Chicago’s oldest churches fan flames of worship

This week’s newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Chicago’s oldest churches fan flames of worship


April 7, 2012

Come Sunday morning, Christians far, wide and reading this column will flock to churches to celebrate the greatest resurrection story of all-time.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not at all – when The Great Fire swept through Chicago in 1871 and ultimately sparked the city’s own remarkable resurrection, three of the mere handful of public buildings to “survive” in the vicinity of the inferno’s disaster zone were churches.

One of them, Holy Family Church, located at 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, stood just a few blocks from the barn of congregants Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, whose cow went to be blamed for starting the Great Fire.

By surviving the blaze, Holy Family went on to become known as “The Miracle of Roosevelt Road” thanks to the tale that the church’s Father Arnold Damen invoked the aid of Our Lady of Perpetual Help by promising to light seven candles before her statue if the building was spared. Soon, the winds shifted and the church indeed was saved. To this day, seven electric lights still burn at Our Lady’s shrine located in the eastern wing of the church.

Founded in 1857, Holy Family stands as one of the oldest churches in Chicago and here on Easter Eve, I thought I’d share with you some additional facts about some of the Windy City’s most historic churches.

Holy Family Church

The Great Chicago Fire survivor story isn’t the only interesting thing about the story of Holy Family. Last October, the church enjoyed another unique chapter when its 12-foot-high, 600-pound wooden front doors were renovated after 151 years of withstanding harsh Midwestern elements.

In February 2011, when the notorious “Snowmageddon” blizzard struck Chicago, the doors at Holy Family couldn’t be closed completely, allowing three feet of snow to pile up inside the entrance of the church.

“They’re the oldest working doors on a public building in the city,” Holy Family’s Rev. Jeremiah Boland told the Chicago Sun-Times as the doors reinstalled after having been re-stained and outfitted with new brass fittings that he said should last for another 150 years.

“Our doors will always be wide open,” Boland added, before quipping, “But now we’ll also be able to close them.”

Old St. Patrick’s Church

Commonly known as “Old St. Pat’s,” the historic church located at 700 W. Adams St. was founded on Easter Sunday, April 12, 1846, as the first English-speaking parish in the city.

On May 23, 1853, the cornerstone for the Old St. Pat’s current Romanesque building was laid. The church was officially dedicated on Christmas Day 1856, and 15 years later it would dodge the Great Chicago Fire’s path of flames by just two blocks.

Today, the church stands as the oldest public building in Chicago and each summer plays host to a fundraiser known as “Old St. Pat’s Block Party,” which it also bills as the world’s largest.

Fourth Presbyterian Church

Founded on June 26, 1833, and located at 6400 S. Kimbark Ave. on the South Side since 1926, First Presbyterian Church is Chicago’s oldest Protestant church. But with its high-profile location at 190 E. Delaware Place just off North Michigan Avenue, Fourth Presbyterian is perhaps the city’s most recognizable Protestant cathedral.

Ironically, Fourth Presbyterian dedicated its original church on Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871 – the same day as the beginning of the Great Chicago Fire.

The blaze promptly destroyed the new building, but by 1874 the congregation had built a new church. In 1912, it then opened its current location along what is now the Magnificent Mile, and with the exception of the Chicago Water Tower, the church is the oldest structure on Michigan Avenue.