LINCOLN SQUARE — The Archdiocese of Chicago pulled the plug on St. Matthias parish's plans to build an addition to its school — after parishioners spent four years raising more than $600,000 toward the expansion project.
The Rev. Larry McNally, pastor of St. Matthias, first shared the news in a letter published in the weekly church bulletin. He then convened a town hall meeting Monday evening, attended by more than 50 parishioners and parents.
"I don't want to be sounding bitter ... but I'm frustrated," McNally said. "We've worked so hard ... and we're coming up empty."
St. Matthias, 2310 W. Ainslie St., launched its RAISE campaign in 2013 after seeing its school enrollment double in a decade. The fundraising goal of nearly $2 million for a building annex would allow the school to add classes at every grade level and also cover improvements to the campus and church.
In the interim, middle-school classes were moved to DANK Haus, 4740 N. Western Ave., where St. Matthias leases space.
At Monday's meeting, McNally, who became pastor of St. Matthias in 2015, held up a letter dated August 2013 and signed by Bishop Francis Kane, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Chicago, giving the parish permission to pursue the fundraising campaign and building addition.
"I've got it right here in writing," McNally said.
Then, at a meeting just weeks ago with his superiors, McNally was told that all construction — whether new or a rehab — within the archdiocese was on hold.
"That was news to me," said McNally.
"I was stunned," he said. "When did that moratorium start? I'm still waiting on the answer."
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese denied that a moratorium is in place but did confirm that "expansion plans for St. Matthias School have been indefinitely postponed due to a variety of factors."
McNally said that he invited representatives from the archdiocese to Monday's town hall, but they declined to attend.
According to McNally, a driving force behind the postponed and potentially canceled expansion plan is the "Renew My Church" initiative, which Cardinal Blase Cupich introduced in 2016.
Renew My Church is a response to shifting demographics within the archdiocese, not the least of which is the dwindling number of priests, from 1,261 in 1975 to 770 this year. The latter figure includes 180 priests who are either retired or ill; only 196 are 50 years old or younger.
It's a very real possibility in the not-too-distant future that the archdiocese won't have the manpower to assign a priest to each of its 344 parishes, Cupich wrote in his explanation of the impetus behind Renew My Church.
"We need to move beyond a model of parish that is independent and self-reliant," the cardinal said.
"We need to create a new kind of networking, a set of relationships among ourselves in which we are not independent, living in our own silos, but interdependent," Cupich said. "As parishes, the challenge is to become communities of communities that are stronger and more effective in mission than when we worked in isolation."
To create those "communities of communities," Cupich divided parishes into 97 groupings, each of which is expected to meet over the next few years and develop a plan for sharing or consolidating resources and services.
Archdiocese employees are facilitating those discussions and have yet to schedule a meeting for St. Matthias' cluster, which includes St. Hilary and Queen of Angels among others, McNally said.
Until those talks happen, St. Matthias' expansion plan is stuck in limbo, potentially for years, McNally said.
"The rules of the game are changing," he said.
The big question on parishioners' minds: What happens to all of the money raised for the school addition?
Pledges to the campaign totaled $950,000, and of that more than $600,000 has been collected — some of which was designated by donors for church repairs and some of which ($176,000) St. Matthias was required to turn over to the archdiocese, McNally said.
That leaves nearly $300,000 in St. Matthias' account (including church-only pledges). Citing broken confidence and trust, some parishioners expressed concern that the money would be appropriated by the archdiocese.
"We were always told that money is ours," said parish board member Jay Sharp, though he acknowledged that the archdiocese had "moved the goalpost on us" in the past.
Other parishioners broached the subject of withdrawing their pledge, which many had made specifically for the building addition.
McNally said he would, "in justice," honor any such requests, but hoped people would give the parish board the opportunity to develop a Plan B that could accomplish many of the school's goals.
Longtime parishioner Pat Kubistal, who this month marked the 75th anniversary of her kindergarten enrollment at St. Matthias, rallied the troops at the conclusion of Monday's town hall.
"When you're working with the archdiocese, you're working with Corporate America," Kubistal said. "We can beat them at their own game."