County plan for St. Mary’s Oratory inspires wrath

Speculation and irritation continued to grow Tuesday over reports that Winnebago County may try to acquire the St. Mary’s Oratory property at 517 Elm St.

Reportedly the county wants to gain the land complete construction of a planned new county jail. The county board may vote Sept. 4 on whether to proceed with the plan.

County Board Chairman Kris Cohn denies there is any such plan in the works and has branded all talk as “speculation” at this point.

Board member Mary Ann Aiello (R-9), said, however, that the county’s project director appeared two weeks ago before the public safety committee and asked the committee to direct Assistant State’s Attorney Charles Prorok to call the Rockford Diocese, which owns the property, to request permission to go on the land.

Prorok said the site may be needed for a proposed tunnel linking the old jail with the new building. Aiello said she told chairman Rick Pollack (R-13) she would support some use of the land provided the church was not touched.

Pollack said the county needs to look at the property. Instead of proposing just acquiring permission for that purpose, Pollack ordered preparation of a resolution calling for the appraisal and possible purchase of the oratory property. That would, if approved, open the way for acquisition and demolition of the historic oratory and school.

Penny Wiegert, editor of The Observer, the diocesan newspaper, said Bishop Doran and other officials of the diocese were out of the city Tuesday and the oratory’s pastor was in Rome.

Wiegert said her paper had received some calls regarding the reports, and callers were instructed to put their views in a letter and send it to the diocese.

She said she finds the entire affair a bit puzzling. Wiegert said discussion is speculative because nobody has approached the diocese about buying the property. “St. Mary’s,” she said, “functions historically and spiritually and will continue to do so.”

Aiello said she has heard there have been some unofficial approaches to the diocese and that diocesan officials had indicated they might be willing to sell the property. Aiello said a diocesan employee told her last week that the city of Rockford had made an approach and expressed interest in using the site for a parking lot.

Aiello said she is filing papers to have the oratory designated as a historic building.

One impediment to county plans is fact that the church’s second pastor, Rev. Michael McLaughlin, who died in 1892, is buried in the grotto behind the church. Laws governing the moving of a cemetery would apply here. These laws are complex and time-consuming. Among other things, they require locating any remaining family of the deceased and obtaining their permission to move the body.

George “Doc” Slafkosky of J.R. Kortman Center for Design, a strong advocate for historic preservation in the downtown area, said he finds irony in the present situation.

“It’s an interesting social commentary when we consider removing a church and replacing it with a jail,” he said. “There’s a lot of irony there.

He noted St. Mary’s is the only Catholic church downtown. He does not consider St. James as in the downtown area. St. Mary’s, he said, “has historic significance by age alone.” The church was built in 1885 and celebrated its centennial in 1985.

Slafkosky suggested the old school building on the site could be used to house the Rockford Day Nursery, which is being demolished, or another day care facility.

“Historic things sometimes work better as an aggregate,” he said. “You just can’t chop holes in historic districts. It’s what we’ve done all along downtown. The river and our historic buildings are two things we can’t duplicate. You can’t get them out by I-90.”

Slafkosky said such buildings as the oratory, the former Faust Hotel and the Coronado Theatre are unique and should be preserved. “We need to realize things down there are real important to us,” he said.

He added he has the impression that the Rockford Diocese is “slowly abandoning the city” and points to the relocation of diocesan offices along the Northwest Tollway.

St. Mary’s congregation back in 1885 attended its first mass in the church basement because that was all there was then. To put that into a time frame, it was one year after the city’s first sewer system was begun and the first street paved.

St. Mary’s Oratory is part of the story of pioneers and immigrants that make up Rockford’s early history.

Those wishing to protest this maneuver must attend the Sept. 3 meeting of the county’s Public Safety Committee at 5:30 p.m. in room 502 at the county administration building, 404 Elm St.

The public also may make its views known at the county board meeting at 6 p.m., Sept. 4 in the board room at the county courthouse.

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