When Rockford, Illinois, makes the national news (I’ve written more than once), you can be certain the news won’t be good. The home of the Rockford Institute and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Rockford is a struggling Rust Belt city that, unfortunately, has seen its better days. From a downtown destroyed by so-called urban renewal to a 13-year-long desegregation suit that devastated our public schools to the loss of 20 percent of our manufacturing jobs over the past three years, Rockfordians have suffered dearly. And all too often, that suffering has been aided and abetted by the elected officials of Rockford and of Winnebago County.
Now some of those elected officials have set their sites on one of the few remaining shining lights of Rockford’s downtown. St. Mary’s Oratory, a red-brick Gothic structure built in 1885, is the second-oldest Catholic church in Rockford and by far the best preserved. It has the distinction of being the only church in America to offer the traditional Latin Mass exclusively — and twice daily — with ecclesiastical approval.
Over Labor Day weekend, while the pastor of St. Mary’s and all of the top officials of the diocese of Rockford (including perhaps the best bishop in America, Thomas G. Doran) were out of town, members of the Winnebago County Board hatched a plan, which they hoped to ram through this week, to try to purchase St. Mary’s to make room for a massive new county jail.
St. Mary’s is one of the most vibrant parishes I’ve ever belonged to, brimming with young families with lots of children. (At five children, our family is one of the smallest.) The church has spawned two independent Catholic schools, been the center of much homeschooling activity, and helped to save the western portion of Rockford’s downtown from sliding further into the abyss. Located near state and local government buildings, it is the only Catholic church that serves the needs of downtown residents and workers.
Through the efforts of Bishop Doran and the rector of the oratory, Fr. Brian A.T. Bovee of the Institute of Christ the King, St. Mary’s has been lovingly refurbished. Parishioners donated over a quarter of a million dollars to restore the stained-glass windows (which Frank Houtkamp, a stained-glass expert, has declared to be some of the finest in the Midwest) alone. Sunday Mass attendance averages 425.
When Winnebago County Board member Mary Ann Aiello blew the whistle on her fellow members’ attempt take over this jewel of traditional Catholicism, people in Rockford and around the country reacted in horror. Starting with a newspaper article in the Rockford Register Star, the wildfire spread to Chris Bowman’s show on WNTA (the most influential local radio station), and then rapidly across the country. (See the coverage on ChroniclesMagazine.org for details and for statements of support from people such as Ron Maxwell, director of Gods and Generals.) By yesterday morning, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, had issued one of his infamous press releases and contacted every member of the Winnebago County Board.
When Donohue appeared yesterday morning on the Bowman show, he was greeted by an unexpected caller — Bishop Thomas Doran himself, who had returned to town to discover the board members’ plans. Thanking Donohue for his efforts, Bishop Doran had harsh words for a local government that has grown a bit too big for its britches. The Catholic Church “has been around for 2,000 years; when America has been around that long, then the government can start bossing us around,” he said.
By mid-afternoon, it appeared that the county was in full contrition mode. County Board Chairman Kris Cohn, State’s Attorney Paul Logli, and Sheriff Richard Meyers issued a press release, stating that the county “has no plans to buy and/or destroy St. Mary’s Church.… The only land that may be impacted by a connecting tunnel or overhead walkway would be … the former grade school building. In the event that particular building is in any way affected, then appropriate and mutually beneficial arrangements will be made to preserve or relocate the heating plant currently located in the former school so as not to disrupt the Church or its congregation.”
Here in Rockford, no battle is ever fully over, and while the county board resolution has been changed explicitly to exclude St. Mary’s Oratory (but not the school and any other property, including the historic rectory), the resolution also makes a provision for “including any additional property required … ” St. Mary’s Oratory, however, is the only additional property in the area under consideration. Still, yesterday afternoon the sky seemed a little more blue, and the sun shone a little more brightly than normal. Perhaps Rockford was due for a little good news.