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Concordia Evangelical Church Faces Steep Debt After Steeple Removed

By Darryl Holliday | November 24, 2013 9:49pm
 Though optimistic, members say debt could reach $100,000 at 24 percent interest.
Church Under Steep Debt After Steeple Removal
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AVONDALE — The wooden ladders of Concordia Evangelical Lutheran Church are worn from years of use, sturdy but slightly wobbly three flights up toward the belfry.

These days the steps end at the church's three weather-worn bells, a flight below its former steeple, which was removed Tuesday night after it was seen swaying in gale-force winds.

But while the Condordia congregation lamented the loss of its 120-year-old steeple, it praised the near doubling of attendance at this week's Sunday service.

About 45 people were in the pews Sunday morning at Concordia Evangelical Lutheran Church Sunday — almost twice its typical membership, according to churchgoers.

The outpouring of support is refreshing, they said, but the news is grim: The church, with no property damage insurance, could be facing a debt of more than $100,000 after costs relating to the steeple's removal are totaled.

Church Under Steep Debt After Steeple Removal
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DNAinfo/Darryl Holliday

To make matters worse, according to Glenn Hickman, a trustee and Concordia member for about 30 years, the debt is at an interest rate of 24 percent.

Construction crews removed the church's wobbly steeple Tuesday night. Out of eight beams shaped in a 7-formation, only two of the ones that held the unstable steeple remained intact, according to members of the church.

The steeple's historic cross, which was taken down Wednesday, later was recovered and placed beneath the church's stained-glass windows, where congregants filed by to touch the cross Sunday morning.

Though the church was able to save its belfry, including its three large bells, many of its members said the steeple and its pinnacle cross were taken down in a rush — before further attempts to save the more the 120-year-old structure could be made.

"Whether the steeple should have come down or not, the point is that it's gone. The question is what do we do now," said John Hickman at the post-service meeting in which nearly all of Sunday's worshippers were in attendance.

Community leaders and parishioners were among those gathered in the church basement. Many offered solutions ranging from a black tie fundraiser to landmark status as a means to protect the church.

"Landmarking is a planning tool for the future. ... It means you're a cultural institution, and suddenly it becomes a city issue," said Ward Miller, president of Preservation Chicago, noting that church members had rejected landmarking when he approached them seven years ago.

According to Renate zu Windisch-Graetz, the widow of Concordia's former pastor of 40 years, the Rev. Arnold zu Windisch-Graetz, a prince of European nobility, a petition to the German consulate could be of use to the church.

Others said the removal cost should be questioned outright, suggesting the church had been "railroaded" into hastily removing the steeple.

"There was a little rush to judgment in [the removal]," Miller said. "It's lucky we have what we have left."

Members of the congregation expressed frustration about a lack of control over the removal process, while acknowledging the potential danger to nearby residents during last week's storm. Next door neighbors such Jesse Alejos said he was "pretty nervous" as he and his friends captured video of the swaying steeple and its removal days later.

According to church leaders, the exact removal cost is unknown, but Margo Innocente, a member of 30 years who was married and saw her three children baptized at Concordia, said she has faith that the church will "bounce back" no matter what.

"We're still us — and that is going to go back up, mark my words," she said, pointing to the cross now displayed like an emblem against a wall in the church.

A PayPal fund has been set up to help Concordia lower its debt and raise a new steeple.