The nuns are not done.
The Roman Catholic sisters whose convent fence-line is mere inches from a flashy new strip club in suburban Stone Park were unable to prevent the business from opening last year. But they haven't given up the fight, and are signaling they plan to ask help from a higher power -- the Cook County Circuit Court -- in shutting down the establishment.
Monday evening, the Village Board of Melrose Park voted to join the nuns from the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo, in a lawsuit against the club, called Club Allure, and the Village of Stone Park, which granted its license to operate last year.
"This goes against our whole fiber, our well-being," said Sister Maria Noemia Silva, who lives in the convent bordering Allure's property. Indeed, one can reach across the convent's back fence, and nearly touch the club's back wall.
"We've been here more than 70 years," she said. "We're fighting for a safe, healthy environment here. And for the club to close."
One of the main arguments in the lawsuit is expected to center on a provision of state law that, with exceptions, prohibits such businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of a place of worship. The convent has three chapels inside that perimeter, although they're technically in Melrose Park.
Following Monday night's Melrose Park vote, the village, the nuns and various residents will be represented by the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based "public interest law firm" that handles many religious-oriented cases.
"The bottom-line is you can't put one of these [adult-use establishments] within 1,000 feet of a place of worship, this is what the law says, and ... Stone Park allowed the strip joint to open and gave them permits," Thomas More attorney Peter Breen said Monday. "Stone Park is not protecting its residents, and shame on the strip joint owners for putting it next to a convent."
Stone Park Mayor Ben Mazzulla described the prospect of a lawsuit as "an old story, no comment." But reached by telephone Monday evening after the Melrose Park vote, the club's lawyer said he is confident they are operating within the law.
"The business is legally constituted," said attorney Robert Itzkow. "It presents no real problems to anyone."
"It probably has less police calls than any liquor establishment in Stone Park," he said. "Everyone's welcome to file whatever lawsuits they want to file."
Sean O'Brien, managing partner of Allure, said in an interview last week he does not want a legal battle, but if a suit is filed, "I guess ... it is what it is."
He said club owners have thought a lot about potential legal issues and believe they're on firm legal footing. He said while he understands the moral objections of the nuns, the club has tried to be a good neighbor, doing what it can to limit noise, lights and litter - as well as buy supplies and hire locally.
"I'm not here to hurt them in any way," O'Brien said, describing Club Allure as a non-traditional "gentlemen's club" with good food, and shows with comedians, musicians and trapeze-type acts - in addition to semi-nude women and, just recently, male dance acts. Soon, he says, the club will feature high-tech holograms, similar to the Michael Jackson presentation which wowed audiences at the Billboard Music Awards last month.
"I can't imagine why they would dislike us, except for the morality of it," he said. "We are the most…cleanest version of what we are."
O'Brien noted that his club has only a topless license.
"And that's as far as we're going to go," he said. "We could run this as a traditional gentleman's club, and we choose not to do that."
"You know, we contribute a lot to the community too," he said. "We had a flood a year ago, and we were the neighbors out there running electrical cords for them, and filling sandbags."
At Monday night's board meeting in Melrose Park, it was clear not everyone bought into the good neighbor argument. "The nuns are our residents, but there's homeowners too," said Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico. "The bottom line is, maybe the people in Stone Park who don't like it will benefit too."
Stone Park's attorney, Dean Krone, said he believes the law barring clubs within close proximity to a place of worship, is unconstitutional.
"There is no location in Stone Park that could comply with that statute," he said. "Adult uses are first amendment activity."
"A municipality must make sure that there are adequate locations where they can be located," he said. "I don't have to tell you, as a journalist, how much deference is given to the first amendment in this country."
Aside from the nuns' legal objections, Sister Maria said a central problem is what the club stands for. The convent property includes a building for nuns in training, and another building for retired nuns. In that retirement home, "their chapel looks outside and the first thing you see is the strip club," Silva said.
"Our sisters, it's their last years on earth," she noted. "The sisters who come to do their gardening, they're afraid, because they don't know what they're going to find!"
Overall, there are roughly 20 nuns or would-be nuns living on the convent grounds, which are partly in Stone Park. The nuns have heard rumors another strip club is in the works near the convent in Stone Park, but Mazzulla said nobody has come forward to his administration as of yet proposing that.
This was a joint investigation between NBC 5 and the Better Government Association.