St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, located at 303 S. Seventh St., Pekin, is arguably an historic part of one of Pekin’s more historic neighborhoods.

Much of the surrounding neighborhood still has original brick streets and members of the Tharp family, who were among Pekin’s early settlers, lived in the area. St. Joseph’s Church was established at its current location in 1904.

“We have been a part of the neighborhood, and I believe we have been a good neighbor during these past 115 years,” said Bill Fleming, a member of the St. Joseph Parish Council. “We certainly intend to continue to be good neighbors in the future.”

Future relationships between the parish and neighborhood residents, however, may become strained. For the past 15 years, parish leadership has been talking about replacing the existing parish center, according to Fleming. It was originally built as a convent for the nuns who served at the parish and taught at St. Joseph’s School. For the past 40 years, the facility has functioned as the church’s office building and as a social gathering place but it’s been converted for use as our office and gathering place for nearly 40 years. It no longer meets parish needs, Fleming added; it is not energy efficient and cannot be cost-effectively renovated.

“We are going to build a modern, better designed parish center that will be more efficient and larger than our existing parish center,” he said. “The new building will include offices, gathering spaces, meeting rooms, youth group space, a kitchen, and the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry. These are all functions we already have in our existing building. The new building will also have a small chapel, something we don’t currently have. We will use the chapel for daily Mass and small funerals, allowing us to save on heating and cooling costs in the larger church throughout the week.”

Once the new parish center is constructed, the existing parish center will be razed, and a paved parking lot will be installed at that location, according to Fleming.

Some residents of the neighborhood around the church are opposed to the new center. Bruce McCoige, who lives at the corner of Haines Street and St. Joseph’s Place, insisted that his objection to the new parish center is not based on any antipathy toward the Catholic Church, but rather on a concern for maintaining a residential neighborhood.

“What we’re afraid of, is what St. Joseph is trying to do, is inject this commercial property down through the middle of this neighborhood,” said McCoige. “They claim that it won’t have any negative effect. (Some neighbors) just don’t agree with that.”

One of McCoige’s concerns about the proposed parish center is that part of the project calls for the closure of St. Joseph’s Place, which he believes would restrict access to the neighborhood for emergency vehicles and create a traffic problem.

“There are some safety issues on Seventh Street,” he said. “When they close off St. Joseph’s Place, that makes Seventh Street basically a dead-end street. There’s a really small turnaround in front of the Catholic church and if you try to get safety vehicles in there, there is no easy way for them to get there and get out. Parking is allowed on both sides of the street, so that kind of makes it a one-way street. If you try to get an ambulance or a fire engine down Seventh Street and cars are parked on both sides, it’s tough to do that. ”

Fleming believes that the closure of St. Joseph’s Place is necessary because it is important that there be an interior connection between the church and the new building. 

The church is asking the City of Pekin to vacate one block of St. Joseph’s Place between Seventh Street and Haines Avenue, which would allow the parish to build the new facility close to the church, and connect it with a hallway.

“The City of Pekin has vacated streets in the past for an addition at First Baptist Church of Pekin, and most recently, for the new addition at Pekin Insurance,” Fleming noted.

Fleming added that because of the vacation of St. Joseph Place, Seventh Street will become a dead-end at the cul-de-sac, which will eliminate through traffic on Seventh Street.  Since the parish is not planning to add more events, he does not believe traffic in the neighborhood will increase, although he expects traffic patterns to shift. He anticipates that the addition of the parking lot should also alleviate some of the on-street parking that currently happens in the neighborhood. McCoige, however, believes that a new parish center will exacerbate traffic problems in the neighborhood rather than alleviate them.

“They keep saying there won’t be any more traffic than what there has been in the past,” McCoige said. “But right now, they have about a 30-car parking lot across the street. The new plan shows maybe a 77-car parking lot. When you have a facility that would seat 228 people, we can see it’s going to lead to more traffic and more noise in the neighborhood.”

Rebecca McAvoy of 404 S. Sixth St., is also concerned that a new parish center will increase neighborhood traffic, which would in turn create safety concerns.

“I have children that ride bikes around this neighborhood. They go over to play at the church playground. I don’t know, with the increased amount of activity and the increased amount of traffic, that it is going to be safe to let them go, ride a bike or to be a kid and play without somebody being with them.”

McAvoy added that while she agrees with the concept of meeting the needs of any facility, she does not believe a new parish center would be a good fit for a historic residential neighborhood.

“The parking lot in the building is half (the size) of a football field smack-dab in the center of what we know to be a historical part of Pekin,” she said. It is not going to match with this side of Pekin. The parking lights are going to shine in to the neighborhood‘s second-floor windows and first-floor windows, no matter how they try to shield them. That’s going to interfere with children’s sleep. I know because of the post office. There’s no way to stop the lights from coming into your house unless you use blackout shades. Then, you cannot even open your shades until daytime. The noise is going to keep children away, and probably keep adults away. Some people who live around here have elderly people or significant others who have illnesses. They need rest. They’re not going to get that.” 

Fleming believes that the closure of St. Joseph’s Place between Seventh Street and Haines Street will actually cut down on through traffic in the neighborhood, making it safer for students at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. He added that the church hosted an open house for neighborhood residents in late March. During the event, church representatives and project engineers answered questions and listened to residents’ concerns. St. Joseph parishioners are aware that the church is seeking to build a new parish center, but have not seen the details of the planned addition. 

“Our ministry leaders, committees, commissions and staff have provided input into the plan,” said Fleming. “We want to get city approval first, then we can determine the estimated cost.  We can then go to our parishioners and begin our fundraising campaign.”

In addition to worries about traffic and safety, McCoige is concerned that a non-residential building in a residential neighborhood could have a negative impact on property values.

“When we moved in (in the 1980s), a lot of the homes were rental properties and had multiple families living in them,” he said. “All of that has been turned around. There are single families that live in just about every one of the homes now rather than multiple families. We feel that it stabilized the neighborhood. I quickly looked and have seen eight homes that have been torn down in the neighborhood. Seven of them were torn down by the Catholic Church. We feel that if they get this (center) approved, they’re going to devalue the property that’s around it further. And everything they build is tax-exempt, because the church is tax-exempt. So, nothing goes on the tax roll.”

In early March, the contracting company for the parish center project, Austin Engineering Co., filed a request for variance with John Lebegue, the City of Pekin building inspections and development director. The non-residential variance request was necessary because the church wished to decrease the front-yard setback from Seventh Street from the required 31 feet to a proposed 6.5 feet. According to Lebegue, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted on the variance request April 10, and rejected it with a deadlocked 3-3 vote.

“The church is going to revise their plan and is resubmitting a new application,” said Lebegue. “To have a hearing in June, they must submit the application and any supporting documents (to the City of Pekin Planning Commission) by the middle of May.”