The recent purchase of a Wicker Park church by a Catholic Mission with roots in the Midwest has ignited a bit of controversy for the artists currently renting space in the church basement and among those who say the Mission is a cult.
The Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission recently bought St. Paul Community Church and has sent eviction notices to the Near Northwest Arts Council, which represents 38 different groups. But there's a snag: Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), who is opposed to the group, said he won't give the LHTBM the special permit it needs to hold meetings for more than 12 people.
NBC Chicago has covered the Mission for more than seven years, first reporting on its recruitment of teenagers who were told they would become nuns, to Francis Cardinal George recalling one of his own Archdiocesan priests to return from the Mission. That priest, Father Len Kruzel, refused and has remained with LHTBM.
There have been zoning issues as well. The city in 2005 denied a far northwest side special use permit to the organization.
Now with this recent purchase of St. Paul's the arts groups that have used the building have agreed to leave by April 18th.
Laura Weathered with the NNWAC said the church location has been a special niche for arts, education and social organizations. The local audience for the various programs is estimated at 30, 000 people each year.
Additionally, NNWAC has advocated for affordable housing for the artists in the Wicker Park neighborhood.
"We’ve got all these groups kind of out in the street," said Weathered, expressing concern that it's "tough to find affordable incubator space for that many small businesses."
At a recent community meeting with residents, frustration between business owners and LHTBM members boiled over. Many people remain suspicious of the secretive nature of the mission.
"Why are we asking them about their beliefs?" one neighbor asked.
"Because it’s a cult. Because it’s a cult," another resident answered.
Several members of the mission attended the meeting but did not answer questions about the work they do and why they cut off all communication with those who do not belong to LHTBM.
Donna Backstrom, who has three family members who are mission members, also attended the meeting and said "so many family members have been torn apart" by the group's work.
Moreno said he's been warned to distance himself from the organization.
"You have the right to practice and believe whatever you want to believe," he said at the recent meeting. "What I have the right to do is to not give you a special use permit, and I’m not going to give you one."
Wicker Park neighbors have vowed to keep an eye on activity at the church.
Meanwhile, there will be one last film festival -- the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival at St. Paul’s from April 12 to the 15th -- before the artists are ousted.