Rockford Diocese Wants To Prioritize 'Relationships Over Buildings'

Mar 1, 2019

In a previous Friday Forum, we spoke with former Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey about his opposition to the Catholic Diocese of Rockford's plan to demolish its former chancery, which is the traditional name for a diocese's administrative offices. It was built in 1929 and has been vacant for nearly a decade. Morrissey joined a group calling for historic designation for the chancery and a pair of surrounding buildings near Court Street. On this week's Friday Forum, we hear from Patrick Winn, the director of Catholic Charities at the Diocese of Rockford.

Former Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey would like the Diocese of Rockford to consider tax credits to repair aging structures which include its chancery. Morrissey points to projects in Madison, Wis., where the Catholic Church partnered with the private sector to turn unused properties into housing. Catholic Charities director Patrick Winn says it's not a fair comparison.

Patrick Winn, Diocese of Rockford, Catholic Charities Director

"The property on the Cathedral of St. Peter, which is where the former chancery stood, amounts to under half an acre," Winn said. "If you're talking about the property up in Madison, that's over 70 acres. So you're talking about the difference between probably the small infield of a softball field versus the property that would cover more than a nine hole golf course."

Another property, a school, would not be demolished under the plan. It will no longer be used next year as an elementary school, but Winn says it will continue to be used for religious education during the day and at night.

Critics of the plan say the move to demolish the chancery amounts to the church turning its back on the local neighborhood. Winn says the priority is to meet the needs of residents through services.

"It was an administrative building and now it's an abandoned empty administrative building," Winn said. "We can do better than that. And the fact that the Cathedral Church of St. Peter will remain there is our strongest statement of our sense of history."

Still, some say it's a missed opportunity for the Catholic Church to build bridges.

Winn says his response came in focus during a recent conference he attended on fighting domestic violence and human trafficking.

"In order to combat those couple of evils, it's not about the building, it's about the relationships," Winn said. "From the Catholic Church's perspective, the relationship that we have both to our God and the members of our church. Then from Catholic Charities' perspective -- the people who we're able to serve -- it's about the relationships."

Additionally, Winn says it is within the organization's First Amendment right to choose how to use the properties it owns. He says the Diocese of Rockford serves 11 counties in northern Illinois and has a duty to be good stewards of the money its receives from members.

Winn says open space dedicated to the Immaculate Conception is planned for the space currently occupied by the former chancery.

"We think it's important to recognize that we have got a unique opportunity to reflect on the campus of the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rockford a real honor to our patroness, and we think that'll be a significant opportunity for us to express our faith going forward," Winn said.

The demolition plan has already been on hiatus as the city considers landmarks status for the properties. On Thursday night, Rockford's Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend the three properties as landmarks. The issue now goes to the full council for a vote.