Landmark status bid dropped

The conflict over preservation of St. Mary Oratory took a sudden turn Monday when a petition to request landmark status for the church building was withdrawn by the petitioners.

Gary Anderson and Mary Ann Aiello, who requested the landmark designation, said they did so because they believe such action to be in the best interest of St. Mary’s congregation.

The move came as something of a surprise to many as it was expected that the City Council would act on the request. Gary W. Carlson, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, explained the rationale for the reversal.

“I think it will do us probably a good thing,” Carlson said. “If that were to go through and then be denied by the council, under the ordinance we can’t resubmit it for another year. It is going to be important to St. Mary’s in the coming year. If the building is threatened again, we could re-submit it, and the building would immediately be protected.”

In a letter to Alderman Jeff Holt, Aiello and Anderson stated: “Our purpose in submitting the landmark application was to protect the church from being purchased and demolished by the county jail project. The application and recent hearings have raised the awareness in the community regarding the importance of the structure. At the present time we do not feel that the structure is threatened by the county and its new jail project.

“At this time, we feel that the application for landmark status would not serve the interests of the congregation of St. Mary Oratory, the Institute of Christ the King, in the celebration of the Latin Mass at St. Mary’s,” the letter said.

Gary Anderson, in explaining his position on the matter, said: “We felt the bishop was intent on closing the place, and we believed him. He made enough public statements that he would do that. I think there is a viable congregation there, and it is growing. To come in and cut their legs off is not a proper thing to do.”

Addressing the diocese’s argument that the ordinance imposes undue control over the building, Anderson said: “A certificate of appropriateness is no different than a building permit. We felt that what the church has done (installed a new roof, repaired stained glass) has not been negative; it was all very appropriate.”

Anderson said interference with religious function of the building “was never the intent of the ordinance. It’s totally on the outside, there’s nothing about the inside.”

Asked if any pressure had been put on the commission to drop the landmark status effort, Anderson said: “There is a strategy to this. I’m not going to expound on that.”

Owen Phelps, diocesan director of communications, was pleased with the withdrawal effort. “Certainly, we’re pleased that the petition is being dropped,” he said. “What we would really like to see is that churches be made exempt as is the case in Chicago and some other places in Illinois.

“We have opposed this in principle everywhere in the diocese,” Phelps said. He said he has not read the preservation ordinance. “I am familiar with what our attorney briefed us on,” he said.

Phelps said the position of the diocese is that the congregation of St. Mary’s should decide what is done with its building and not some outside authority. “We’re saying the building in itself has no value. It is an expression of people’s faith,” Phelps said.

As to the future of the church property, Phelps stated: “It’s a viable site. We plan to keep on doing what we’ve been doing there unless it is designated under the ordinance.”

Carlson had sent a letter to the City Council urging that landmark status be granted. In that letter he accused the diocese of “strongarm tactics” to suppress the effort. Now that the petition has been pulled, he said: “It is really sad that the diocese threatened the worshippers there. I’ve never before had anyone giving testimony in a historic preservation case reduced almost to tears,” a reference to Aiello’s treatment at the hands of diocesan attorneys.

Phelps again said the diocese had no previous interest in selling the church property. “The issue seems to be out there in the media and in midair. We’ve never been contacted by the county,” he said.

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