A legendary historic Chicago parish—Holy Family –serves the city for 151 years
CHICAGO—December 8, 2008—Founded in 1857 on what were then the outskirts of the city by Jesuit missioner, educator, pastor and an immigrant from Holland, Rev. Arnold Damen, S.J., Holy Family was the first Jesuit church in Chicago. Once the largest English-speaking parish in the U.S, with 25,000 parishioners, Holy Family’s boundaries, at one time, extended from the South Branch of the Chicago River west to Austin Boulevard—a distance of nearly seven miles.
“It’s estimated that since 1857 when the parish opened more than 56,000 persons were baptized here and generations of couples exchanged their wedding vows in this church,” Rev. Jeremiah J. Father Boland, parish administrator, said.
Holy Family Parish’s Early History—Building a Cathedral on an Unsettled Prairie
“Known as the ‘Ellis Island of the Midwest,’ Holy Family welcomed waves of immigrants to Chicago. The original congregation was comprised of Irish immigrants. It’s estimated that one-third of Chicago’s Irish trace their roots to Holy Family. They were followed by German, Italian, African-American and Hispanic people,” Father Boland added.
Father Damen established a network of elementary schools that served nearly 5,000 students. He founded St. Ignatius College which became both St. Ignatius College Prep and Loyola University Chicago, two of the city’s important educational institutions.
O’Learys and Comiskeys Among Early Holy Family Parishioners
Among the memorable Chicago families who worshiped at Holy Family were Catherine and Patrick O’Leary, whose small barn at DeKoven and Jefferson Street on the east side of the parish, was said to have ignited during a lengthy fall drought on October 8, 1871 and sparked the Great Chicago Fire.
According to Holy Family’s records, between 1860 and 1866, three O’Leary children were baptized in the church: Cornelius, 1860; James, 1863 and Catherine, 1866. The family lived at 137 DeKoven Street, now 537 under the city’s 1909 numbering system and the site of the Chicago Fire Academy today.
Patrick and Catherine’s property had three structures—two cottages toward the front of the parcel and a shed at the rear near the alley.
John Comiskey, president of the Chicago City Council, was an active member of the parish. He is memorialized in one of the church’s 12 round clerestory windows, the oldest stained glass in Chicago. His son, Charles Comiskey, baseball player, manager and founder of the Chicago White Sox, was a member of the parish. He was one of the first students to enroll at St. Ignatius College in 1870.
Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American saint who founded nearby Cabrini Hospital, lived in the parish.
Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs) Serve Holy Family for 140 Years
Many vocations to the priesthood and religious life were fostered in Holy Family, said Ellen Skerrett, Chicago historian and author of "Born in Chicago" (Loyola Press, 2008) a history of Loyola University Chicago.
“Four religious communities made many important contributions to the parish: the Society of Jesus (Jesuits); Religious of the Sacred Heart, whose Convent Academy of the Sacred Heart was a landmark in the parish for nearly 50 years, from 1860 to 1908; and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs), whose members have served the parish for 140 years. Additionally, the Sisters of Holy Family of Nazareth, a predominately Polish community, taught African American children at St. Joseph’s Mission School at 13th and South Loomis Avenue in Holy Family parish for many years,” she said.
“The BVMs arrived in Holy Family from Dubuque in 1867, shortly after the end of the War Between the States. The sisters opened St. Aloysius School for Girls on Maxwell Street between Jefferson and Clinton Street and St. Stanislaus (later renamed Sacred Heart) school was at 18th street near Peoria Avenue.
“In collaboration with Father Damen, S.J., by 1893 the BVMs established and operated a network of elementary schools throughout the vast parish. Other schools were: St. Veronica at 18th and Paulina later renamed St. Pius; Holy Guardian Angel in the 700 west block of Arthington Street; St. Joseph, at 1413 West 13th Street; and St. Agnes at the corner of Maxwell and Morgan streets,” Skerrett explained.
Over the years, members of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary have served Holy Family parish as educators, sacramental ministers and community outreach workers. Today, members of the BVM community at Holy Family are active in pastoral ministry and community service programs.
Scores of Jesuit priests and brothers began their early education in the parish including: Rev. Gilbert J. Garraghan, S.J., who earned fame as an American historian; and Rev. Arnold J. Garvy, S.J., who headed St. Joseph’s Colored Mission in Holy Family parish and ministered to the area’s African American community in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Loyola’s eighth president, Rev. Thomas S. Fitzgerald, S.J., grew up in the parish; Samuel Knox Wilson, S.J., the 17th president, attended St. Ignatius College; Rev. Joseph M. Egan, S.J., the university’s 18th president, graduated from Holy Family elementary school as well as St. Ignatius High School; and Rev. James F. Maguire, S.J., Loyola’s 20th president, was born in the parish, baptized here and was a graduate of St. Ignatius High School.
Other Jesuit apostolates stemming from Holy Family parish include the Ephpheta School for the Deaf established by Father Damen in 1884. Three years later it was operating in the rear of St. Joseph’s Home at 1100 South May Street. To meet the special needs of immigrants and their American-born children, the Sunday School Association was founded by Rev. Andrew O’Neill, S.J. and operated from 1868 to 1904. Rev. John Lyons, S.J. founded the Catholic Instruction League and the movement spread across the U.S.
Several community service organizations were founded in the neighborhood to serve Italian families in the Holy Family neighborhood. They included the St. Ann Day Nursery, 710 S. Loomis street, sponsored by the Catholic Women’s League, and the Madonna Center, 718 S. Loomis street.
The Catholic Order of Foresters, a fraternal benefit life insurance society, was founded in Holy Family parish in 1883. This not-for-profit national society has served thousands of widows and orphans over the years, and has made significant financial contributions to the restoration of Holy Family church in recent years.
The National Catholic Society of Foresters (NCFS) also originated in Holy Family parish, in 1894, as a women’s insurance society. Their headquarters is in Mount Prospect, Illinois. They have also contributed to the restoration of the church.
While most Holy Family parishioners were poor or at the most people of modest means, among prominent Chicagoans who lived in the parish between its founding and the first half of the 20th century were: David Bremner, president, Bremner Brothers Baking Company, Charles Brennan, Cook County commissioner; Edward Brennan, who created Chicago’s unique street numbering system in 1909; John Campion, chief, Chicago Fire department; Harry F. Chaddick, a major real estate developer; and Robert Clowly, president, Western Union Telegraph Company.
Philip Conley, U.S. Collector of Customs, helped Father Damen raise funds for the new church. Carter H. Harrison, mayor of Chicago, lived in the neighborhood and attended St. Ignatius College;
Other well known parishioners were: James E. Gorman, president, Rock Island Rail System; Frank Lawler, member, U.S. House of Representatives; Simon O’Donnell, chief, Chicago Police department; William J.Onahan, five-term City of Chicago Collector; president, Chicago Public Library Board; treasurer, 1893 Columbian World’s Fair Exposition and grandfather of Adm. Daniel Gallery, the World War II naval hero who captured the German submarine U505; and Augustine Deodat Taylor, a Chicago pioneer who built the first Catholic church in Chicago, Old St. Mary’s in 1833 near State and Lake Streets. He is also memorialized in one of the round 1860 clerestory windows high above the church’s nave. Holy Family’s church’s cornerstone was laid in 1857 and the building was dedicated in 1860. It is the city’s only example of pre-Civil War Victorian church architecture.
One of five public buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Holy Family was a place of refuge for thousands of survivors of the Fire. Rt. Rev. Thomas Foley, Bishop of Chicago, lived at St. Ignatius College while his residence was being rebuilt following the fire.
In 1874, Holy Family’s 226-foot tower designed by architect J.P. Huber, was the tallest structure in the city. The tower’s two bells, each weighing two tons, were cast by J. Stuckstede Co., St. Louis in 1863, Once hand pulled by parishioners who still attend Holy Family, the bells are now automated.
The tower houses a giant 130-year-old four-faced clock, now restored and gilded. First installed in 1877, the clock is now activated and synchronized by a crystal-controlled computer which maintains accurate time, even in the event of a power failure.
Holy Family’s original main altar—52 feet of elaborate wood carving with 13 wooden statues—was dedicated in 1865. It is the work of Anthony Buscher, a German immigrant. Anthony’s nephew, Sebastian Buscher, carved the altars of Mary and St. Joseph as well as the church confessionals.
A new altar, a simple wooden table of black walnut similar to the original used by Christ in the Last Supper, was designed by restoration architect, John Vinci and constructed by Michael Jarvi, a master craftsman. It was consecrated on the Feast of Corpus Christi in June, 2003.
The intricately carved walnut communion rail was installed in 1866. It is the work of Louis Wisner, who was engaged by his neighbor, Father Damen.
Christmas 1990—A Race to the Wire to Save Holy Family Church From Demolition
Holy Family was closed in 1984 because of a leaking roof, interior plaster damage and limited resources to make necessary repairs. At Christmas 1987, its owners, the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) announced plans to demolish Holy Family and build a small utilitarian worship center to serve a shrinking congregation. The following spring, parishioners began a campaign to counter the proposed demolition.
In 1988, the Holy Family Preservation Society was formed as a 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit corporation separate from the parish under the motto, “saving the past to serve the future.” Its goals were to secure a minimum of $3 million in cash to repair and restore the exterior, interior and mechanical systems of the massive church and to secure a $ 1 million endowment fund.
The Jesuits countered with a challenge: the Chicago Province pledged $ 750,000 toward the endowment fund and gave the Preservation Society permission to raise restoration funds provided that $1 million in cash be raised by December 31, 1990 or the church would be demolished.
After two years of aggressive fund raising, by mid-December 1990, the Society was some $300,000 short. So the Holy Family Preservation Society launched a last-ditch national plea for funds, asking people to “say prayers and send money.”
Recalling the high drama of the final days of 1990, Rev. George A. Lane, S.J., a founding member of the Holy Family Preservation Society, president and publisher of Loyola Press, said, “ On the night of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Father Damen was in Brooklyn, New York preaching a mission at St. Patrick’s Church. He received an urgent telegram telling him that a major fire had started in parishioners’ Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn, a few blocks east of Holy Family, that threatened the church.
“According to legend, Father Damen prayed all night and pledged that if the church and his parishioners’ homes were spared, he would create a shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. At the shrine, he would light seven candles, which would burn forever.
“The wind shifted, most of Chicago burned to the ground, but Holy Family and St. Ignatius College were spared. When Father Damen returned to the city he made good on his promise. To this day, the seven lights are lit—now by electricity—in Holy Family’s east transept,” Father Lane said.
Inspired by Father Damen’s pledge in 1871, Father Lane and the Preservation Society organized nightly prayer vigils on the steps of the shuttered Holy Family church in the closing days of December, 1990. But after four nights the Preservation Society still remained far short of its $1 million goal.
On Sunday, December 30, 1990, the Feast of the Holy Family, the church was opened to the public for the first time in six years. Chicagoans were urged to “come home to Holy Family” for a special one-day final open house. An estimated 3,000 persons toured the church and nearly every one of them brought a donation and a personal story about their connections to this historic structure, Father Lane said.
Media around the world covered the compelling story of Holy Family, which the Chicago Tribune termed, “the miracle of Roosevelt Road.” CNN, the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today and all of Chicago’s print and broadcast media covered the heroic efforts of the church’s parishioners and many friends as they stood in freezing cold temperatures and “prayed in” the funds needed to save this historic Chicago building.
On New Year’s Day, 1991, the 101st anniversary of Father Damen’s death, Father Lane announced that $1,011,000 had been contributed and that Holy Family was saved from demolition. Work began immediately and continues to this day. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois recognized Father Lane and members of the Society for their efforts.
Another narrow escape—a 2003 fire in basement threatens church but is struck out by prompt response of Chicago Fire Department
In July 2003, the nearly restored Holy Family Church narrowly escaped serious damage when a basement fire ignited but was quickly struck out by members of the Chicago Fire Department’s oldest active fire unit-- Engine Co. 18 -- who rushed across Roosevelt Rd.
In December 2003, two rear pews of Holy Family were rededicated to the men and women firefighters and paramedics of the Chicago Fire Department. In 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire threatened the church, the same Company No. 18, then equipped with horse-drawn wagons, responded. For many decades the rear pews of Holy Family were reserved for the local firefighters who would leave a church service at the sound of an alarm bell.
Today, members of the Chicago Fire Department attend a monthly Mass and an annual Memorial Day service and liturgy to honor its deceased members.
Because of Holy Family's close relationship with the Chicago Fire Department, a shrine commemorating the 92 children and three Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs) who died in the tragic Our Lady of the Angels School fire of December 1, 1958 was relocated to Holy Family when the northwest side parish closed. Hundreds of survivors, their families, firefighters and city officials gathered in Holy Family for a special Mass of Remembrance on the 50th Anniversary of the Our Lady of the Angels fire.
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