Activists appeal directly to Pope Francis in fight to save former Catholic Chancery building


A group of local activists, headed by former Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey, announced Friday that they will be sending a letter to Pope Francis, asking him to intervene on behalf of the former Rockford Diocese Chancery building, and save the property from demolition.

The Diocese of Rockford says demolishing the building is more cost effective than trying to keep a deteriorating building within the city’s building codes.  They add renovating it would cost around $2 million dollars.

For three months, the fate of the Diocese of Rockford’s former Chancery building has hung in the balance as community activists worked to save the building. Now, their hopes to save the Chancery building may be up in the air as the Code & Regulation Committee voted against the proposed landmark designation on Monday night.

In his letter, Morrissey gives the background on the controversy and expresses concern that the Church is abandoning central Rockford.

Morrissey believes recent guidance by the Pope places him on the side of those who wish to save the building.

“The Pope’s looking for partnership. He’s looking for dialogue. And he’s got a bias towards preservation and not demolition, so we hope to have that conversation happen so there’s a win-win for the communtiy and the church,” Morrissey said.

Full text of Morrissey’s letter to Pope Francis:

Most Holy Father,

Despite the strong guidance Your Holiness recently provided in favor of the restoration or adaptive reuse ofvacant Church properties, our local Bishop for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois USA, David J. Malloy, has ordered the demolition of our revered, sacred and historic Chancery Building. We feel that a deaf ear has been turned to the cries of local parish members, neighbors, and civil leaders. We also see in word and deed, our Church abandoning responsibility for the redevelopment, renewal and rebuilding of our community. We ask that Your
Holiness intercede to allow dialogue and collaboration on this critical issue.

The Chancery is just a block away from my home and served as a pillar for our Diocese as the Bishop’s residence, chapel, and Diocesan offices from 1929 to 2001 when the Diocese moved its offices and the Bishop’s residence to the affluent part of our community. Even vacant, the Chancery has remained a symbol of hope and
grace in the heart of our old neighborhood. The Chancery has also been recognized as one of our community’s most unique architectural and cultural treasures. Consequently, we have been heartbroken by our Bishop’s decision to demolish the Chancery.

Sadly, we view the current decision to demolish the Chancery as part of an unfortunate and long pattern of our Church closing schools, vacating properties and abandoning our impoverished central city. While we understand and respect the challenge of changing demographics and the financial stewardship responsibilities of the Diocese, we do not accept nor understand the complete lack of dialogue and good faith spirit of cooperation on this vital issue.

Over 3,400 individuals have joined our efforts and signed our Petition in support of saving the Chancery. We believe Christ calls on us to lead with faith, not fear. We view the challenge of saving the Chancery as a way to help rebuild our community and give life and hope to our Parish and our neighbors. Consequently, we are seeking to have the Chancery declared a local Historic Landmark by the City of Rockford, which would provide some protections and opportunities for this sacred building.

We feel strongly, however, that the Church should not have to be compelled by local civil authorities to do something that the Church should welcome on its own. We are also shocked and saddened that our local Bishop has not taken inspiration from the recent guidance Your Holiness provided at the Conference on Cultural
Heritage , namely, that:

● In answering the question of how to preserve the beauty and sacredness of unused Church properties, Your Holiness quoted the 2015 encyclical, Laudato si, calling on Church leaders throughout the world to “learn to see and appreciate beauty” and “reject self-interested pragmatism.”

● In your message, you also told the conference that the fact that there are now many empty church properties should not be a cause for anxiety but welcomed “as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt.”

● You stated that every final decision made by bishops be “fruit of concerned reflection conducted within the Christian community AND in dialogue with the civil community” . (emphasis added).

● You also added that “Disposal should not be the first and only solution to think about, nor ever be carried out with a scandal to the faithful.”

● You also reminded the participants at the conference that, in the first book of Maccabees “Jerusalem had been liberated and the temple profaned by the pagans restored, the liberators preferred to set them aside ‘until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them’”.

● The Conference also specifically mentioned things like restrictive covenants that could be included in adaptive reuse projects of Church properties to ensure that future uses remain respectful to the sacred nature of the properties.

The former Chancery was the revered headquarters for our Diocese with a residence for our Bishop and associate priests as well as a chapel where mass was regularly said for decades. Based on the guidance from Your Holiness, as well as the Report created by conference leaders, we believe our local Bishop and Diocese
should be working with local authorities to support the preservation or redevelopment of vacant Church properties like our historic Chancery. Through creative partnerships, we are confident the Chancery can be restored and
renewed for a new purpose.

Sadly, our local Rockford Diocese and Bishop have taken the opposite position, aggressively opposing our efforts and refusing any constructive dialogue on the matter. Our Bishop made a final decision to demolish the building based solely on input from Diocesan officials and without input and collaboration with the local Parish, our local neighborhood, or our local City government. While there are many individuals and organizations willing to help, it seems the Bishop would rather have the Chancery destroyed than partner with the community to have it restored.

Your Holiness, this issue is about much more than a single building. This is about the Church’s role as a partner with its own members and the broader civil community. This is about our Church’s core mission of serving the poor. Indeed, the challenge of vacant Church properties and the Church’s role in community development impacts every Diocese and Parish throughout the world.

I am a father and husband trying to support my family and my community. I am also a lifelong Catholic and a former mayor of our community. Our current mayor, Tom McNamara, is also a lifelong Catholic and member of the Parish, and his father, John McNamara, was also a mayor of our city and has been a member of the Parish for many decades. We have all made offers to help the Diocese to rebuild and restore the Chancery. We never wanted this matter to become a public battle. We just want to be part of a dialogue with our Church. Sadly, all
invitations to partner have been rejected by Bishop Malloy and the Rockford Diocese. We feel heartbroken. This is why we are turning to you for help.

While we are inspired and hopeful by the guidance your Holiness has given for the Church to be a good partner with local communities, we do not see your guidance being followed by our local leadership in this matter. Therefore, we respectfully and humbly ask that Your Holiness intercede on behalf of our local faith community and local civil community. We ask that you provide direction and guidance to our local Diocese and local Bishop to work with us in collaboration for the betterment of all stakeholders.

Respectfully yours in Christ,

Lawrence J. Morrissey

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