A Magnificent Witness: Our Lady of the Angels Mission, Chicago

by Denis McNamara, appearing in Volume 31

Our Lady of the Angels Mission

Our Lady of the Angels Mission. Photo: flickr.com/Brule Laker

As unlikely as it seems, a mystical vision experienced by Saint Francis of Assisi eight centuries ago recently found a parallel in a twentieth-century Chicago church associated for decades with anxiety and terror. While praying at the abandoned church of San Damiano, Francis famously heard the Lord’s voice ring out: “Rebuild my church.” Immediately, he began a lifelong path of simplicity and service, beginning by rebuilding the church with his own hands. But commentators have rightly noted that “rebuilding the church” has a double meaning. Because the church building signifies the Christian community joined mystically to Christ its Head,1 the renovation of a church building is the fruit of a renewed Christian community and in turn brings new life to the community itself. In a kind of divine economy, when a worshipping community is dispirited and departs, the buildings which signify Christ’s presence decay and crumble. When the community returns and is reedified—spiritually “rebuilt”—church buildings again provide the visible sign of the Holy Spirit building up the temple of Christ’s body. It is then that a church building flowers and stands as a queen amidst the city’s surrounding buildings.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the renewal of the former Our Lady of the Angels Church in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, where a once-thriving parish became an aching gash on the face of Chicago after a devastating school fire left ninety-two children and three sisters dead in an eighteen-hour ordeal that sent shockwaves across the world. But new life has come to the neighborhood and its church, beginning with a small community of men and women inspired by Saint Francis himself.

Noble Simplicity, Noble Beauty

The story of Our Lady of the Angels Church in Chicago, now called the Our Lady of the Angels Mission, in many ways follows the familiar path of many of Chicago’s immigrant-driven neighborhood churches. Irish immigrants outgrowing their old neighborhood in the 1890s moved west past Humboldt Park, and their pastor named the parish after a personal interest: he had studied at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Niagara, New York.2 Worship began in a storefront, sisters were found to begin a school, and a temporary church was built. Decades later, despite the dark days of the Depression and war, the parish built a modest but still grand Italian Romanesque church from plans drawn by architect Gerald A. Barry. Samuel Cardinal Stritch dedicated the church in 1941.

Gerald Barry, a busy Chicago architect, would eventually design several dozen buildings in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and his son, also named Gerald, would later form a firm called Barry and Kay, and design churches which pushed the envelope of modern expression. The elder Barry’s work, however, revealed a stylistic versatility common to the best architects of the early twentieth century. His 1936 Saint Bartholomew Church in Chicago and 1953 Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Glenview, Illinois, each used a sophisticated Colonial mode. His Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church showed his versatility with modernized English Gothic, and his Saint Priscilla Church showed a facility with ’50s high modern which nonetheless retained a strong ecclesiastical character.

At Our Lady of the Angels, Barry’s choice of “modernized Italian Romanesque” was not uncommon for the tight budgets of the 1930s. Pastors had become wary of “cathedral-like structures” that “had been overtaken by the depression with a huge burden of debt.”3 Unlike the dreamy English Gothic churches of the Roaring Twenties with their complexities of cut stone, the Italian Romanesque provided a credible historical style closely associated with the Catholic tradition which nonetheless required only small areas of stone detail and allowed for broad, unornamented expanses of brick. At Our Lady of the Angels, Barry gave the façade an appearance of simplicity which contains, nonetheless, significant architectural detail. The front façade displays a rich ecclesiology fitting to a church building as an image of Christ’s hierarchically arranged Mystical Body. Above one entry door is displayed the coat of arms of Pope Pius XII, while the other reveals the arms of Cardinal Mundelein, both reigning when the church was built. Moving from the earthly church to the heavenly community, carvings under the triumphal arch entry symbolize the Persons of the Trinity, most notably the center arch with the crowned hand of God coming down into the new garden of the glorified earth shown by glorified vines and peacocks, the birds of eternity.

The interior, too, continues its theological richness amidst an immediate sense of simplicity. Theologically considered, every church is an image of God and humanity reconciled, where the new heaven and the new earth of the Book of Revelation are shown in perfect order (Rv 21:1). Rows of Byzantine-inspired columns, literally the “pillars of the church” (Gal 2:9), support the roof just as individual people support its mission. Even the roof trusses are treated in a polychromatic iconographic scheme indicating vines, peacocks, and symbols of the Virgin and Christ. The sanctuary, ringed by columns of colorful marbles akin to the jeweled walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rv 4), also display the architect’s understanding of the newer trends inspired by the early Liturgical Movement. Every seat has a clear view of the altar, which itself takes inspiration from Early Christian sources, combining swirling vines, peacocks, and the chi-rho in a wreath, the symbol of the victory of Christ. Above, a large bronze crucifix that could be seen by the people in the pews hangs from a carefully designed tester, revealing the period’s new interest in observance of liturgical law and in the participation of the people in the action at the altar.

Tragedy and Decline

For the first seventeen years of its life, Our Lady of the Angels Church operated like many thriving urban parishes. Tragedy struck on December 1, 1958, however, when a raging fire believed to have begun in the basement of the elementary school engulfed much of the building, trapping students and teachers alike. As horrified parents looked on, students, some with their hair and clothes on fire, jumped out of second-story windows, and television coverage showed the limp bodies of children being carried down fireman’s ladders. Three nuns and ninety-two students died, making headlines across the nation and the world. Photos of small coffins lined up for the funeral Mass remained burned in the collective consciousness of the city. Eventually a new Our Lady of the Angels school was built with the most modern fire protection standards, and throughout the country, school boards reviewed their fire safety provisions in light of the tragedy. Nonetheless, the gaping wound caused by the fire remained, and many families moved away from the neighborhood to avoid the painful memories of the day’s events.

Soon after, in an urban phenomenon common in the 1960s and ’70s, many traditionally Catholic ethnic groups left the cities for the suburbs, and the West Humboldt Park neighborhood faced increasing pressure from the phenomenon of “blockbusting.” In what is sometimes called “panic peddling,” unscrupulous real estate agents developed intentional programs to frighten white residents into selling their homes by stimulating fears of declines in property values because of an influx of African Americans. In some cases, agents “hired African American subagents and other individuals to walk or drive through changing areas soliciting business and otherwise behaving in such a manner as to provoke and exaggerate white fears.”4 Even though the parish formed the “Our Lady of the Angels Committee Against Panic Peddling” in 1969,5 the Catholic population in the area continued to decline. Despite enlarging the parish boundaries several times and consolidation with other Catholic schools in the area, the parish church closed in 1990, and the school closed in 1999. The West Humboldt Park neighborhood became known for gang violence, drug trafficking, and poverty; and as of 2011 it remained one of the poorest in Chicago, with a 42% unemployment rate, a 67% high school dropout rate, and one of the highest juvenile arrest rates in the state.6

New Hope and a New Mission

In 2005, Francis Cardinal George invited Father Bob Lombardo, C.F.R., a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, to begin a mission on the site with three aims: serve the neediest people in the city, bring a Catholic presence to the area, and provide a life of prayer at the location of the 1958 fire. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, founded by eight Capuchin Friars in 1987, are committed to serving the poorest of the poor in a “hands on” manner, and their missions provide for both the material needs of the poor and evangelization through the preaching of the Gospel. Father Lombardo had already served as a missionary in Honduras and Bolivia, and had directed the Padre Pio Shelter for the Homeless in the Bronx.

For the Friars of the Renewal, as for Saint Francis, building up the Mystical Body of Christ tends to be inextricably linked with buildings and construction. When he arrived in Chicago, Father Lombardo was faced with a church campus that had been neglected for decades. He noted that the kitchen floor of the 1940s-era rectory, which had been empty for fifteen years, looked like it had been “roto-tilled.”7 With many donations of money, time, materials, and expertise, the rectory’s plumbing and electrical systems were updated, plaster was repaired and painted, a chapel was created, and landscaping freshened up the property, making a colorful oasis in the blighted neighborhood. The rectory now serves as the home of a newly founded and growing religious community, the Franciscans of the Eucharist, whose primary apostolate is working with the local poor. Similarly, a thirty-seven-room convent built in 1955 required extensive repair and now serves as a place for retreats, for housing volunteers, and for storing donations. A gymnasium and social center named Kelly Hall, built by the parish in 1968, reopened after receiving significant repair and cleaning. It now serves the neighborhood and the mission in conjunction with the Chicago Metro YMCA and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, feeding seven hundred families every month.

Perhaps the most splendid part of the rebuilding was the renovation and reopening of the church itself. Though it was rented to a Baptist congregation for almost twenty years, the church was only partly usable because of a significantly leaky roof, including a section of the ceiling the community somewhat affectionately called “the hole.” The estimated price tag for the required church renovations totaled over $2 million, including a new roof, tuck pointing, complete electrical rewiring, window and plumbing repairs, and an overhaul of the basement kitchen and hall seating five hundred people.

The restored interior of the church

The restored interior of the church. Photo: Our Lady of the Angels Mission

The church’s original altar, which had been moved out onto a wooden platform with a shag carpet decades earlier, was reconstructed and relocated back to the original sanctuary. The marble floors and wall panels were cleaned, the original exterior doors were recreated and installed, the pews were restored, the entire interior was repainted, devotional shrines were restored, and the infamous hole in the roof was repaired. An ambo comprised of four rectangular-shaped images of the four evangelists was crafted out of pieces of the church’s original altar rail. And surprisingly, the first-ever outdoor memorial to the children who died in the fire was erected on the church grounds.

Sister Stephanie Baliga, one of the members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist, served as the de facto general contractor for the project and, together with Father Lombardo and the other sisters, organized groups of volunteers, donors, and construction workers. Fundraising took all forms, including several sisters asking sponsors to support them in running the Chicago Marathon. Several of Chicago’s unions—including pipe fitters, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters—donated their time, using the church as a hands-on training center where apprentices could perfect their skills in the field.

In many cases, the sisters described the appearance of contractors and supplies as “miraculous.” Precisely when they pondered how they would afford the renovation of the church basement and kitchen, a man whose sister had died in a fire unrelated to the school tragedy agreed to provide the materials and labor. After Sister Stephanie spent the summer with volunteers sanding the pews, she picked up a phone book looking for furniture refinishers and, without knowing it, providentially called a man whose family members had been involved in the school fire. He came over fifteen minutes later. One man donated all of the electrical work, and one electrician frequently spent overnights in the church pulling wire. In many cases, Sister Stephanie reported, people who had little or no faith had remarkable awakenings while working on the project. Others who had traumatic childhood memories of the 1958 tragedy returned to the parish, donating time and labor, thereby finding healing by letting positive memories replace the old ones. “It was a reminder,” Sister Stephanie says, “that the Mystical Body of Christ who are the People of God still come together today, not only in the past.”

Aedificavit Sibi Domum

In December of 2012, Francis Cardinal George presided at the Mass celebrating the church’s reopening, joined by school alumni, former parishioners, and current residents of the neighborhood. Though not operating as a parish, the church has become a beacon of beauty for the neighborhood. Although very few of the residents in the area are Catholic, many see it as their own. In the same parish where burning children once jumped out of windows, today’s neighborhood children have spoken of being moved to prayer after looking at the stained-glass windows, which are lit at night from the inside as a jewel-like beacon. Right now, the Franciscans are focused mostly on meeting the immense material needs of the area’s residents, but prayer in the church forms an important part of the mission. When groups visit on special occasions, the church is opened for prayer, and several times a month, the Franciscans offer the neighborhood residents a community dinner that begins with prayer in the upper church and ends with a meal in the hall below.

A memorial to the victims of the 1958 fire is located next to the church.

A memorial to the victims of the 1958 fire is located next to the church. Photo: flickr.com/deep blue skies


In a 2011 interview, Cardinal George called the church “the most gracious building, the most impressive building in the neighborhood.” He noted that before the renovation, the “place didn’t lift the spirit very much,” but he hoped that “a dispirited people might find a new spirit because the Holy Spirit is working there.”8 This indeed is the modern restatement of God’s call to Saint Francis in the thirteenth century. At the Our Lady of the Angels Mission, hundreds of generous people have acted and continue to act as the face and hands of Christ, asking nothing in return. And the result is renewed hope signified to every passerby, evident in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but also in a silent but magnificent witness composed of brick, stone, and glass.

Photo: flickr.com/deep blue skies

Photo: flickr.com/deep blue skies