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updated: 4/9/2014 8:45 AM

Putting new faces on old churches

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  • The confessional box inside the dilapidated St. Mary's Catholic Church in Plainfield. The building was acquired by the village and minimally restored. It has attracted interest from potential business developers.

      The confessional box inside the dilapidated St. Mary's Catholic Church in Plainfield. The building was acquired by the village and minimally restored. It has attracted interest from potential business developers.
    AP Photo/The Herald-News, Rob Winner

 
By VIKAAS SHANKER
The (Joliet) Herald-News

PLAINFIELD -- The dilapidated St. Mary's Catholic church on Lockport Street is a relic of Plainfield history.

Built in 1836, originally as a Universalist church, the building more recently was home to Baci's restaurant. When the restaurant closed, the building sat empty for two years before the village acquired the church, not wanting to lose the landmark in downtown Plainfield.

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"It's important for the village of Plainfield to save that structure," said Mayor Michael Collins, who had his first wedding in the church. "It's historic."

When old churches are abandoned, municipalities often have to balance the financial impact of the empty buildings with historic value.

Sometimes churches are converted for commercial uses at high costs, and sometimes they're razed to save money and free up the land.

"It's not an easy decision," Village Planner Michael Garrigan said.

The Plainfield First Baptist Church on the southwest corner of Route 59 and Lockport Street in Plainfield was 178 years old when it was razed in 2004 to make the land available for other uses - although that location is still vacant after the contract with a bank that was planning to move in fell through.

In December, the 120-year-old Church of the Living God on 353 E. Jackson St. in Joliet was torn down by the city after it was deemed unfit to enter, even for the contractor.

Today the old St. Mary's Carmelite church in downtown Joliet, built in 1882, faces an uncertain future with some calling for its preservation and some calling for its demolition.

St. Mary's in Plainfield was acquired by the village and minimally restored. It has attracted interest from potential business developers.

The building does not look like Baci's anymore. The interior double-deck structure that housed the seating of the restaurant was torn down by the village, revealing the main sanctuary area that is closer to how it looked before the church closed in the 1970s.

"The interior that has been stripped of the restaurant and furnishings is essentially what it was when the church was there," said Trustee Paul Fay, who was baptized there. "The high altar was very ornate, as was the style then."

The village board hopes a restaurant or another commercial user takes the space. Religious organizations have expressed interest but were turned away because the village wants tax revenue from the property.

Baci's opened in 1990 and thrived. But when it closed in 2010, it wasn't maintained enough for potential buyers to purchase and renovate the historic building. So the village bought the building for $125,000 in 2012, and started a $200,000 restoration process in hopes of the building coming back on the tax roll.

"That's what direction the village gave us," Garrigan said. "We started the restoration process and like the openness of the main area."

The building underwent extensive mold mitigation and the roofing was fixed. The village also installed heating and makeshift lighting after gutting the building of most utility uses. Garrigan said the building costs less than $100 per month to maintain.

The village almost struck a deal with a Chicago-based restaurateur in August. But the contract fell apart after the restaurant owner realized he didn't have the financial wherewithall, according to Garrigan.

"I've shown the place to a couple of other interested buyers in January and February," Garrigan said. "But it will take a sizeable investment for whoever goes in."

Finding money can be a problem because of the age of old churches.

St. Mary's Carmelite in downtown Joliet was going to be demolished by the Diocese of Joliet before a developer stepped in and offered to redevelop the limestone structure into senior apartments. It appeared the church was going to be saved.

But now, no one in Joliet appears to know what is going to happen since the developer has been unable to raise the money needed to renovate the church.

Celadon Holdings, LLC, acquired the church in 2012 and was planning to convert it into senior housing units. But Scott Henry of Celadon last year put the church up for auction after not being able to put together the financing needed for the project.

Henry did not return phone messages asking about the current status of the church, and, at this point, city officials aren't sure what will happen with the structure.

"The last we heard, they were going to put in some senior condos and looking for federal grants to do that, but they didn't get them," Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante said. "I would hate to see it torn down. But the problem is it's sat empty for so long and deteriorated. It's going to take so much to get it back."

Joliet attorney Richard Kavanaugh, whose office sits next to the church, would rather see it demolished. Kavanaugh's firm filed a lawsuit against the city for issuing a special-use permit for the senior housing plan, but the suit was dismissed when the permit expired.

"The church is in deplorable shape," Kavanaugh said, adding that he often sees shingles from the building on the ground after heavy storms. "There are code violations too numerous to keep track."

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