These are bittersweet days for Judy Jilek. She’s the president of St. Peter Evangelical Church council. The venerable church at 500 Hannah St. has been on the market over a year. The cash-strapped congregation had no recourse, but longtime members like Judy hate to see it go.
St. Peter dates back to the origins of Forest Park. Its cornerstone carries an inscription in German. It’s made of limestone, as is the rest of the fortress-like exterior. Judy worked with a college student to secure historical status for the church’s facade and organ. On May, 11, 2009, it became Forest Park’s first historical site.
Judy was baptized at St. Paul Lutheran but quickly followed her friends to St. Peter to attend kindergarten. Since then, she’s made her confirmation, gotten married and had her kids baptized at the church. Over 400 parishioners once packed the place.
The congregation is now down to 37, including shut-ins. There are members in their late 80s and 90s who were baptized in the 112-year-old church. Some want to go “full circle” by having their funeral here.
St. Peter has only one service a month. Pastor Audrey Catalano comes from Bloomington, while organist Debbie Jeroncic drives from Ann Arbor.
When Pastor Audrey previously headed St. Paul, there was an attempt to merge the congregations, but St. Peter’s members didn’t want to lose their building. Pastor Audrey told them that St. Peter was more than its building – it was its people. But members have understandably grown attached to their well-preserved treasure.
The church’s spacious basement – once home to spaghetti dinners, comedy revues and fashion shows – still hosts occasional meetings. Judy says she asks the ancient boiler at the start of every winter not to break down.
Upstairs in the vestibule is a cross-section of tree trunk, with the outline of St. Peter carved across the concentric circles. The inscription celebrates the church’s centennial, 1899-1999.
To turn on the sanctuary lights, Judy used a mechanism right out of the industrial revolution. In her office, holes poke through the ceiling for the church’s bells. She’s learned how to make them peal. Upstairs, another rope rings a smaller bell for the Lord’s Prayer.
The sound system on the altar isn’t much more modern. The oversized mics look like something Sinatra held when he was crooning to bobby-soxers. The organ was donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1907. It was made in Erie, Penn. The altar, baptismal font and pulpit are all hand-carved dark wood.
Judy Jilek wrote to 23 churches in Chicago to see if they might be interested in relocating to St. Peter. They received four replies and one offer. There has also been talk of the Historical Society of Forest Park purchasing it. Judy hopes whoever it is will let them stay – at least for a year.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.