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Holy Trinity parishioners push back on diocese recommendation to close its doors

Now revered for its beauty and longevity in the community, Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington has been no stranger to external threats in its 170-plus-year-history.
Holy Trinity parishioners
Now revered for its beauty and longevity in the community, Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington has been no stranger to external threats in its 170-plus-year-history.

Now revered for its beauty and longevity in the community, Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington has been no stranger to external threats in its 170-plus-year-history.

In 1869, while construction was underway, a tornado ripped through the area and initially destroyed what would eventually become a Catholic church at 106 W. Chestnut St. downtown.

Nearly 10 years passed before a new building for Holy Trinity was finished. When it was finally dedicated in 1878, parishioners could boast theirs was the largest Catholic church in Illinois.

Decades later, in 1932, Holy Trinity was destroyed in a fire. It was from these ashes, however, that the church became the structure that it is known to be today — a Gothic cathedral with clean, vertical lines and a 138-foot tower, as well Art Deco stained glass windows that filter sunlight through vibrant blues.

Now, parishioners have found the existence of their beloved church being threatened once again. Faced with declining Mass attendance numbers writ large, the diocese has outlined plans to consolidate parishes and close some buildings.

"It was very hard. When the information came out from the diocese (of Peoria) on the first of October, we were all stunned," said Holy Trinity member Ann Sallen.

Sallen said news of Holy Trinity's slated closure and merging congregations with St. Mary's and St. Patrick's churches in west Bloomington shocked parishioners in part because preliminary discussions indicated that wasn't on the table.

"Everybody I talked to — all the Catholics I'd talked to from all of the parishes — assumed Holy Trinity would stay open, that we would not be the one chosen to close," she said.

Yet the Catholic Diocese of Peoria marked Holy Trinity "Recommended-Not in Use" in its second release of plans for area parishes.

'Little to no sense'

Since the diocese's announcement in October, hundreds of Holy Trinity parishioners have pushed back against the potential decision, putting their names on a petition for the diocese to reconsider its plans. Dozens more have contributed to a 90-plus-page document recently submitted to the diocese that effectively serves as a rebuttal to the Oct. 1 announcement.

"I was really offended at first, but as we have gone through this process, I really believe the decision was based on false data — or data that people who don't know Bloomington-Normal wouldn't understand," Sallen said.

The response parishioners submitted to champion Holy Trinity's cause outlines a number of factors justifying its continued use as a church. It argues that Mass attendance is higher than the diocese reported, notes the Bloomington church's coffers are flush with a surplus unparalleled by its peer parishes, and notes it has the physical space both internally and in parking spots to hold more people.

"We here at Holy Trinity have certainly been through the gamut of such feelings. But, aside from these emotions, we believe the plan to close Holy Trinity makes little to no sense when all the facts, figures, issues, and interests are properly and objectively considered," the response reads.

Instead of bringing in about 426 people per week, parishioners argue 540 families — or more than 1,000 people — are active members of the church based upon giving habits. That they may not physically be present in Holy Trinity pews is due to the logistics of attending Mass in Bloomington-Normal.

Susan Evens is a former member of Holy Trinity who switched to attending Mass at St. Mary's. She said she remembers several years ago when Holy Trinity and St. Patrick's church began to share one priest, which cut down on the Mass times offered at Holy Trinity.

"Historic St. Pat's is also a very nice church, but their numbers for attendance, I think, were highly inflated," she said. "They have a late Sunday afternoon Mass where everyone from all the parishes attends. Whenever we would go because we were returning from a trip or something, we would see people from all over. Those weren't really St. Patrick's parishioners, they were people from all over the community."

Brick church building with tall steeple and parking to its right
Eric Stock
Holy Trinity Catholic Church in downtown Bloomington underwent a renovation to its steeple over a decade ago.

This is not to say Holy Trinity's Mass attendance has not declined at all. The response admits this and notes that where it differs with the diocese is that the percentage of people attending has fallen by about a third — not 61%.

Advocating parishioners also note that Holy Trinity's stable financial footing merits keeping the parish intact.

"The financial numbers between the parishes are not even close. Holy Trinity is by far the most financially secure parish of the three to be merged. It is in the upper tier of parishes throughout the diocese with over $1 million in annual ordinary income," parishioners wrote in their response.

They put operating expenses at about $417,000 annually, "leaving a substantially significant surplus" in its budget. St. Mary's pulls in about 20% less, according to parishioners, and must sustain a school besides the church; income at St. Patrick's "is not enough to cover its own operating expenses." [Holy Trinity partners with St. Patrick's to subsidize Corpus Christi grade school.]

That Holy Trinity currently has a $2 million surplus is attributed to recent, end-of-life bequests from parishioners, but the response to the diocese argues the intention of the bequestor must be remembered as the church stewards the funds.

"It's certainly a moral issue. You are not honoring the wishes of the decedent. It sends a message ... throughout the diocese: 'I'm not going to donate money to my church because they can just take it and give it elsewhere,'" Sallen said. "It's going to happen in the diocese — I mean ... many parishes across the United States are closing. But when you take funds from a profitable — or at least sustainable church — and give it elsewhere, to an older parish, or to a smaller church with much worse finances, it really sends a discomforting message."

Parishioners also wrote in their response to the diocese that Holy Trinity is better suited for parking needs. With the diocese prioritizing increased church growth through measures like evangelization, Holy Trinity parishioners argue their building — which can hold up to 950 people — has the space to take in more people compared to St. Mary's [cap. 376] or St. Patrick's [cap. 223] churches in west Bloomington.

'Highest and best use'

Whether these facts will move the needle on the diocese decision will not be known for months. A final announcement is expected by May 19 — or Pentecost, on the Christian calendar.

That means now is the time to advocate on Holy Trinity's behalf, said Greg Koos, retired executive director of the McLean County Museum of History. Koos helped Holy Trinity land a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

"Because no final decisions have been made, I don't think it's appropriate to say, 'Give up the ship,'" Koos said. "Think positively about it, and talk about how it is a fine place that's used and encourage people in the community to encourage its preservation and continued use as a church — it's highest and best use.

"That's a rule of thumb about preservation. 'What's the highest and best use of the building?' For a church like that, the highest and best use is to continue its use as a church."

Earlier this month, Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason said in a WGLT interview that a couple of "very preliminary but interested parties" had inquired about potential re-uses of the church, should it end up closing in the future.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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