Prehistory of St. Mary of the Angels
The founding of St. Mary of the Angels is linked to immigration to our area of Chicago called Bucktown, which in the 1830s was mostly open fields used to pasture goats (the local 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 Bucktown became the focus of the Polish Community. Germans and Irish also settled here.
In 1864, Polish families formed the patronage of St. Stanislaus Kostka and in 1869 bought land for a church—about a mile towards downtown from St. Mary of the Angels. 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, to supply Polish priests for Chicago’s Polish and Bohemian emigrants. Until then, a Polish diocesan priest, Fr. Joseph Juszkiewicz, administered the parish. Fr. Kajsiewicz finally 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 over St. Stanislaus Kostka parish.
In 1899, St. Mary of the Angels parish was formed as one of five parishes on the northwest side of Chicago organized by the Resurrectionist Fathers which grew out of St. Stanislaus Parish. Two city blocks totaling 96 lots at the corner of Hermitage and Cortland were purchased for $60,000. One was subdivided for residences while the other became the site of the parish.
The first pastor, Rev. Francis Gordon laid the cornerstone of the first building of what has become our parish school on July 2, 1899. The three-story brick building was designed in the Renaissance style by Henry J. Schlacks and completed at the cost of $65,000. The basement contained meeting rooms, a gymnasium, and an auditorium. Twelve classrooms and convent quarters were constructed on the main floor; the church was located on the second floor; and living quarters for the priests were constructed in the attic. The dedication ceremony was led by the Archbishop and was witnessed by a crowd of 20,000 including the mayor, Carter Harrison. On February 15, 1900 four Sisters of the Congregation of the Resurrection opened St. Mary of the Angels School with an enrollment of 425 students. In 1905, the new building at 1849 N. Hermitage became the home of the novitiate for the Sisters’ order.
In 1909, Fr. Gordon began planning a new church building at the corner of Hermitage and Cortland. Work began on September 28, 1911 and continued for eight years and eight months, delayed numerous times because of World War I and shortages of building material. By 1912, St. Mary of the Angels parish was now one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese with a membership of 1200 families.
On May 30, 1920, Archbishop Mudelein dedicated the new church. Designed by Henry W. Worthmann and John G. Steinbach, the structure bears a remarkable resemblance to St. Peter’s Basillica in Rome. It has been acclaimed as one of the finest specimens of Roman Renaissance architecture in the United States. Over the years, additions, alterations, and improvements have been made in the parish complex. In the 1930’s, the auditorium became known as the “Polish Aragon Ballroom” as hundreds attended weekly dances and concerts.
With the construction of the Kennedy Expressway in 1960, a sizable number of families and students left the parish, and, by 1988, the church building was closed and slated for demolition due to deteriorating conditions. At the request of Cardinal Bernardin, then Archbishop of Chicago, the priests of the Prelature of Opus Dei assumed responsibility for the parish in 1991. The church restoration started in 1991 with major repairs of the dome, the roofs and the stained-glass windows. Repairs continued in 1997 with the church interior. In 1999, the 100th anniversary of the Parish, the church’s interior decoration was fully restored; the installation of new lighting, new doors and a new sound system was completed. The 26 roof angels, fully rebuilt, are now all present and accounted for, gleaming cheerfully from St. Mary’s roof tops. Since this time, the number of families registered at St. Mary of the Angels has grown as well — a true renaissance for the St. Mary of the Angels parish.
The priests of the Prelature of Opus Dei continue to staff St. Mary of the Angels parish. St. Mary’s is looking forward to another 100 years of serving Chicago!
Why “St. Mary of the Angels”
Many ask about why the parish is called “St. Mary of the Angels” and not “Queen of the Angels” or “Our Lady of the Angels”?
The name “St. Mary of the Angels” goes back to a little chapel on the outskirts of Assisi called Santa Maria degli Angeli—St. Mary of the Angels— rebuilt by St. Francis. According to local accounts, the church dates back to 364 when Pope Liberius erected this chapel for the Hermits of Josephat. In 516 the Benedictines took possession of the chapel but by the time of St. Francis it was in severe disrepair.