CREST HILL – The Catholic Diocese of Joliet made a historical change when it moved its operations from Joliet to Crest Hill in December.
The move brought opposition from the mayors of both cities in late 2012, but since then the waters have cooled and the diocese is settling into the converted strip mall on the northeast corner of Weber Road and Division Street.
“We are all grateful to God that Bishop [Daniel] Conlon had the vision and wisdom to pursue this project,” diocese Chief Financial Officer Mike Bava said. “This wouldn’t have been possible without the willingness of the bishop to take on this challenge, especially so soon after becoming the bishop of Joliet.“
Crest Hill Community Development Director Amber Miller said the weather has made it tough for the diocese to move forward on construction plans. The exterior of the building still needs to be finished and landscaping has been delayed.
“They still need to complete some items,” Miller said. “But they’ve made some extraordinary progress because they’ve had some really tight timeframes.”
While the new offices still are under construction, the diocese is optimistic about the opportunity for its more than 650,000 parishioners.
With facilities in Joliet and Romeoville, Bava said the diocese had been searching for a good location to centralize operations since the 1980s. When Conlon took over in 2011, he made moving a priority.
“Having half of the diocesan staff working in Joliet and the other half in Romeoville was not ideal,” Bava sad. “Getting everyone in one location is much better for enhancing collaboration, communications and efficiencies.”
The diocese had looked at its existing facilities in Romeoville. But a study found that the Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Center on Airport Road would have required $7 million to $8 million to renovate into a suitable office location.
That center did have a gym, and dozens of dorms and classrooms that Lewis University already was partially using.
The Catholic university was interested in the entire facility, Bava said. So when diocese officials found the vacant strip mall along the Weber Road corridor in Crest Hill, they found an ideal opportunity.
The diocese sold the Romeoville facilities to Lewis and used the money to buy and renovate the lot into the Blanchette Catholic Center. This allowed the diocese to spend less than $3 million on the new center, Bava said.
At the time the diocese was finalizing the deals, Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante and Crest Hill Mayor Ray Soliman both protested the decision.
Giarrante argued then that the absence of the diocese would create a hole both in the prestige of the city and the buildings that will be left unoccupied. Soliman was concerned about the diocese taking up space in a prime commercial location, leading to the loss of property taxes and up to $100,000 per year in sales taxes.
After several meetings with Conlon, diocese officials agreed to develop and lease two lots south of its property as commercial lots, lessening the hit to sales taxes incurred by the arrival of the diocese.
“We welcome Bishop Conlon and the diocese of Joliet to the city of Crest Hill and look forward to a long relationship,” Soliman said, adding that he hopes to work with the diocese and it’s more than 100 employees as a destination point to bring future development to the area.
The chancery and tribunal buildings on Bridge Street in Joliet currently are unoccupied. The Pope John Paul II building will continue housing priests until it’s also sold. While the diocese has been in talks with the University of St. Francis to acquire all of the buildings, Bava said that might not happen.
“Our focus right now is completing the Crest Hill location,” Bava said. “But we will begin the process of readying the former chancery buildings for sale in the near future”
Those properties still are a concern for Giarrante, who is meeting with Conlon next week.
“We’re still concerned about what will happen to the buildings,” Giarrante said. “This is the Joliet diocese. I want to see what the bishop has to say, but our main concern is the vacant properties.”
The new center has multiple conference rooms and is being renovated as a central location of diocese offices. The heads of all departments, including Conlon’s office, are located at Blanchette. But Bava said parisioners should still consider Joliet the base city of the diocese.
“The name of the diocese will definitely remain the ‘diocese of Joliet,’ ” Bava said. “Crest Hill is where our curia operations are now. But the Cathedral of St. Raymond’s in Joliet remains the home and center of our diocese.”
The diocese will hold an open house of the finished Crest Hill facility from 2 to 6 p.m. April 3.