Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s Polish families began leaving Bucktown and were replaced by Hispanic families. Deteriorating physical conditions forced the closure of the church building. Plaster was falling from the roof and dome, and a piece grazed a parishioner, the Archdiocese mandated the building be closed. This took place after the last Mass celebrated on January 3, 1988.
While closed, daily Mass was celebrated in a chapel between the rectory and the school building (now used by Midtown Program and Residence). Each week the school auditorium went from hosting the Friday night BINGO to provisional “church” for Sunday Masses. There were discussions concerning possibly demolishing the closed church and replacing it with a smaller one. The neighbors, parishioners, and former parishioners began to pull together in a grassroots effort to save the church—an ambitious goal of $1.26 million was set by the Archdiocese in order to save the church. After missing the goal by $100,000, authorities decided not to repair the church, which led to some demonstrations in front of the Cathedral and the Cardinal’s residence.
In February 1988, Álvaro del Portillo—the prelate of Opus Dei—came to Chicago on his pastoral visit throughout the United States. On February 14 he wanted to make a pilgrimage to some place that honored Our Blessed Mother, but instead of going to Queen of All Saints Basilica—as many anticipated—the vicar of Opus Dei in Chicago, Fr. Bill Stetson, arranged for him to pray to Our Lady at St. Mary of the Angels. While here he prayed for the parish that the church would reopen and entrusted to priests of the Prelature. Fr. Bill Stetson brought this to Cardinal Bernardine’s attention and discussed the possibility of the pastoral care of the parish to be entrusted priests of the Prelature of Opus Dei. This took place on the parish in 1991, with the consent of Bishop Álvaro del Portillo. [Note: The first successor of the founder of Opus Dei would die on March 23, 1994 and would be beatified in Madrid on September 27, 2014. Grateful to him for “saving” the parish, many parishioners frequently go to his intercession].
Fr. John Twist was named pastor and the parish formed a priest council to govern the parish, with Fr. John as its moderator. Fr. John Debicki and Fr. John (Jack) Kubek were the first to join Fr. John on the council. Fr. John was an incredible fundraiser which enabled the restoration to go forward quickly.
They immediately began major repairs to the dome, roofs and stained-glass windows at a cost of $2.1 million. The church was reopened on October 2nd, 1992 and rededicated on October 11 by Cardinal Bernardin, who told the congregation: “We meet here today to celebrate a promise fulfilled, an encounter accomplished, a mission begun.” Later that year, Eugene and Terry Urbaszewski accepted the “A Landmark Reclaimed” award from the Partners for Sacred Places on behalf of Fr. John Twist and the parishioners of St. Mary of the Angels.
Fr. Jack was soon replaced by Fr. Hilary Mahaney in 1993; Fr. Charles Ferrer also joined the team at that time. When Fr. John had to leave for health reasons in 1995 Fr. Hilary Mahaney took over as pastor. In 1997 the church interior was restored. For the 100th anniversary of St. Mary of the Angels, new lighting, doors, and sound system were installed, and the 26 rooftop angels restored. With these efforts brought more families to St. Mary of the Angels, reviving the parish.
Fr. John R. Waiss
We continue our weekly notes on the history of St. Mary of the Angels parish, starting right after the 50th anniversary:
In 1950, Rev. John (“Fr. Jack”) Grabowski CR was named pastor. His pastorate was characterized as “energetic”, with new changes and improvements: he discontinued the fish pond, paved the school yard, built a new convent for the Sisters at 1800 N. Hermitage Avenue for $450,000. August 16, 1953, Cardinal Stritch dedicated the new convent. Fr. Jack also established a Mother’s Club and weekly Bingo to improve the parish finances.
Three years later Fr. Chester Brzegowy CR became pastor. He put new roofs on the church and school, and did other important repairs. His quiet and gentle manner endeared him to his parishioners; he died suddenly after a brief illness in July 1957, which shocked the parish.
The Kennedy Expressway Alters the Parish
Fr. Anthony Rybarczyk CR followed as pastor in 1957. He was another dynamic personality. He installed the sprinkler system in the school building, tuck pointed the church, had the church organ rebuilt, put padding on the church kneelers, installed new “modern” windows in the classrooms, rebuilt the church steps, and put new sidewalks around the block.
But in the early 1960s the construction of the Kennedy Expressway destroyed many homes in the neighborhood, reducing the parish and school by a third. (NB: the freeway totally cut off the Rolling Mill Irish families, along the Chicago River, from their nearby Annunciation parish and school, two blocks south of St. Mary of the Angels, such that the Irish parish had to be closed and razed in 1978).
Fr. Rybarczyk was transferred to a Resurrectionist parish in Fontana, California, in 1964 (he had a fatal heart attack and died there on October 4, 1970). Fr. Joseph Polinski CR became the next pastor. During his three-year pastorate Fr. Polinski repaired the bells and stained glass windows, as well as the heating systems for the church, rectory and school. He also began the youth athletic program for boys with basketball and Little League.
Next came Fr. Stanley Majkut CR in 1967. He established Scouting Programs for boys and girls at St. Mary of the Angels. A great lover of sports, Fr. Majkut cheered on the three CYO basketball teams—grammar school, high school, and the intermediates teams—as they excelled and won in the North Section CYO Tournament Championship of Chicago in 1971.
Fr. Majkut installed the glass brick windows in the school, put the fence up on Hermitage Avenue, and air-conditioned the school Auditorium. After the dome was struck by lightning on Good Friday, April 4th, 1969, causing a small fire, Fr. Majkut had the dome rebuilt in 1973. Fr. Majkut also installed a blue “Guiding Light” in the dome’s lantern as a sign to travelers on the Kennedy Expressway, that God and his Blessed Mother are our guiding light.
On February 17, 1974 Fr. Majkut resigned as pastor for health reasons. Fr. Edwin Karlowicz CR former Principal of Weber High School, took the reins to prepare the parish for its diamond anniversary that year.
Fr. John R. Waiss
When Fr. Gordon became pastor at St. Stanislaus Kostka from 1906 to 1909 Fr. Joseph Ziemba CR was made pastor of St. Mary of the Angels, but soon had to resign due to ill health. Fr. Felix Ladon CR administer St. Mary of the Angels until Fr. Francis Saborosz CR could become pastor. Fr. Saborosz had the church and school interiors painted and laid concrete sidewalks around the property. In 1909 Father Gordon returned to St. Mary’s again as pastor.
In 1912 Fr. Gordon built a new priests residence on Wood Street to free up space in the nuns teaching in the school. The sisters took over the freed up portion of the church-school building for their residence, which also allowed more room for their growing novitiate.
After building the new church much was still needed: electric lights were installed in 1921 and a year later a new W.W.Kimball organ (costing $23,750) was installed and central heating added.
Visitors would come to St. Mary of the Angels for its beauty. It was acclaimed as one of the finest specimens of Roman Renaissance architecture in the United States. The world famous Polish painter, Wojciech Adalbert Kossak, and Józef Haller, General of the polish Army, were among those duly impressed.
When Father Gordon died in 1931 Fr. Leonard Long CR became temporary pastor for a few months, followed by Fr. Thaddeus Ligman CR.
In July, 1932 Fr. Edward Brzezinski CR assumed the duties of pastor. Father “Ed” was a native son of St. Mary of the Angels—young, courageous, and full of great zeal and initiative—who had worked under Father Gordon for three years. He continued to improve St. Mary of the Angels despite the hardships of the Great Depression. Fr. Ed was instrumental in liquidating a parish debt of $250,000 while decorating and repairing the church in preparation for the 50th parish anniversary that would be in 1949.
In 1934, thinking of the welfare of the youth, Fr. Ed renovated the school auditorium as a dance hall, which due to its new beauty and conveniences became known as the “Polish Aragon” (NOTE: the Aragon Ballroom was built in uptown on Lawrence Avenue in 1926. It was famous for big band concerts and dances). Hundreds attended weekly dances where many a young girl met her “Prince Charming.” The renovations included enclosing the entrance to St. Mary of the Angels School, with new offices and bathrooms. The auditorium and addition was officially dedicated on December 16, 1934, by the Rev. Stephen Kowalczyk CR delegate-general of the Congregation of the Resurrection.
Each succeeding year hummed with activity. An annex to the school building was completed in 1936 at a cost of $27,000. The following year electric bells were installed. In 1938 the first floor of the school building was renovated and hosted its first kindergarten classes. In 1939 the dome and facade of the church building underwent repairs.
The original interior of St. Mary of the Angels church was rather stark, except for the stained glass, a few statues, and the painting behind the high altar; all the walls of the church were painted shades of gray and white.
To prepare for the parish’s golden jubilee, Fr. “Ed” Brzezinski had the church interior decorated, with giant new paintings done by John A. Mallin, making the church “one of the most beautiful in the city.” The jubilee was celebrated on October 16, 1949 with a Solemn Pontifical Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Bishop Thomas L. Noa of Marquette, Michigan, assisted by the Provincial, Fr. Casimir Guziel CR as arch-priest; by Fr. Stanislaus Fiolek CR as deacon; and by Fr. Jerome Klingsporn CR as sub-deacon. Cardinal Stritch—Chicago’s archbishop—gave the jubilee sermon. The Knights of Columbus were there in full regalia and some 200 school children in various national costumes. The Cardinal, bishops, and distinguished guests enjoyed a celebratory luncheon after the Holy Mass.
Fr. “Ed” Brzezinski retired for health reasons in 1950, after 18 years of faithful service.
Fr. John R. Waiss
St. Mary of the Angels was built with love, sacrifice, and nickels and dimes; it was built in love and honor of Our Blessed Mother. These sacrifices were made both by the priests and parish staff, but above all by the faithful parishioners who were moved by love to make these sacrifices for their families and their Mother.
With great fidelity to Catholicism and dedication to Polish immigrants, Fr. Francis Gordon CR became St. Mary of the Angels’ first pastor at age 39. Prior to becoming pastor, Fr. Gordon was a great figure in Chicago heading the Polish newspaper, Dziennik Chicagoski, and founding the Polish Alma Mater in 1897, which served more than 10,000 youths.
As the first pastor and organizer of the new parish, Fr. Francis Gordon formed a committee composed of citizens living within the boundaries of the new parish. These included Francis Osinski, Francis Roszkowski, Michael Borkowicz, Michael Raflewski, Jacob Klinger, Joseph Wroblewski, Adalbert Przybylski, John Kaminski, Ignatius Ignatowski, Michael Huntowski, Lawrence Wachowski and Peter Bykowski. A week after its formation the committee unanimously agreed on the church’s location and the architect’s tentative blueprints for the church, school, and rectory in one building (now our school building).
Fr. Gordon celebrated the first Mass at St. Mary of the Angels church on December 11, 1899, the day after its dedication. In 1900 a church organ was installed and a year later the three church bells—cast in Troy, New York—were acquired for $4,000. A special bell tower was built in the schoolyard just north of the church. The bells rang out for the first time on August 1, 1901 to summon the faithful to honor of the Patroness of the parish.
Fr. Gordon left St. Mary of the Angels briefly to become pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka in 1906, the mother parish for the Polish people in Chicago. But Fr. Gordon’s assignment there was brief and returned to St. Mary of the Angels as pastor three years later.
A New Church: Majestic and Beautiful
In 1909 St. Mary of the Angels parish had grown to become one of the largest in the Archdiocese of Chicago, with some 1200 mostly large families. Both the church and school had become too small to hold all the parishioners and their school children. As a result Fr. Gordon hired Henry Worthmann and J.G. Steinbach to design a new church in the Roman Renaissance style, similar in style to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The new church would be located at the corner of Hermitage and Cortland and seat 2000. The dome would rise 125 feet from floor to ceiling (St. Peter’s in Rome 394 feet), 230 feet in length (St. Peter’s 694 ft.), and 125 feet in width (St. Peter’s, 451 ft.). 26 nine-foot tall angels would decorate the perimeter of the church’s roof (similar to the 140 eighteen-foot statues of the apostles and other saints on the colonnade and above the façade of St. Peter’s).
Work on the new church began on September 28, 1911. While excavating the site the workers unearthed three crucifixes. This was taken as a sign of God’s providential will for the church. On August 2, 1914—feast of St. Mary of the Angels—the cornerstone was blessed before thousands of faithful. Difficulties seemed to bog down the project with shortages of money, building materials, labor strikes, and World War I.
Fr. Gordon became provincial superior of the Resurrectionists from 1918 until 1928, while remaining pastor at St. Mary of the Angels. He followed the construction of the church and development of the parish closely.
After years of hard work and much sacrifice the present church of St. Mary of the Angels was finally finished at the cost of $400,000 ($5 million in today’s currency). Archbishop George W. Mundelein dedicated the church on May 30, 1920, which was attended by the U.S. Ambassador to Poland and the Polish Envoy to the United States. The Archbishop recognized the great generosity of the ordinary, rather poor, working-class parishioners for the many sacrifices they made in building this extraordinary edifice: “The people in this neighborhood were satisfied to contribute from their slender earnings in order that God’s house might rise gigantic, majestic and beautiful.” In fact, parishioners had mortgaged their home to raise the monies needed to build the church. To thank our Blessed Mother for her help in turning their dreams into reality, the people marched in a May procession after the solemn high Mass.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Like many other nationalities, Polish immigrants saw America as the “Land of Opportunity” while maintaining their national heritage and their strong faith in God. Before the immigration influx, the Bucktown area of Chicago was mostly open fields used to pasture goats (the Polish people called male goats “bucks”). Many people fled war-torn Poland in the 1830s to come to the United States, the first settled in Jefferson Township, then Holstein, until also settled here. In 1866, the parish of the Annunciation was established on the corner of Paulina and Wabansia to serve English speaking Catholics, mostly Irish.
In 1864, Polish families formed the patronage of St. Stanislaus Kostka and in 1869 bought land for a church—about a mile from St. Mary of the Angels towards downtown. A Polish diocesan priest, Fr. Joseph Juszkiewicz, administered the parish. The pastor of Holy Name Cathedral, Fr. Joseph Roles, approach Fr. Jerome Kajsiewicz, C.R, superior general of the newly founded Congregation of the Resurrectionists, asking him to supply priests for Chicago’s Polish and Bohemian emigrants. Fr. Kajsiewicz visited Chicago in 1871 and met with Bishop Foley, who formally agreed to entrust the Polish missions in Chicago to the Resurrectionists for the next ninety-nine years. They then took possession of St. Stanislaus Kostka parish.
The bishops of Chicago established more Polish churches as immigrants poured into the city: St. Josaphat (in 1884), St. Hedwig (1888), St. John Cantius (1892), Holy Trinity (1893), St. Stanislaus Bishop-Martyr (a mission church from 1893–1901), and St. Hyacinth (1894).
History of St. Mary of the Angels
As immigrants poured into the Bucktown area of Chicago, and to meet their needs, the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka, Fr. Vincent Barzynski, CR, petitioned Archbishop Patrick Feehan to make a new parish between St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. Hedwig. So, St. Mary of the Angels parish was formed on November 28, 1898. Two city blocks were purchased for $60, 000 between Paulina and Wood, and between Bloomingdale and Clybourn Place (renamed Cortland Avenue in 1913). One block was subdivided for homes while the other became the site of the parish. Rev. Francis Gordon, CR, was named its first pastor.
They broke ground for the church building on April 21, 1899 and laid the cornerstone on July 2. The three-story brick building was built for $65, 000 and designed in the Polish Renaissance style by Henry J. Schlacks—Schlacks became University of Notre Dame’s first Director of the Course of Architecture (School of Architecture). The Archbishop dedicated the church before a crowd of 20, 000, including Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, Jr., on December 10, 1899.
The one building held everything. The upper floor church seated 924 for Mass, while the middle floor school, which began instruction in 1900, was divided into twelve classrooms for 425 students. The lower floor had meeting rooms and an auditorium that double as a gymnasium. The priests resided on the west end and the convent—for the four Sisters of the Congregation of the Resurrection (Sisters Anna Strzelecka, Casimira Szydzik, Sophie Podworska, and Mathilda Surej), who arrived from Rome on February 15, 1900—was in the attic. This building currently houses the parish school and the Midtown Program for Boys.
Fr. John R. Waiss