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Popular Chicago priest vows to resist transfer


Chicago Cardinal Francis George has made it clear that he wants Fr. Michael Pfleger out of St. Sabina Church. And Pfleger has made it equally clear he won’t go without a fight. Under Pfleger’s leadership, St. Sabina on the city’s south side has become the largest and most active African-American parish in the archdiocese. But in November 2001 when Pfleger, 52, completed his third six-year term as pastor, George informed him that he is not granting any fourth terms to pastors. News of this development surfaced Feb. 11.

Pfleger told the Chicago Sun-Times that he will reject another church appointment and might even leave the church. Parishioners were quick to tell Chicago’s media that they would follow him wherever he goes.

George backed off a bit the next day, saying Pfleger may remain at St. Sabina for an unspecified time until an acceptable successor is found. “Fr. Pfleger is a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago where there is a certain discipline of life,” said George. “He shares in that discipline of life and he’s done a wonderful job at St. Sabina’s in many ways. He can bring those gifts elsewhere like any other priest does.”

The archdiocese acknowledged in response to inquiries that some 15 other Chicago pastors have been in place for more than 18 years, most of whom are nearing retirement age.

Dissatisfied St. Sabina parishioners have threatened to picket the cardinal’s mansion, and a group of black Protestant ministers are reportedly planning to petition the Vatican to intercede on behalf of Pfleger.

Throughout his career, the charismatic priest has battled gangs, tobacco and liquor executives, drug lords and slumlords, even Jerry Springer. Last summer he accused a largely suburban Catholic basketball league of racism for refusing to accept the St. Sabina school as a member (NCR, July 15, 2001). Amid considerable acrimony, that decision was reversed, but George, embarrassed by the controversy, may have determined then to oust Pfleger.

“I want to remain at St. Sabina,” Pfleger told NCR. “When you look at the miserable job the church has done in the black community, and you see here a place that’s financially strong, a school with 570 students and a waiting list, why would you not want to duplicate it instead of dismantle it?” He cited parish-sponsored projects including a senior apartment building, an employment service, a youth center, a retreat center and construction plans for 45 new homes. The church’s rousing liturgies, which often last three hours or more, draw from the entire metropolitan area. “Look at the successful black [Protestant] congregations in this city and you will see longevity of leadership,” Pfleger said. “That’s how you build respect and develop relationships.”

On Feb. 17 Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a visit to St. Sabina where he was welcomed by an overflow crowd that stretched down the street. He came, he said, because of the persistence of the parish’s leadership. “They don’t know the word no,” said Tutu.

Robert McClory is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002