The Battle to preserve the St. Boniface church campus began in earnest on June 1, 1999 when community residents, former parishioners and preservationists gathered for a candle light vigil in front of the long-abandoned structures. Organized jointly by the East Village Association and former parishioner and neighbor Kevin Stawiarski, the event was spurred by the announcement that the buildings were to be demolished.
Although the efforts to preserve St. Boniface predated the creation ofPreservation Chicago, it was here that Jonathan Fine, then president of the East Village Association, met Mike Moran. They together would ultimately cofound Preservation Chicago in 2001 based on this preservation effort.
The Romanesque Revival style church, school, and rectory were built between 1896 and1904 and designed by architect Henry J. Schlacks, who gained the sobriquet “the master of Catholic church architecture in Chicago.” St. Boniface, named for the patron saint of Germany, was established for German immigrants in 1865. After The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, St. Boniface provided refuge for the great masses that were displaced. Later, one of its parish priests, Father Evers, lead the effort to condemn the 10 acres adjacent to the church, which is now Eckhart Park. The historical changes of the ethnic makeup of the congregation mirror the same transitions that are the very history of the West Town neighborhood.
First closed by the archdiocese in 1990, the negative press coverage generated by the 1999 vigil halted demolition for a time. With support from then-Alderman Jesse Granato (1st) and city hall, efforts were made to find a viable reuse for the building. Community leaders urged that the church or school building be renovated for a much needed branch library, to no avail.
As years passed, numerous proposals were proposed and rejected. In 2004, a highly publicized design competition sponsored by the Archdiocese generated numerous schemes but no viable proposal that would save the buildings. Unfortunately, in 2004, the school building was demolished. However, community pressure prevailed and its arched façade was carefully dismantled and numbered for future reconstruction.
Finally in 2008, and at the urging of city hall, an RFP (Request For Development Proposals) was issued by the archdiocese. Unfortunately, at that time, no viable redevelopment proposals came forward and on December 5, 2008, the archdiocese of Chicago applied for a demolition permit.
It is then that the community sprung back into action, led as always by the indefatigable Mr. Stawiarski. Pressure was put on Alderman Walter Burnett (26th) who had inherited St. Boniface when ward boundaries were redrawn in 2002 to find a reuse for the church as community residents refused to accept demolition as an option. Working with the city’s Department of Community Development and the Historic Preservation division, a solution was indeed found.
After a complicated land swap agreement was reached between the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Board of Education and Institutional Project Management, LLC IPM became the owners of St. Boniface on October 20th 2010. The church will be adaptively reused for a senior living center, retaining much of its historic fabric.