But since the city privatized its parking meters last year, more churchgoers have encountered unanswered prayers for parking. Pricey meters and restricted curbside parking now surround historic houses of worship in the Loop, forcing the faithful to pay to pray or get free parking by volunteering for soup kitchens, tutoring or other ministries.
Some pastors are pushing the city to consider what churches contribute to city life and ease parking restrictions for congregants, especially on Sunday mornings when commercial and government traffic is light.
"We're not asking for special privileges," said the Rev. Philip Blackwell, pastor of First United Methodist Church at Chicago Temple. "We just happen to be religious institutions. The strange hours that we keep are complementary to the way the rest of the Loop gets used. If we're going to co-exist in the city we have to have some nuanced understanding about how space is being used. That goes for government vehicles, bikes."
Pastors in the Chatham neighborhood also resent the fact that parking meters have been installed on the perimeters of their church lots, but not on nearby commercial arteries.
"I think it's interfering with my religious activity," said the Rev. Webb Evans, 96, who keeps an office at Israel Methodist Community Church. "We should have the freedom to go to church without having to pay a meter five or six feet in front of the door."
Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, 6th, who has met with religious leaders in Chatham, said she has urged officials to stop enforcing parking restrictions in her ward on Sundays. She said officials need to draft a citywide policy that would exempt churches from parking regulations on Sundays.
"At a time when we have a culture that is seemingly going backward in its civility, in its respect, in its conforming to social norms, if anything we need these churches as our partner," Lyle said.
Matt Darst, first deputy director of the city's Department of Revenue, said the agency makes individual accommodations for a variety of institutions. But it does not base those exceptions on what those institutions give back to the community, Darst said.
"I wouldn't even know how to begin to quantify that," he said. "Every institution has value. It's really about tailoring the system to meet the needs of that unique institution."
Bob Green, 75, of Schaumburg said he appreciates a recent accommodation by Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, that allows Chicago Temple worshippers to park curbside on Sunday until 3 p.m. But he wishes that extended to volunteers on other days.
His Ford Focus was towed from an empty street at 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday while he was retrieving materials inside the church to deliver to a soup kitchen. He paid $160 to bail out his car -- its lights still flashing -- and a $60 fine.
"Given the fact we spend $1,200 a month buying material for the homeless program, that would have fed a lot of people," he said.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, frowns on parking exemptions for churches.
"It's just a very silly idea," he said. "I know that everybody is hurting for money. But if you're going to have meters that operate on Sundays, you can't get a pass on the four quarters if you happen to be praying at the time."
While Holy Name Cathedral has its own parking lot, St. James Cathedral and Fourth Presbyterian Church have arrangements with nearby garages for discounted parking.
In fact, when the privatized meters began collecting on Sundays, opportunities for parking improved because parishioners could find spaces for less money. Rob Holben, business administrator at Fourth Presbyterian, said parishioners accept parking fees as the price of worshipping in an urban congregation.
"There's an expectation if you're going to volunteer here there's probably a cost," he said. "Some of our visitors, particularly on Sunday mornings, are perplexed. But we're an urban church. We don't have a luxury of acres of parking."