Monday, March 2, 2015

St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church
 by: chicago designslinger

 [St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church (1920) Worthmann & Steinbach, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Our story of St. Mary of the Angels's church begins well before there was a building built around this parish. We're heading back to 1866, thirty-three years before St. Mary's was established when the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago decided to organize a parish on Chicago's northwest side with the name of Annunciation in its title. As the city was spreading its manufacturing wings out along the north branch of the Chicago River, a cluster of rolling mills set-up shop along the waterway at Wabansia Avenue. The mills attracted a talent pool of immigrant Irish laborers who settled into the newly subdivided residential section nearby, and worshipped under the canon law of the Roman Catholic church. The nearest place to attend services was located several miles away, so Bishop James Duggan recruited Father Thomas Burke to establish the parish of the Church of the Annunciation for this group of northwest side residing sons and daughters of Ireland. By the time a new church building was dedicated by Bishop Thomas Foley in 1876 the parish had over 1,000 families registered on its books.

  [St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, 1850 N. Hermitage Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

As the 19th century rolled over into the 20th the Irish had been taken over by the Poles. Polish immigrants began arriving in small numbers in the city's northwestern quadrant around the same time that Annunciation parish was founded. But by 1899 the Polish population had exploded, and the pastor at the heart of the community Father Vincent Barzynski of St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, began branching out and establishing sister parishes as the Poles marched northwestward along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor. Barzynski purchased two full city blocks consisting of 96 subdivided vacant lots located between todays Bloomigdale Avenue on the south, Courtland on the north, Paulina to the east, Wood to the west with Hermitage running up the middle, and set about establishing a parish for the Polish speaking Catholics. The property was only two blocks from the Church of the Annunciation, but ethnic groups of all religious stripes constructed church buildings for parishes that served the needs of their particular community, even if they overlapped with an existing community's parish and were close to an existing church building.

  [St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, Bucktown, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Starting in 1900, Barzynski sold lots in one of the city blocks for housing while constructing a combination school/church building at the southern edge of the other block. In just eleven years the school had grown from 450 to over 1,000 students, the congregation had grown to nearly 1,300 registered families, and the parish was one of the largest in the city. By 1911 the time had come to build a free-standing church structure, and construction began on a building designed by architects Henry Worthmann and John Steinbach. The firm Worthmann & Steinbach was founded in 1903, creating a partnership that would soon become one of the city's premiere ecclesiastical design outfits. The $400,000 church was massive, and capped by a dome that mimicked St. Peter's in Rome. But, the going was slow. Funds needed to be raised, then the First World War intervened, and finally on May 30, 1920, twenty-two thousand people celebrated the dedication of St. Mary of the Angels Roman Catholic Church.

  [St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The good times rolled on for the parish until the postwar flight to suburbia began and the Northwest Expressway, later the Kennedy, began to bulldoze its way out to the hinterlands leveling much of the neighborhood housing stock. By 1988 the parish had dwindled down from a high of over 2,000 families in the 1920s to about 150, and the church building itself was crumbling. Plaster had fallen from the water logged dome hitting a parishioner, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin ordered the building closed. These were tough financial times for the archdiocese overall, and since there was no money to pay for upkeep from a parish of around 200 elderly souls, he determined that the building would have to be demolished. Former parishioners and the Chicago area's Polish community joined forces to try and raise the funds necessary for the preservation of the church whose dome had become a landmark for Kennedy Expressway drivers. It was touch and go, then just as the necessary $1.5 million in emergency funds was nearly raised, Bernardin asked members of the Catholic religious sect Opus Dei to take over the operations of the parish. On October 11, 1992 two thousand people attended the rededication ceremony of the preserved St. Mary of the Angels, an ongoing effort of preservation and conservation that continues to this day.

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