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Armed with grant money and faith, St. Adalbert's races to complete restoration campaign of historic church

The imperfections in St. Adalbert’s are hard to spot at first. Instead, the eye is drawn to the interior of the nearly 100-year-old church where a series of light fixtures highlight beautiful stained-glass windows and artwork.

But as Donald Popielarz walks up to the church’s upper balcony, he points out where water has damaged walls and parts of the ceiling. He chuckles recalling how plaster flakes fell down a few years ago right onto Kevin Rhoades, prompting the bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese to urge parish leaders to get the ceiling fixed.

Popielarz is leading the effort to do just that, though not just because of Rhoades’ comment, but due to a dire warning from architects who recently examined the historic structure.

Last year St. Adalbert’s leaders were told that if repairs weren’t made to the church’s roof within three years, the cost of renovations would go up exponentially. If no work is done within 10 years, the building could fall apart, the architects said, which would devastate the westside community that’s embraced the church on Olive Street since 1926.

St. Adalbert’s has a majority-Spanish speaking congregation of over 3,000 people and the building serves as a community center and cultural hub in addition to being a place of worship.

Though the St. Adalbert’s staff has been eyeing renovations for a while, the dire prognosis has energized staff to seek out grants to pay for a round of renovations that will cost millions of dollars.

“We’re at a critical juncture right now,” Popielarz said. “If we’re going to save this building, if we’re going to save this community, if we’re going to save this side of town, if we’re going to save South Bend, yeah we’ve got to act now.”

The church has laid out close to $14 million in repair work it would like to do, but getting to that total could take years and will require a national fundraising effort. In the short term, Popielarz said replacing the roof and the church’s south steeple take priority, though just that will run a few million dollars.

Once the building is sealed against more water getting in, fixing paint and plaster is the next order of business. After that, it’s installing an air conditioner and new heater, along with multiple handicap accessible bathrooms.

Those quality of life repairs are more than the members of the congregation can fundraise on their own, said St. Adalbert’s pastor Fr. Ryan Pietrocarlo. He estimates 90% of the congregation are first or second generation Mexican immigrants, most of whom only speak Spanish.

In fact, Pietrocarlo said many of those parishioners joined St. Adalbert’s around 2003 when another westside church — St. Stephen’s — fell into disrepair and was demolished.

“A lot of our parishioners were there and lived through that,” Pietrocarlo said. “So they know how important this project is because they felt the heartache of a parish closing because of structural instability. They know the urgency and that this is important.”

Before the influx of Latino parishioners, St. Adalbert’s was a haven to Polish immigrants who lived on the west side of South Bend and worked in factories during the city’s industrial heyday.

“A community came together to build this place and the same thing has to happen for us to maintain it,” said Pietrocarlo.

And though the dollar amount is steep, church staff are working to raise the funds. Just this month, St. Adalbert’s received $400,000 from the Sacred Places Indiana grant and that’s on top of a $250,000 grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places received last fall.

Popielarz said the church is also trying to get registered as a national historic landmark which opens the doors to a variety of other grants. If things go well, the roof can be replaced by the fall.

Despite the severity of the church’s situation, Pietrocarlo said the congregation embracing the project thus far has given him confidence the community will be able to preserve St. Adalbert’s for years to come.

“They have great love for this place and they want it to survive for their kids and grandkids, for generations to come,” he said. “It’s been beautiful to see the response to this.”

For those wishing to know more about the project, Pietrocarlo encourages community members to come visit St. Adalbert’s and see the church for themselves. The parish is hosting a Cinco De Mayo celebration throughout the day on Saturday May 4.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.