By Erick Johnson
Theresa Rhea has been a member of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Bronzeville for 69 years. Her mother, grandmother and son have been devoted members of the church. But Rhea will be among a handful of members who say goodbye at the church’s final Mass this Sunday, June 27.
After 120 years of communions, baptisms and confirmations, Corpus Christi Catholic Church at 4920 S. King Drive is closing its doors for good. It was once a flourishing parish with thousands of members but time, dwindling attendance, mounting debts and rising maintenance costs have forced Corpus Christi to close, ending a long, storied history that celebrated the Black Catholic tradition.
In April, the Crusader reported that Corpus Christi may have held its final Easter Mass.
With its imposing Renaissance Revival-style building towering over King Drive, Corpus Christi is one of five struggling, predominately Black Catholic churches in Chicago that will be merged into one parish under a new name, “Our Lady of Africa.”
The new “Our Lady of Africa” parish’s home will be the smaller Holy Angels building at 650 E. Oakwood Blvd. The new parish’s first Mass will be July 4.
The Archdiocese of Chicago is merging the Catholic churches of Corpus Christi, St. Ambrose, St. Anslem, St. Elizabeth and Holy Angels as part of its “Renew My Church program.”
Under the initiative, struggling churches and schools are closed or consolidated to cut overhead and maintenance costs of historic, but crumbling, church buildings while addressing a priest shortage.
For Rhea and other die-hard members, the closure of Corpus Christi will be a painful loss. It’s also accepted as a bittersweet decision that leaves many fond memories of a church family that spans generations.
After obtaining a degree from DePaul University, Rhea taught several grade levels in Corpus Christi’s elementary school, adjacent to the massive structure. Corpus Christi had both an elementary and high school. The elementary school was open from 1933 to 1993 and the high school from 1945 to 1962.
The late beloved priest, Father George Clements, who died in 2019, attended Corpus Christi Elementary years before he led Holy Angels Church. The United African organization now rents the first floor in the vacant school building.
“It was at first like a death,” Rhea said after hearing the news. “It’s a sad time, but it’s also time to move on.”
The future of the church building remains uncertain. It’s owned by the Archdiocese of Chicago.
The Renaissance Revival building was designed by Joseph W. McCarthy and has twin spires and a deeply coffered ceiling. Brightly colored stained-glass windows, designed in Germany by F.X. Zettler, depict the original church members processing with Pope Pius X. The main altar features a mosaic replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” An adjacent cloister forms a lovely garden for parishioners.
Originally, Corpus Christi Church was built to serve a wealthy predominantly Irish-American community at 49th and Grand Boulevard, which was the first name of Martin Luther King Drive. In 1910, as the Great Migration was beginning, the Grand Boulevard area began to transition from an Irish community to African American and became known as “Bronzeville.”
While many churches on the historic portion of King Drive were primarily Baptist, Corpus Christi became a sacred outlet for Black Catholics to practice their faith. In its glory days, the church boasted a membership of 3,000 parishioners. Today, membership has dwindled to under 200.
One member is Delmarie Cobb, owner of Publicity Works, which represents several of Chicago’s Black aldermen. In 2017, Cobb headed a fundraiser to help pay for repairs and water damage from the church’s leaking roof.
Judge Blanche Manning, the late Congressman Ralph Metcalfe, the late NBC5 Chicago newsman Warner Saunders and saxophonist Ari Brown all attended Corpus Christi.
“Many members no longer live in Bronzeville,” said Rhea, who lives in Calumet Park but commuted to Corpus Christi for Sunday Mass.
According to an article in the Crusader in 2016, Corpus Christi said goodbye to its last two nuns known as Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa. The retirement of the last two nuns serving the Bronzeville church ended its affiliation with the Franciscan order and the Franciscans of the Sacred Heart Province. At that time, for 83 of the church’s 115 years, the St. Francis nuns had served the Bronzeville community.
Several weeks ago, Corpus Christi held a reunion Sunday Mass, where former members who moved as far away as Texas attended for a final time.
Reverend Edmund Nnadozie has led Corpus Christi since arriving to Chicago from Nigeria in 2019. Nnadozie said when he arrived at Corpus Christi, there were already ongoing talks about unifying the struggling Black Catholic churches.
“As the discussions went on, we were trying to find out which of the churches should be selected as the new worship sites. None of us knew which one would be picked. We kept having meetings after meetings, using the criteria of the Archdiocese to decide which one would be open or not.
“So, basically within that time, I already knew that it’s either this parish or another parish. Being human, I wasn’t very happy that this was happening. I would have loved for Corpus Christi to stay open, but I was mostly aware of the reality that this was it. It was a question of time before we finally said, ‘well one and one should add up to two.’”
After Corpus Christi closes, Nnadozie will return to Houston to lead another congregation.