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At St. Peter’s, A Renovation Points the Way Forward

Award-winning Lakeview project remakes a church while preserving its aesthetic

Episcopal parishes around the country face hard choices when the buildings erected by their forebears no longer meet the needs of the current congregation and require so much upkeep that the parish cannot afford to do anything else. But not every congregation emerges from this difficult situation on firm financial footing, with a renewed sense of mission and a national award for the renovation and re-purposing of its sanctuary.

That is the story of St. Peter’s, Chicago, which was declared a distressed parish in July 2016, sold its 128-year-old parish house in 2018, plowed the proceeds into reshaping the interior of its church, and, working with AltusWorks architects, won an Adaptive Re-use/Repurpose Award from Partners for Sacred Places in February.

“It was tough at first,” said the Rev. Shane Gormley, who has been the parish’s rector since shortly after it was granted “distressed” status. But parishioners found their way through “a lot of anxiety” to a place of hope in their shared future.

“On the first Sunday back in the building, one of the things I emphasized as strongly as I could was that we were not going back into St Peter’s, we were moving forward,” said Gormley, who works half time at the church and also teaches at Loyola University of Chicago and Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin. “This was a new stage in the life of St. Peter’s.

“And I don’t know how to describe that day except to say it was beautiful. There was joy, and I think a healthy sense of relief that they were coming into a place that felt like home.”

Distressed parishes work with a team of diocesan leaders who provide technical and managerial expertise and emotional support. In some instances, the diocese also provides financial assistance.

In St. Peter’s situation, the problem was obvious. “The parish house had fallen into incredible disrepair,” Gormley said. With a membership of about 70 and an average Sunday attendance of about 40, “there was no way we had the financial capacity to maintain both buildings together.”

There was even some question, initially, whether the parish could afford to keep its church. But when it became clear that the sale of the venerable but little-used parish house could make renovating the church possible, the parish set to solving the problem of how to incorporate office and gathering space into its church while still maintaining the beauty of its oak and blue-stained glass interior.

“I was concerned that St. Peter’s past not so much stay intact as be acknowledged,” said Guy Norred, an architect and parishioner who serves as the church’s sacristan. “But I was mostly concerned it become something sustainable and forward-looking while acknowledging that past that was there, and I believe we have accomplished that.”

Parishioners participated in gatherings facilitated by Cary Johnson, an architect who had previously worked with the firm that designed the Nicholas Center on the fifth floor of St. James’ Commons. Those conversations not only gave people “a sense of ownership,” Gormley said, but also “fueled what we were able to bring with us when we hired our own architects.”

Visitors to St. Peter’s today encounter a church that has a smaller narthex that includes a new pantry and bathrooms; a glass-walled office in the left, rear corner of the nave that includes a rector’s study, a conference table and two additional work spaces; a small chapel in the right front corner of the nave, fitted with several pews from the chapel in the old parish house; and a flexible gathering space that accommodates tables and chairs at the rear of the nave and along the left wall. The front pews in the center aisle remain much as they were, as does the appearance of much of the interior, right down to the shades of paint.

“We ended up coming to a place where if you were to walk into the church very familiar with how St. Peter’s looked for so long, you actually might not notice much that was difference,” Gormley said.

AltusWorks received the Sacred Places award for its work in February. “The core original purpose of the nave is preserved with the sensitive addition of … community uses in the side aisles,” the jury wrote. “The reversible glass walls preserve the historical integrity of the architecture.”

The parish emerged from distressed status in December 2020.

Norred said a sense of relief is general across the congregation, which worshipped in the basement of Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ from April 2018 through December 2020, then in the loft of the Second Unitarian Church until September 2021. “It seems to be that what needed to happen has happened,” he said. “Now we are finding the way to use the space that makes sense. We have been through a very inward-looking time, and that has led us to a place where we are ready to do the opposite.”

Gormley agrees. “We have gotten to a place where we can see in concrete detail what we were working toward,” he said. “This is going to be good in furthering God’s plan for the vision and mission of St. Peter’s as we continue to minister to the people of the Lakeview neighborhood, and minister to us, where we live and work.”

As the project reached completion, Gormley announced he was leaving St. Peter’s to complete work on his dissertation. The parish’s new interim rector, the Rev. Charlotte Johnson, will occupy the glass-walled office in the rear of the church beginning June 1.

images: Dirk Matthews Photography