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Rockford's Former Mayor At Odds With Diocese Over Chancery Future

Jenna Dooley

In the Catholic church, a chancery is the traditional name for the administrative offices of a diocese. In Rockford, church leaders have made plans to demolish the former chancery on Court Street. It was built in 1929 and has been vacant for nearly a decade. Since then, there have been building code violations and continued costs for upkeep. Church leaders cite safety concerns as well. Former Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey wants historic designation for the building to pursue ways to give it new life.

He says one reason it has become a passion project for him is because he lives in the neighborhood. As the city’s former mayor, he also believes there are ways to get tax credits to turn the complex into housing, similar to projects in Madison, Wis. He’s also a Catholic, and says he feels compelled to speak out.

“It really demonstrates the challenge that our church has right now in creating bridges; both with Catholics and the broader community,” Morrissey said. “I think it's in the church’s best interest to create these bridges and demonstrate that there is a way to work together to move forward.”

A city commission will consider the request for landmark status next month and then it could go to the full council for approval.

That’s what Morrissey is hoping for.

“Assuming the council approved the landmark designations for the properties involved, there would be opportunities through state and federal historic tax credits,” Morrissey said. “There would also be some requirements before the issuance of a demolition permit to explore the economic viability of the buildings.”

He says he’s not afraid to be at odds with the church in a public setting.

“It's not uncomfortable,” Morrissey said. “I'm used to it. I spent 12 years in public office with a different perspective obviously as mayor. I told my contact at the diocese before this went public that I wasn't going to go down without a fight. That's what I did as an attorney. I’m never going to stop being an advocate. I think that's the role of a citizen. It's also a core role of a Catholic.”

He says Catholics are called on to challenge church leadership when they feel it’s necessary.

“At times when church leadership needs to change, whether we're talking about clergy sex abuse or talking about having a relationship and a strong partnership with the community, the church needs to adjust to modern times.”

He admits there is still a lot of work to do to keep the chancery from the wrecking ball.

“This is one of those important times in the history of the church,” Morrissey said. “We have to believe in something. And I think that's very much aligned with my Catholic faith. I think Jesus wants us to stand for neighborhoods like our neighborhood.”

The diocese issued a statement in response to the current efforts to halt the demolition:

Credit Jenna Dooley

The consequence of a landmark designation, if approved by the City of Rockford, would result in a substantial burden to the Diocese and the parish.  Such a government mandate constitutes a governmental intrusion of private property owned by a religious entity, which is a violation of the separation of Church and state.  A landmark designation will be an unreasonable burden on a religious entity’s First Amendment right to exercise its religious faith and mission as the religious entity sees best. 

Whether intentional or not, the imposition of a landmark designation will interrupt and interfere with the mission of the Diocese in serving the entire Catholic people of God in its 11-county diocese by possibly requiring us to enhance those buildings aesthetically for the sole satisfaction of one neighborhood in one city. 

Further, landmark designation of the former Chancery building would be interference by the government that could result in the diversion of Diocesan funds collected from all other parishes of the Diocese and from charitable donations made by donors to the Diocese.

The landmark designation would also foreclose the ability of the Cathedral of St. Peter to envision any modifications to its campus in the future and may limit what the Parish can do with its ministries, by tethering the parish’s funds to the preservation of non-sacred physical structures that, in the instance of the Chancery, have been professionally analyzed and found to be beyond maintenance and repair in any context of good stewardship.  Further, the convent is also under an order of demolition by the City.

Designating these three buildings as landmarks would also send a powerfully ominous message to other religious entities and communities, service agencies and non-profit groups who are required to be responsible stewards of the resources with which they have been entrusted—and that message is that the carrying out of their missions can be thwarted and dictated at any time by a local government with actions such as what are currently being sought against the Diocese and the Cathedral Parish.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.