At a special congregational meeting held on Sunday, Sept. 27, the members of First United Church of Christ voted to sell their building, located at 1000 Elgin Ave., to the Forest Park Historical Society.
It was an emotional weekend for First Church members. The evening before the vote, the congregation hosted an open house, which really amounted to a family reunion with a total of about 60 current and past members along with friends of the church, sharing memories, perusing the many photographs of church events displayed on the walls, and enjoying a large buffet of appetizers and desserts.
In an invitation she sent out by mail, church President Barbara Marousek wrote, “It will be a time to reminisce and see old friends and people you may not have seen in a very long time and to recall how being at First Church may have touched your life.” The heading at the top of the letter read, “150th Anniversary Celebration of First Church.”
The open house celebrated the congregation’s long history, which began in 1865 on Chicago’s Near West Side with a faith community called First German Reformed Church of Chicago. The congregation prospered despite moving several times, and in 1915 the members purchased the property where the church now stands at the corner of Elgin and Harvard, with the building being dedicated in 1928.
The souvenir bulletin given to everyone at the open house stated, “Throughout all its history, First Church has taken pride in being a friendly place, where guests feel welcome and new members quickly become part of a large family.”
When members at the reception Saturday evening talked about the vote to sell the building the next day, they expressed mixed emotions. Some were simply resigned to the inevitable. Worship attendance of late has been 20-25 and the financial report at the end of four of the last five years has been in the red.
To help the congregation maintain its ministry and mission, Rev. Dean Kucera, First United’s pastor, gave up or reduced many of his benefits. He voluntarily cut his pay, allowed contributions to his pension to be skipped, purchased his own health insurance and even paid for his own utilities. Everyone interviewed had nothing but praise for Kucera.
Some members opposed selling the church building and parsonage, which had been appraised at $450,000, for what they considered the extremely low price of $70,000. Diane Grah, executive director of the Historical Society, had empathy for longtime members of the church.
“It’s hard after all these years to acknowledge that the church can no longer function the way they’ve known it to function,” she said. “The transition will be hard but will become easier over time.”
The majority, however, felt the agreement they had reached with the Historical Society was a win/win opportunity which would allow the congregation, whose membership numbers and financial resources were dwindling, to continue their ministry.
The terms and conditions of the sale approved by the congregation’s vote the next day are:
The building and parsonage will be sold to the Forest Park Historical Society for $70,000.
After the closing, the Historical Society will pay First Church $10,000 and thereafter $500 per month ($6,000 per year) for the next 10 years;
The Historical Society will allow First Church to continue using the sanctuary for worship, rent-free, for the next 10 years and to continue to use their current name.
The Historical Society will pay all utilities, repairs and insurance for the church building. Initial repairs to exceed $200,000.
The Historical Society will utilize the newer side of the church for display and will share with the congregation the Fellowship Hall and the Recreation Hall as common space for public functions.
The pastor will continue to reside in the parsonage next to the church with the congregation continuing to pay his salary, pension, utilities and insurance on the parsonage.
If the congregation ceases to exist prior to 10 years, the church will belong to the Historical Society with no further payments made to the church.
If First Church continues to thrive and exist after 10 years, it can remain as a congregation for as long it exists.
One First United member involved in the negotiations with the Historical Society said, “The condition of these terms of our agreement are the reasons why we did not ask for the appraised value of $450,000.”
Grah said Pastor Kucera and the congregation’s representatives were great to work with throughout the negotiations.
“I have nothing but respect for the congregation,” she said. “They have been wonderful to work with, meeting after meeting. Both sides have been able to work out details without animosity or tension.”
Grah anticipates that the good relationship will continue after the closing, which she believes will take place around the end of October.
“We are committed to working with First United after all the legal documents have been signed,” she said. “We want the church to thrive as long as it can, and we are grateful to have a place for the historical society, a museum and a place to have community functions.”