Holy Family parishioners commemorate anniversary of the saving of the church
December 3, 2010

Fine art, statues, and other artistic accoutrements make Holy Family Church a unique place of beauty and serenity.

By Gabija Steponenaite

Holy Family Church parishioners and guests on Sunday, Dec. 26, at 9:45 a.m. will celebrate the annual feast of the Holy Family and the 20th anniversary of the saving of the church, located at 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd.

Two decades ago, bulldozers and demolition equipment were lined up and ready to start taking down the second oldest church in Chicago, which had been founded by the Jesuit priest Rev. Arnold Damen in 1857.

“The congregation of 1990 was very small, but they were interested in preserving Holy Family for historical reasons,” said parish administrator Rev. Jeremiah J. Boland.

In the late 1980s, Holy Family church seemed to be nearing the end of its existence: the main sanctuary was closed because of the leaking roof and falling plaster, and worship services were held in a chapel. The Chicago Jesuit Province felt that it would be better to demolish the church, since there were no funds for its renovation or upkeep.

In 1987, it was announced that the old church building would be demolished and a smaller structure erected in its place. Current and former parishioners were saddened to hear the news.

The Rev. George Lane, S.J., who lived in the Holy Family rectory and worked for the Loyola Press at that time, also was upset. “I opposed the decision for two reasons: first of all, it is the second oldest church in Chicago, which survived the great fire, and second, the parishioners really loved it” said Fr. Lane, who dedicated an extensive chapter to the Holy Family church in his book Chicago Churches and Synagogues.

Parish enthusiasts were determined to preserve the church, and they incorporated the Holy Family Preservation Society in the fall of 1988.

Youngsters, parishioners, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s cow (left), worked to save Holy Family Church from demolition in 1990.

Financial challenge

The greatest challenge preservationists faced was financial. In 1990, the Jesuit provincial superior informed Fr. Lane that the group would have to raise $1 million by the end of the year, otherwise the church would be demolished. Although the society had raised a significant amount of money for the church’s maintenance, they were short by $300,000.

Fr. Lane and church’s media relations volunteer Richard Barry organized a prayer vigil with a plea to “say prayers and send money” from December 26 to 31, 1990. Local and national news organizations picked up their plea. Headlines covering their desperate efforts to save the Chicago landmark touched hearts of thousands. Donations started pouring in from around the nation; checks, in amounts from $1 to thousands of dollars, were sent.

The preservationists felt that more needed to be done. “For many years the church was closed, and we felt that people should see it,” Barry remembered. “After consultation with our insurance company, we decided to open it for a few hours.”

On Sunday, Dec. 30, close to 3,000 people visited the church, and by the midnight deadline donations totaled $1,011,000. Barry noted that raising $300,000 in three weeks, for a church which did not have a big roster of parishioners, “was like a miracle.”

“The first major effort was to begin preservation work on the building with the goal to restore the church to its 1860 elegance,” said Fr. Boland.

Great architecture

Holy Family Church is known as one of the best examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in the country. When completed in 1860, it was the third largest church in America. At the end of the 19th century, the church’s bell tower was the tallest building in Chicago.

“When you walk into the church you feel like you are stepping back into the 19th century,” Fr. Boland said. Church walls are decorated with clerestory windows, a fine example of the oldest stained glass windows in Chicago. Twenty nine golden, hand-crafted angels, created by the 19th century Montreal sculptor Charles Oliver, oversee the building under Gothic arches.

In recent years, the church acquired a world-class Rice-Frobenius organ, which came from Maria Church in Helsingor, Denmark. This was made possible by grants from the Rice and Hooper Foundations. Since the church has great acoustics and can accommodate up to 1,000 guests, it also has become a place for concerts.

Youngsters, parishioners, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s cow (left), worked to save Holy Family Church from demolition in 1990.
Since the successful December 1990 fundraiser until today, Holy Family has spent approximately $12 million on its restoration. Walls have been replastered, chandeliers repaired, and windows, angels, and Victorian stenciling restored.

“The restoration of the church is a never-ending process,” Fr. Boland said. “The next big project is to replace the front door, which still has its original hardware.”

In addition to the ongoing successful restoration work, the number of registered families has increased from a few dozen up to 400 members. Church personnel are improving old and establishing new programs. Holy Family holds bible study along with senior, retiree, and youth outreach ministries. The church’s soup kitchen serves up to 200 destitute families a week. Holy Family’s employment outreach program provides services and training for those seeking jobs.

“The other major project is to create a ‘healing garden’ for the victims of sexual abuse,” said Fr. Boland. “The Archdiocese of Chicago has been looking for ways to support the survivors of sexual abuse, and the idea here is to create a space where individuals and families could come to continue healing process.”

Close encounters

The proposed demolition of the church was not its only close encounter with the possibility of complete destruction. In 1871, when the great Chicago fire started a few blocks form the church and threatened to burn it down, Fr. Damen was in Brooklyn, NY. When he got the news, he called on Our Lady of Perpetual Help to save the building, prayed all night, and promised to light seven candles in front of Our Lady’s statue. Miraculously, the winds shifted and the church was saved. Since that day the candles are lit at Our Lady’s shrine in the east transept of the church. “We followed Fr. Damen’s example when we organized our prayer vigil in 1990,” said Fr. Lane.

Another potentially disastrous event happened in 2003. Early one July morning a passerby noticed smoke coming from the church’s basement; she ran across the street to the nearby firehouse to make a report. Firefighters arrived just in time before the fire reached the bell tower.

“Holy Family Church is a great inspirational story,” said Fr. Boland. “A lot of churches did not survive the change of neighborhood and economic hardship and were torn down. Our church was very close to a similar fate but now has been born again.”

For more information on the Dec. 26 event, call (312) 492-8442.