Landmarking Moves Forward Despite Opposition
Rockford Historic Preservation Commission votes to move decision on old chancery to the City Council.
By Penny Wiegert, Editor
March 7, 2019
ROCKFORD—The Rockford Historic Preservation Commission voted Feb. 28  to approve landmark status for the former chancery for the Diocese of Rockford, a former convent and the Cathedral of St. Peter School, all located on the Cathedral of St. Peter campus, despite strong opposition from the diocese.
After a 5-0 vote, the petition filed by a Rockford group known as the Friends of Ziock now moves to a review and vote by the full Rockford city council.
The preservation commission vote came after an open hearing on Feb. 12 where presentations were made by the Diocese of Rockford, the Friends of Ziock and community members.
The Diocese of Rockford provided photographic evidence along with testimony from a local architect, that none of the buildings meets the criteria of the commission to be deemed historic landmarks.
Those opposing the diocese presented arguments ranging from personal emotion to wanting the diocese to redevelop the buildings for some type of residential and or commercial use. 
According to diocesan property manager Brian Heinkel, a well-known local developer visited the property in December 2018 at the urging of a Friends of Ziock supporter, and had no interest in the buildings. 
In addition, the diocese has no interest in being forced to break up or sell the property for a use not compatible with the mission of the Catholic faith.
Bishop David Malloy and lawyers representing the diocese consider the forced landmarking of these buildings to be a governmental intrusion on the religious decisions of the Church, in violation of the separation of church and state doctrine, and an infringement on the church’s First Amendment right to freely exercise the Catholic faith.
Financially untenable
In addition, the cost of restoring and maintaining the former chancery in the event it is landmarked by the government would amount to diverting approximately half the operating budget of the entire Diocese of Rockford — jeopardizing ministries that educate children, and serve the poor, elderly and disabled throughout the entire 11 counties of the diocese. 
Maintaining the former convent and the school has already placed a financial burden on the Cathedral parish according to its finance council.
After the former chancery office closed in 2002, it remained unused until 2009 when the Rockford Diocese made plans to move Catholic Charities, which included immigration and refugee services, into the building. 
But the outcry from the surrounding neighbors prevented permits necessary for the ministries to operate there. Catholic Charities had to find an alternative downtown location and the former chancery office has remained vacant since 2009.
In November of 2018, plans were announced to raze the former convent after it was cited by the City of Rockford for several building code violations. 
The Cathedral parish pastoral and finance councils both voted to raze the building rather than bring into compliance a decaying structure for which the parish had no use. 
The diocese since 2009 had brought the question of the former chancery building to the Diocese Finance Council and Diocese College of Consultors. In 2009, 2013, 2017, and 2018, their conclusions were that there was no use for that building that would outweigh the cost to make it habitable. 
The building had sustained structural, engineering, mechanical, and aesthetic failures while in disuse. The building was laden with asbestos, and mold developed.
To save demolition costs and clear the property to make way for additional parking for the Cathedral and possible prayer and community garden space, the diocese decided to raze the former chancery at the same time the parish wanted to raze the old convent. 
The plan advanced to include a fully landscaped meditation garden dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary, patroness of the diocese.
The plans were halted just days before demolition when a petition for landmark status was filed.
“Our view is that we can provide a new and outdoor area for people to be able to walk through and worship, to say the rosary, to attend Marian type celebrations on various holy days, feast days or at other times, and to be a pilgrimage destination,” Patrick Winn told the Historic Commission members during the Feb. 12 hearing.
Winn is the director of Catholic Charities.
The hope, according to the diocese, is that members of the Rockford City Council will respect the right of the church to decide how to use the three properties and vote no on landmarking these buildings and avoid any further conflict. 
A date for the vote of the City Council has not been announced. In the meantime, Catholics, especially those in the Rockford area are urged to contact City Council members and ask them to vote against landmarking.