Since 1835 folks in West Dundee, Ill. have been worshiping at the First United Methodist Church. The congregation has persevered through world wars, sickness and the Great Depression. But they may be forced to shut their doors after village officials sued the church in a controversy that involves a historic building.
The lawsuit involves the church’s parsonage, located on Main Street and built back in 1849 – one of the oldest homes in the village. They bought the house some 100 years after it was built. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And it’s also about to collapse.
Church officials wanted to tear down the parsonage so they could put in a parking lot to accommodate their aging members. They also wanted to build a fellowship hall at ground level so elderly members would not have to climb stairs.
But village officials balked at the church’s plan – and after a lengthy battle – they filed a lawsuit – asking a judge to order the church to make repairs to the dilapidated parsonage.
“This is a building that is in horrible shape and the village has created a Catch-22 by saying ‘We’re not going to let you demolish it – and you can’t use it because of its condition,’” said Thomas Sullivan, the church’s attorney. “That goes beyond the reasonable authority of government.”
The village, he told Fox News, is telling the church what they can and cannot do with their own property.
“To tell a church ‘you simply cannot use this building due to its condition and we’re not going to let you demolish it because it’s worthy of being preserved’ – that’s going beyond what government should be involved in,” he said.
Sullivan said one plan the village came up with would be for the church to “moth ball” the building. That would require securing the façade while leaving the inside of the building untouched. He said such a plan would cost the small congregation as much as a half million dollars.
“This church doesn’t have those kinds of funds,” he said. “You really can’t force a church to effectively go bankrupt because you want to preserve a property.”
The village proposed if the church could not afford to preserve the exterior of the building, it should simply give the building to the village and the village would fund the preservation.
Village president Larry Keller told Fox News they are not trying to bankrupt the church.
“Obviously, that would be terribly unfortunate,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid that by getting some skin in the game.”
By that he means the village wants to partner with the church by providing tax money to repair the building. In return, the village would be allowed to use the church’s property.
“We’re trying to assist,” he said. “We’re not trying to stick our nose into it all that much.”
At the end of the day, Keller said the issue is pretty straight forward.
“We’re trying to preserve a structure and they would like to tear it down,” he said. “Preservation requires that you preserve buildings that are here and have been here for a long time.”
That kind of argument has outraged Mary White. She’s been a member of the church for 76 years – since she was born.
“It’s beyond me why in the world they are doing this crazy stuff,” she told Fox News. “It’s so aggravating – them trying to tell us what we can and cannot do with our property.”
White said the church bought the house back in the 1950s and it became an issue several years ago when they had to move the minister and his family out of the decaying parsonage.
“The foundation is crumbling,” she said. “It’s sinking.”
She said the church is comprised of mostly elderly residents – many of whom have grown up in the area. She said the idea that the lawsuit could shutter the church has left many people feeling sad.
“It’ll bankrupt us,” she said. “We would have no money. Things are tight as is.”
But the village president said they’ve offered to financially assist the church – an offer that has shocked the congregation’s attorney.
“Frankly, I’ve raised numerous points about the problems trying to put together a partnership between a church congregation and a government entity,” Sullivan said. “Anyone with any interest in Constitutional law can see how difficult that can be.”
Sullivan suggested if the village felt the building was so important to preserve – they could simply buy it from the church. The village declined.
At the end of the day, Mother Nature could very well help seal the fate of the building.
The village president said should the building collapse the church would be free and clear to do whatever it wanted.
“Not much point in trying to save a pile of bricks,” Keller told Fox News.
And church member White also has a suggestion.
“If they’re so concerned about this house, we’d be happy to pay for a plaque with a picture on it,’ she said. “I don’t get it. I thought the government was supposed to be staying out of the religion?”