The Rockford Files

Inside the Gates

Fr. Brian A.T. Bovee, the rector of Saint Mary’s Oratory in Rockford, sometimes calls his church Santa Maria Inter Carceres—Saint Mary’s Among the Jails.  It’s a (half-)joking reference to the oratory’s location just to the west of the Public Safety Building, just to the east of the new Winnebago County Jail, and just to the north of Rockford’s federal courthouse.  The only Catholic church in downtown Rockford, Saint Mary’s is one of the few nongovernmental buildings remaining in the southwestern quadrant of downtown, despite the efforts of some county-board members several years ago to seize the property to clear the way for the construction of the new jail.

Since the oratory is now surrounded on three sides, it’s not immediately obvious that it sits on a high point in downtown, with the ground falling away fairly dramatically to the west and to the south toward Kent Creek, and more gently to the east toward the Rock River.  Both the automobile and, paradoxically, the modern high-rise have flattened our sense of topography.  Sometimes, the only way to get the lay of the land is to park the car and walk the streets, letting our shins and our heart and our lungs tell us which way the ground rises.

Saint Mary’s is the second-oldest Catholic church in Rockford.  The oldest, Saint James Protocathedral, is similarly situated just north of downtown,...

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