Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

News consumers who have been paying attention to religion trends may have noticed this one: There are lots of church buildings for sale these days.

This is especially true with old-line Protestant sanctuaries located in older neighborhoods — often on prime property deep inside zip codes that are evolving due to gentrification.

What to do? Well, lots of urban folks — singles, cohabitating couples, married-without-kids folks — are attracted to unique condos and apartments that don’t look like they are assembled using cookie-cutters and one or two sets of design plans.

That brings us to the following real-estate headline at The Chicago Tribune: “Logan Square church gets new life as 9 luxury apartments.” Let me stress that I realize that this is a real-estate story. One should not expect that news desk to provide a lot of depth, when it comes to the religious implications of some of the information in a news report of this kind.

But let’s see if you can spot the detail that I think would have been worth a follow-up question or two — a click of a computer mouse, at least, or even a telephone call. Things start in a rather predictable manner, with a bad pun:

Living in one new Logan Square apartment building is a heavenly experience. The former church was converted into nine distinctive residences, incorporating many of the original architectural features.

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

That brings us to the colorful details that caught my attention. Read this carefully and think, well, sort of like a liturgist, or a religion-beat professional:

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety.

“Any of the elements that were left here, the developer was able to repurpose and reuse,” said Mark Durakovic, principal at Kass Management Services, which is managing and leasing the building.

Wait a minute! Episcopal officials in Chicago left the altar inside the abandoned church — thus allowing it to be turned into nifty and very upscale stone island in the kitchen? I know that could never happen in Eastern Orthodoxy and I assume it would be impossible to do this with a consecrated altar in the Church of Rome (Please correct me if I’m wrong).

Is that legal, under Episcopal Church law? I am familiar with many stories about Episcopal sanctuaries that have been sold for use as bars, art galleries, concert halls and even, well, more exotic things (find the Andy Warhol reference and keep reading).

I have several close friends who are former Episcopal priests, so I asked one for input. As it turns out, the reference materials linked to The Book of Common Prayer do address this issue. Here’s the rite that we’re talking about: “Secularizing a Consecrated Building.”

Once again, read carefully. I think there’s an interesting story in here:

The presiding minister may be the bishop or a deputy appointed by the bishop. The altar and all consecrated and dedicated objects that are to be preserved are removed from the building before the service begins.

Ah. So it’s normal for sacred objects — like the altar used in the Holy Eucharist — to be preserved for future use elsewhere.

But what if (a) a denomination is closing way more churches than it is opening and doesn’t need many new altars? And (b) what if modern clergy want, well, modern altars instead of old-fashioned ones that look Anglo-Catholic or something like that?

Actually, if you pay close attention in the wedding video at the top of this post (and the outreach video at the end) it appears that this church had a main altar and a side chapel dedicated to St. Mary, with its own altar. It’s possible that one was saved and the other was, well, repurposed.

Could that have happened? Back to the Episcopal rite:

The service begins with an address by the presiding minister. This statement acknowledges that for many the building has been "hallowed by cherished memories." The address prays that those who suffer a sense of loss will be comforted by knowledge that the presence of God is not tied to any place or building. The presiding minister also states the intention of the diocese that the congregation will not be deprived of the ministry of Word and sacrament. The bishop's Declaration of Secularization is then read. It revokes the Sentence of Consecration, and remits the building and all objects in it for any lawful and reputable use in accordance with the laws of the land.

The key phrase: “… remits the building and all objects in it for any lawful and reputable use. …” So keep things reputable on that kitchen island, please.

So there you go. Here’s the end of this piece, with quotes from Andrew Gruesser, the leasing and sales director for this project.

One apartment on the main church level faces Logan Boulevard. Measuring 1,233 square feet, it has three bedrooms and two baths. All four of the massive windows, including two in the combination living and dining area, are original stained art glass. The master bedroom features an en suite bath, separated by a hallway lined with closets, with dual vanities and an oversize shower. The second bath has a single vanity and a tub.

As the building was being converted, the design goal was to respect the church’s past as a house of worship while meeting the needs of modern-day renters, Gruesser said.

“People can say it’s a really cool building, but if it doesn’t have closet space or if it doesn’t have a washer and dryer or room for their couch, it’s not going to work for them,” he said.

So this is how one can have an Anglican altar in that wonderful chrome-and-stone kitchen, maybe even with a stained-glass image of the Resurrection.

Interesting? Or is this just a real-estate story and that’s that?

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