Pilsen Food Pantry Struggles To Find Permanent Home After Archdiocese Meets Its Offer With ‘Radio Silence,’ Leader Says

PILSEN — The Pilsen Food Pantry, which has operated out of a former Catholic church for more than two years, is hitting a stumbling block as its organizers try to buy part of the church property to house it permanently.

Evelyn Figueroa, founder of the Pilsen Food Pantry and the Figueroa Wu Family Foundation, said she and co-founder Alex Wu made the Archdiocese of Chicago an offer last summer to buy part of the former Holy Trinity Croatian site at 1850 S. Throop St.

In 2020, the archdiocese allowed the pantry to move in and use the vacant building and parking lot across the street for free, Figueroa said. But the two sides haven’t been able to agree on terms, Figueroa said.

The food pantry’s organizers want to buy two lots that include the vacant building and an empty yard. Figueroa said she was told by someone with the archdiocese’s real estate department that the organizers would have to buy the whole lot, which includes the rectory and parking lot. Figueroa said she never received a counteroffer, and communications between the pantry and archdiocese officials have dried up.

“They just blew us off, and it’s really disappointing,” Figueroa said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I thought they would be very happy about it [the interest in buying the building]but instead it’s been a lot of radio silence.”

The pantry offered the archdiocese $506,000 for the vacant building and empty yard, Figueroa said. It would be funded in part by $200,000 they raised from a fundraiser last year and a matching donation from a private donor, she said.

In a statement, an archdiocese spokesperson said the pantry’s offer “did not recognize the significant expense incurred by the parish on the pantry’s behalf, nor have there been any meaningful discussions with the pantry regarding contributing to those costs in the future.” The spokesperson did not say whether the archdiocese would provide a counteroffer.

Plans for the Holy Trinity Croatian site haven’t been finalized yet, the spokesperson said.

“The food pantry will be alerted when there are more specific plans and they will have the opportunity to discuss their interest further at that time,” according to the statement.

Family physicians Figueroa and Wu launched a food pantry inside the University of Illinois Pilsen Health Center in 2018, hoping to provide critical social services to address food insecurity, homelessness and poverty while serving patients.

They relocated the pantry to the vacant Holy Trinity Croatian in late March 2020 as COVID-19 and the related shutdown hit the city. The school closed in the early ’90s, and the church was absorbed by nearby St. Procopius in 2004.

With the move, the organization was able to expand its services to help more residents. Figueroa and Wu have opened a thrift shop, a medical supply closet and a pro-bono physical therapy clinic. They’ve also expanded their literacy project and added an on-site social worker to help families apply for assistance programs all under one roof.

Figueroa said the pantry serves 320-380 clients per week, up from 160-180 before the pandemic. The pandemic, plus recent inflation driving up the costs of groceries and other essentials, has caused a surge in people seeking help from food pantries.

Credit: Provided
Family medical physicians Evelyn Figueroa and Alex Wu started a food pantry inside a University of Illinois clinic in 2018 before expanding it into the Pilsen Food Pantry, currently located at 1850 S. Throop St.

As they try to put down roots on the Throop Street site, Figueroa said the lack of communication, uncertainty about what the archdiocese plans with the building and a recent incident involving the parking lot make her worry about the pantry’s future.

Staff showed up Monday to find the parking lot locked, Figueroa said. The pantry’s delivery van was in the locked lot, and it took time to coordinate with other churches in the area to figure out who could unlock it, she said. Staff eventually got inside to get the van, but the parking lot was locked again once they left, Figueroa said.

The archdiocese spokesperson said the organization was unaware the parking lot had been locked Monday.

Figueroa said she wants the pantry to stay on the east side of Pilsen because the location is key to reaching people in Near West Side, Bridgeport and Armor Square, as well as nearby low-income housing.

“We’re trying to build a community center, and there’s no community center on that side of Pilsen,” she said. “There’s a lot of intention to our location. I really want to see the right thing done by the community.”

Figueroa also said about one-third of the pantry’s clients come by foot, and the site’s parking lot is helpful for the people who drive from bordering neighborhoods.

The pantry’s offer to buy part of the church property comes after the archdiocese has sold another former Pilsen church to developers. After St. Ann Catholic Church in Pilsen held its final mass in 2018, the archdiocese sold the building to developers for $1.35 million in 2019 to be turned into housing.

Pilsen’s St. Adalbert’s Roman Catholic Church has also been at the center of neighborhood controversy as the archdiocese has tried to sell the church property to developers who wanted to turn the site into apartments.

St. Adalbert’s has been vacant since 2019, but deals to sell the property have continuously fallen through. Its fate is still up in the air as the local alderman fights in City Council to retain control over how the space in the changing neighborhood could be used.

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