Back in 1857, a priest named Father Arnold Damen began construction on a new church that would become one of Chicago's most beautiful. It was called "Holy Family Church" and is Chicago 's second oldest church and the original Jesuit Parish in Chicago . "Built with the nickels and dimes of very poor people, it was a place of great beauty in the lives of countless generations of Chicagoans, mostly immigrants," said Ellen Skerrett, Chicago historian. Newcomers to Chicago - first Irish, German, then Italian immigrants, and more recently Mexican-American and African-American people - have claimed Holy Family as their own.
According to legend, when the Chicago Fire started in 1871 (a few blocks east), it was spreading toward the church when Father Damen, who was in Brooklyn preaching a parish mission, was advised of the danger and invoked Our Lady of Perpetual Help to save the building, promising to light seven candles before Our Lady's statue if the church was spared from the fire. The wind shifted, the church was spared, and the candles were lit. Seven electric lights burn to this day at Our Lady's shrine in the east transept of the church.
Interestingly, Patrick and Catherine O'Leary, owners of the world's most famous cow, were parishioners.
Holy Family Church is a "modern miracle story" today. Father George Lane, S.J., described it in a story he told when accepting the Gutenberg Award of the Chicago Bible Society in 2004. In 1984, the main sanctuary was closed because the roof leaked and plaster was falling. From that time until Easter 1994, the congregation held worship services in a chapel at the north end of the building. At Christmas of 1987, the pastor told the parishioners of Holy Family that the big old church would be torn down and replaced with a small structure that would be more appropriate to the 150 or so parishioners. This news did not sit well with the parishioners, nor with Father Lane, who was living in the rectory at that time. In late June of 1988, the provincial superior, Father Robert Wild, told Father Lane that he could work with the people to save the church, if that were at all possible. In the fall of 1988, the Holy Family Preservation Society was incorporated, an architect was chosen and a development director named. In the summer of 1990, Father Wild told Father Lane and the parishioners that the Preservation Society had to have $1 million cash in the bank by Dec. 31, 1990, or the money would have to be given back and the church torn down. Father Lane and board member, Dick Barry, decided to reenact or replicate Father Damen's strategy to save the church from the Chicago Fire of 1871. A prayer vigil was held from Dec, 26 until Dec. 31, with the deadline on Dec. 31. The motto and plea was to "Say Prayers and Send Money." And the money came pouring in. But it was obvious that a more dramatic gesture was needed. An open house was held on Sunday, Dec. 30th, the feast of the Holy Family. The media were told of the open house and from noon to 5 o'clock, between 2 and 3 thousand people came to see the church. Each one had a story - my grandparents were married here, I was baptized here, etc. -and each one had a check or a cash donation. By the midnight deadline, a total of $1,011,000 had been received. The people had saved their big old church through the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Holy Family Church is one of the best examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in the country. Its 15,000 square-foot interior provides 1,000 seats for services and has a 65-foot ceiling throughout the sanctuary. The sanctuary is cruciform in design, having a south-to-north orientation, with the main altar located at the north end of the church.
Different parts of the huge church were built at different times. The original building was 146 feet long and 85 feet wide. In 1862, the transepts were added, increasing the width to 125 feet. In 1866, the nave was extended 40 feet to the south to the present length of 180 feet. The main pillars slant outward and are 18 inches off plumb. But structural surveys have shown that the pillars are not moving. The architect, John Vinci, who directed the restoration of the church, using the liturgical rationale of bringing the altar closer to the people, built a platform out in front of the altar rail, with a handicap accessible ramp on each side. Fortunately, the carved walnut communion rail was retained.
Among its many notable features are the round, clerestory windows, the oldest stained glass windows in Chicago and a world-class pipe organ purchased by the parish in 1870. The nave windows were made in 1860 and installed by the Von Gerichten Art Glass Company in 1907. The original great organ was built in 1870 by Louis Mitchell & Son Co. of Montreal with pipes and reeds imported from Paris . The organ had 64 stops, 23,944 pipes, was acoustically perfect and was considered to be one of the musical masterpieces of its day. The church contains 29 wooden statues by 19th century sculptor Charles Oliver Dauphin of Montreal , the largest collection of that artist's work in the world. The statuary and art work within the church reflect the different ethnic groups which the parish has served over the years.
The restoration work on Holy Family Church continues, aimed at creating a distinctively beautiful worship space that retains the treasures of the past while conforming to contemporary liturgical norms.