.
At that time Jesus said to Simon Peter, Son of John, dost thou love Me more than these do? He said to Him, yes, Lord, thou knowest that I love Thee. He said to him, Feed My lambs.
The communion of saints encompasses more than this world, and many parishioners have noted that September 4, the day Jim Hughes made his motion, is the birthday of Judi Sharp, whose selfless devotion to St. Mary’s extended beyond her untimely death last year and helped provide the funds to complete the restoration of the church’s stained-glass windows. And the feast day of Pope Saint Pius X, a great leader in a time of turmoil who was committed to the restoration of the Faith, is September 3, the day Bishop Doran rallied to St. Mary’s side. (The italicized readings and prayers in this article are drawn from the festal Mass of St. Pius X.)
When Bishop Thomas Doran elevated St. Mary’s to an oratory, he did more than change the status of the church; he bound the Latin Mass Community and their liturgy to a particular place. This is their home now, and they have responded accordingly. They continue to trust that, with their bishop’s protection, it will not be taken away.
We beseech Thee, O Lord our God, that we who have been replenished with strength at the heavenly table may, by the intercession of Saint Pius, Supreme Pontiff, be also steadfast in the faith and of one mind through love of Thee.