By Kirk Petersen

The proposed sale of the headquarters building of the Diocese of Chicago has exposed a significant breakdown in communications between the bishop and the dean of St. James Cathedral, which is adjacent to the headquarters.

Bishop Jeffrey Lee

On September 15, the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee announced plans to sell the headquarters building and the valuable land on which it sits. “After considerable study and consultation,” Lee said in a letter to the diocese, the bishop and trustees decided that “maintaining an underused diocesan headquarters in an expensive building on prime real estate is not good stewardship of diocesan assets.”

The following day, the dean of the cathedral fired back in an open letter on the cathedral website. “Whatever consultation has led to the current decision has not involved the cathedral,” said the letter, signed by the Very Rev. Dominic Barrington and other cathedral officials.

“Two meetings were held in the winter at which no proposals or suggestions were forthcoming from B&T [the bishop and trustees], and our requests to continue the conversation during the spring and summer were simply ignored,” the cathedral letter stated.

Dean Dominic Barrington

Barrington later told TLC that a meeting between the diocesan trustees and the cathedral chapel to discuss the matter has been scheduled for September 30, and he was reluctant to say very much publicly in advance of that. “I’m very happy to clarify for the record that what lies behind our statement is that we have spent essentially a year saying it would be very good to have mutual productive conversations about what to do with this property. But this was not taken up in a meaningful way, and therefore we feel we received a fait accompli,” he said.

Lee declined to speak with a reporter about the dean’s statement, but issued a response through a spokesperson that said in part, “Dean Barrington and I have expressed to each other our hopes for a more productive future, and I have faith that the cathedral will continue to thrive and serve the downtown community for many years to come.”

According to the canons of the Episcopal Church, a diocesan bishop is the “pastor, teacher and overseer” of priests in the diocese. Every Episcopal priest vows at their ordination to “obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work.” In that context it is highly unusual, to say the least, for a dispute to arise this publicly.

The five-story headquarters building at 65 E. Huron Street includes offices for about eight members of the cathedral staff, so while the cathedral itself will not be sold, a sale of the headquarters could have a very direct effect on cathedral operations. In the announcement, Lee said “any sale would include financial and other accommodations to help secure space for [the cathedral’s] programs and community life.”

There are powerful financial reasons to make such a sale, including the cost of maintaining the property and, especially, the potential revenue from a sale.

Lee said in his letter that the diocese spends about $750,000 annually to maintain the headquarters building. That’s fully 15 percent of the diocese’s 2020 budget of $4.9 million.

The headquarters and cathedral are surrounded by skyscrapers, just two blocks from the luxury shopping district known as the Magnificent Mile. The combination of the headquarters and the open plaza in front of it would provide a footprint that could support a much taller building.

Lee, who is retiring at the end of this year, wrote: “I hope that making the decision now to offer 65 E. Huron for sale will be a gift to your next bishop and a significant step toward ensuring the future of your ministry for many years to come.”