Publication Date

December 1, 2011

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

When former Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski died in August 2010, his funeral was held in his boyhood church, St. Stanislaus Kostka, the imposing Renaissance-style edifice visible to travelers as they make their way from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago via the Kennedy Expressway. The powerful Ways and Means Committee chairman claimed credit for helping to save the “mother parish” of Chicago’s Polonia from the wrecking ball in the 1950s when the expressway was being planned. He was fond of telling reporters that his grandmother had watched the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 from the steeple of St. Stanislaus.1

Like so many wonderful Chicago stories, Rostenkowski’s account was a myth: construction on the present St. Stanislaus Kostka began in 1877 and the church was dedicated in 1881; not until 1892 were the steeples finally raised. Moreover, according to the U.S. Census, neither of Rostenkowski’s grandmothers lived in Chicago in 1871—in fact they hadn’t left Poland at the time of the Great Fire!

Why did Congressman Rostenkowski come to believe such a tall tale? The answer, I think, has to do with the deep attachment Chicagoans have felt for their neighborhood churches. Built with the nickels and dimes of the poor, these monumental structures constituted visible proof that immigrants of many different ethnic backgrounds had created a place for themselves in the city—and left their mark on the urban landscape. As Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, recently observed, “It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Jewish or atheist, the city’s historic churches anchor the neighborhood with their architecture and serve as the center of the community.”2

When it comes to mythmaking, few Chicago churches or synagogues enjoyed as colorful a past as Holy Family, established in 1857 on the “prairie” south and west of the city’s downtown (now 1080 W. Roosevelt Road). Rev. Arnold Damen, S.J., incurred the wrath of the Yankee-dominated Chicago Tribune when he announced plans to build the largest church in the city as well as a college and a system of parochial schools. But Chicagoans disregarded the newspaper’s warning not to aid “the founding of Jesuit institutions in the city,” and large crowds turned out at the fundraising concerts and bazaars, purchasing china dishes and oil paintings and paying 10 cents for each vote to elect the most popular men and women. Alderman “Honest John” Comiskey (father of future White Sox owner Charles Comiskey) went door-to-door in 1859, helping to collect nearly $1,000 for stained glass windows. By the time Holy Family was dedicated in 1860, the Tribune had grudgingly conceded that the church would become “an ornament to the city.”

However, Holy Family’s status as an early Chicago landmark was nearly short-lived, thanks to the flames that allegedly began in the barn of Catherine O’Leary on DeKoven Street on the evening of October 8, 1871. A devoted member of Holy Family parish, she was also an immigrant businesswoman who owned five cows and sold milk in the neighborhood. Yet newspaper reporters demonized her as an Irish “hag,” referring to her derisively as “Our Lady of the Lamp.” The Chicago Evening Journal predicted, correctly, that Mrs. O’Leary “is in for it, and [make] no mistake. Fame has seized her and appropriated her, name, barn, cows and all.” She, too, would become more myth than person.

Arnold Damen was preaching a mission at St. Patrick Church in Brooklyn, New York, when he heard the dreadful news from Chicago. As the story goes, he spent the night on his knees in front of the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, praying to the mother of Jesus and making a solemn promise: if Holy Family and the new St. Ignatius College next door were spared destruction he would keep seven lights burning in the Gothic church. Suddenly, the wind shifted and the fire crossed the south branch of the Chicago River, engulfing the downtown commercial district and neighborhoods as far north as Lincoln Park. Popular belief in Holy Family’s miraculous salvation was apparent within weeks: at a special ceremony, parishioners sang “the Miserere to atone for the faults, committed during the last year, and . . . the Te Deum, to extend thanks to God for ‘all blessings received.'” Moreover, collections were taken “after all the masses to keep lights constantly burning before the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” fulfilling Arnold Damen’s vow.3

Nearly 120 years later, Holy Family once again faced destruction, but this time the threat was not a force of nature, but its religious owners. Back in 1961, when Mayor Richard J. Daley offered urban renewal land for the new Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, the Gothic church survived because it was located just outside the designated area. Not so Hull-House, the famous social settlement on Halsted Street, founded nearby in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Despite widespread protests, all but two of the twelve buildings in the Hull-House complex were demolished. While Charles Hull’s 1850s mansion and the settlement’s dining room became a museum operated by the university, Holy Family continued its original function as sacred space, beloved by Italian American and African American families who had remained in the neighborhood.

In 1987, when the Jesuit order announced its plan to demolish Holy Family and replace it with a 400-person structure that would better accommodate the small congregation that worshiped in Chicago’s second oldest church, parishioners reacted with anger and disbelief. Determined to “Save the Past to Serve the Future,” they formed a preservation society. The campaign to rescue Holy Family from the wrecking ball called attention to the critical role neighborhood churches had played in Chicago’s growth and development, unacknowledged in standard histories. It also provided city dwellers and suburbanites alike the opportunity to reclaim the Gothic church built by earlier generations as an investment in their future.

At a critical moment in the campaign, parishioners invoked the myth of Holy Family’s salvation from the Great Fire of 1871. Fearing that they would not meet the deadline to have $1 million in the bank by New Year’s Day 1991, men, women, and children reenacted Father Damen’s vigil. Beginning on December 26, 1990, a small group stood on the steps of their shuttered church, reciting the rosary as television cameras rolled. Contributions began to pour in from around the world and heartened by the response to “Say Prayers and Send Money,” the preservation society took the bold step of obtaining permission from the insurance company to open the church on the feast of the Holy Family. On December 30, crowds in the thousands streamed through the unheated edifice. By New Year’s Day, the preservation society had met its goal—with $11,000 to spare.4

Saved in part because of their mythic pasts and in part by community activism, St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Family survive today as powerful reminders that by investing scarce resources in their houses of worship, immigrants helped to create and shape the city.



  1. James Warren, “Rostenkowski, Master Politician and Benefactor,” New York Times CHICAGO, August 13, 2010. []
  2. Karen Ann Cullotta, “Under the Dome in Bucktown, Restoration Goes On,” New York Times CHICAGO, June 10, 2011. []
  3. Ellen Skerrett, “The Irish of Chicago’s Hull-House Neighborhood,” in New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora, ed. Charles Fanning (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 211. St. Ignatius College is the forerunner of Loyola University Chicago; Ellen Skerrett, Born in Chicago: A History of Chicago’s Jesuit University (Loyola Press, 2008). []
  4. For an account of the campaign to save Holy Family, see Thomas McElligott, The Miracle on Roosevelt Road (Chicago: Ellidon Publications, 2008). []

Ellen Skerrett, a Chicago historian and researcher on the Jane Addams Papers Project, was involved in the campaign to save Holy Family Church. She is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.