It’s been a rough three months for St. Mary’s Oratory here in Rockford.  First, over Labor Day weekend, some Republican members of the Winnebago County Board, in collusion with certain Republican county officials, hatched a plan to try to include St. Mary’s in the land-acquisition area for a new, $130-million county jail.  When the plan was exposed, those board members and officials were reduced to claiming that they had no intention of taking the church and only wanted to put a tunnel across St. Mary’s property to connect the new jail to the county’s existing public-safety building.  Seasoned observers of Winnebago County politics, however, suspected that the land grab was likely an attempt to take advantage of the jail construction to free up St. Mary’s property now for use by the county somewhere down the road.

In any case, by the end of October, the county had settled on an alternative route for the tunnel, and life, it seemed, could return to normal for the Latin Mass Community at St. Mary’s—at least, as normal as life could be at the church that some have taken to calling “St. Mary’s in Chains” or “St. Mary’s Between the Jails.”  Nothing in Winnebago County, however, is ever that simple.

Trying to derail the plans of her fellow board members, Mary Ann Aiello, along with local architect Gary Anderson, had filed a petition in September with the Rockford Historic Preservation Commission to have St. Mary’s, its rectory, and its school declared a local landmark.  The Diocese of Rockford, however—rightly mindful of its own prerogatives—opposed the application on the grounds that landmarking the church without diocesan consent constitutes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion.  Indeed, St. Mary’s would be the first church in Rockford singled out for landmark status.  (Two other churches have landmark status by virtue of their location in the Haight Village historic district, but they were not targeted for landmark status individually.)

To the diocese and the congregation at St. Mary’s, the petition for landmark status is remarkably similar to the county’s actions over Labor Day weekend.  In neither case was the diocese or the congregation consulted about its intentions or its desires.  While Rockford’s historic-preservation ordinance (which Gary Anderson helped to draft) is rather mild—in fact, landmarked buildings in Rockford have actually been torn down—the diocese could not simply consent to the landmarking, for both pragmatic and principled reasons.  There are approximately 125 Catholic churches in the Diocese of Rockford, which stretches from the western border of Illinois to the suburbs of Chicago.  Many of them are potential landmarks under local ordinances; some of them are eligible for state and national landmark status.  Not all of those statutes are as accommodating as Rockford’s, and the diocese has good reason to fear that submitting to this landmark petition would undercut its ability to fight the imposition of more restrictive landmark status on churches in other towns and cities.

The Institute of Christ the King, which administers St. Mary’s Oratory and celebrates the traditional Latin Mass there, joined the diocese in opposing the petition.  The congregation, which had applauded Aiello’s efforts to protect the church from the county, largely regarded her decision to continue with the petition, now that the threat from the county has passed, as meddlesome.  While Aiello is a Catholic, she is not a member of the congregation at St. Mary’s, nor has she contributed to the church’s maintenance and renovation over the past six years.

The core issue, of course, remains the free exercise of religion, an issue on which Bishop Thomas Doran has rightly said that he cannot compromise.  He has reluctantly decided that, if landmark status is granted, he will close St. Mary’s.  Since he personally invited the Institute of Christ the King to administer St. Mary’s six years ago in order to keep the church open, and since he reaffirmed his commitment to St. Mary’s a year ago by elevating it to the status of an oratory, this has clearly not been an easy decision.  The bishop has stated, however, that the Latin Mass will continue in Rockford if the city’s actions force him to close St. Mary’s: He will move the Institute and the Latin Mass Community to a different facility.  The diocese would prefer, though, to defeat the landmarking petition and to keep the Latin Mass at St. Mary’s.  Unfortunately, on December 9, the diocese lost the first stage of the battle, when the Historic Preservation Commission rejected the free-exercise argument and voted to grant landmark status.  The petition now goes to the Codes and Regulations Committee of the Rockford City Council, which will likely approve it, before being sent to the council as a whole.  How the council will vote is anyone’s guess.

The world of “traditionalist” Catholicism is an unduly complicated one, and not a few partisans of the traditional Latin Mass like to engage in self-fulfilling prophecies about the “perfidy” of Catholic bishops.  One such commentator, “Fr. Moderator” of the website, has taken upon himself the task of calumniating Bishop Doran by declaring, against all evidence, that the bishop’s true intent is to end the Latin Mass in Rockford.  Never mind that the bishop could do that at any time by simply withdrawing permission to say the Latin Mass; never mind that he has, instead, recently granted that permission to at least two diocesan priests, in addition to the priests of the Institute of Christ the King; never mind that he has used diocesan funds to underwrite the maintenance and renovation of St. Mary’s when the Latin Mass Community could not afford to do so.  “Fr. Moderator”—a man named M.E. Morrison of Hayward, California, who claims to be an “independent” Catholic priest (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and who, according to reports, may not even be validly ordained—knows better than those of us here in the congregation at St. Mary’s Oratory.  If this be the state of “traditionalist” Catholicism today, then Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis