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One Voice, Many Faces 8: The Immaculate Collection

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This past week, Catholics in Chicago and all around the world celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It occurs on December 8th, but many Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago opted to observe the feast on Monday, December 9th. Although the feast is associated with the Virgin Mary, many people -- including many Catholics -- don't understand what the Immaculate Conception refers to. Many seem to think that the term refers to Jesus' conception, since he was miraculously born to a virgin mother. However, the Immaculate Conception refers not to Jesus but to Mary herself – it means that she was conceived without original sin in the womb of St. Anne, and thus went on to live a sinless life. This is a central dogma of the Catholic faith, and was defined on December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus. Still, the actual feast day of the Immaculate Conception dates back long before it was formally defined, and Mary's conception in the womb of St. Anne was celebrated perhaps as early as the 5th century in Syria.

Today, there are no fewer than four Catholic Churches within Chicago city limits named after the Immaculate Conception, and quite a few additional Catholic churches bearing that name in the suburbs. For a different approach this year, I decided to take a look at the quartet of Catholic parishes in Chicago named in honor of this major feast day. So without further ado, here is the Immaculate collection:

The first “Immaculate Conception Church” is located at 2944 E. 88th St. on Chicago's southeast side. This Church was organized in 1892, due to the huge Polish population on the far south side of Chicago at the time (many Polish immigrants settled in the area because they were working in the steel mills.) Immaculate Conception Church was founded when about thirty polish families got together in the area of area of 88th and Commercial Avenue, to form the St. Vincent's Benevolent Society in 1881. They suffered a series of problems: in 1882, a strong wind seriously damaged the new structure, and in late1883, a new building was built but destroyed by a fire two years later. Finally in 1901, it was decided to build the auditorium and a new school. The grand opening of the auditorium was held on Thanksgiving Day, and the school was opened shortly afterwards. In 1912, President William H. Taft visited the parish and spoke to a crowd of 10,000 people. The parish still exists today, but is now a predominantly Spanish-speaking community.

The second “Immaculate Conception Church” is located at 1431 N. North Park Avenue, on Chicago's near north side. Their website can be found at www.ic-sjchurch.org. This is one of Chicago's oldest parishes, and was originally established in 1859. Many north siders during that era were German, and so were their parishes. Immaculate Conception was created to be the first Catholic Church on the north side for English-speaking parishioners. For the first 100 years of its history, most of its parishioners were Irish-American. The parish suffered a major crisis in 1871 when the Great Chicago Fire burnt down the original parish building. The cornerstone for the new brick building was laid in 1874, and it remains there today – albeit with many major changes and enlargements over the years. In 1953, Cardinal Stritch dedicated Immaculate Conception School. In 1957, a painful moment came in the parish's history when an routine inspection found that the roof was on the verge of collapse. Archbishop Meyer decided that the church had to come down. The basement auditorium of the school complex was converted into a chapel, and it became the church's new home. As the church was reconstructed around that area, the statue of the Virgin Mary -- which once sat atop the steeple of the old church -- now sits in the foyer of the chapel.

The third “Immaculate Conception Church” is located at 2745 W. 44th St. in Chicago's Brighton Park neighborhood. It is known as “The Church of the Immaculate Conception” in English, but it is more commonly addressed by the same name in Polish: Kościół Niepokalanego Poczęcia Najświętszej Maryi Panny. This parish is a prime example of the so-called 'Polish Cathedral style' of churches, due to both its opulence and grand scale. Along with St. Micheal’s, it is one of the two monumental Polish churches dominating the South Chicago skyline. The church was originally founded in 1882, but the growing Polish community on the south side led to it being divided three times to form the Polish parishes of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Bronislava and St. Mary Magdalene. As the demographics of the neighborhood changed, the parish school closed after a century in 1982. However, it was reopened in 1998 under the direction of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe, and remains in use today. The church was restored in 2002, with new altars designed by Franck & Lohsen of Washington, D.C. and a new plaza was added north of the church. It now offers masses in English, Spanish, and Lithuanian.

The fourth and final “Immaculate Conception Church” in Chicago is located at 7211 W. Talcott Ave., on the northwest side of Chicago. You can find them online at www.icparish.net. The parish was originally created to provide a home for monastic followers of St. Paul of the Cross. This Catholic order, known as the Passionists, asked Archbishop Quigley to approve the establishment of the Passionist Monastery in Norwood Park. The Burnham estate site was chosen, as it was in close proximity to a vast number of people, but far enough removed from the hustle and bustle of the city life to maintain the peace and solitude of a monastic life. In its earlier years, one of the primary functions of the monastery was to house the seminarians and theologians who were preparing to become Passionist Missionaries. However, because of economic reasons and better faculty accommodations, the monastery ceased functioning as a seminary after 1967. (the seminarians now reside at the Catholic Theological Union on Cornell Avenue in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago.) Still, the site remains in use as a chapel, and the original monastic chapel was renovated in 1986 aims to make it more conducive to prayer and meditation, and to highlight the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Community. Members of the public are welcome to attend Mass at Immaculate Conception Church.

In addition to these four city parishes named in honor of the Immaculate Conception, there are numerous other Catholic parishes that bear the name throughout the Chicago area. Examples include Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church at 745 South Benton Street Palatine, Illinois, Immaculate Conception Parish at 134 Arthur St. in Elmhurst, Illinois, and Immaculate Conception Church at 770 W. Deerfield Rd. in Highland Park, Illinois. Perhaps I will cover those and others in a future column.

The bottom line, of course, is that even if you didn't experience a Mass or liturgical celebration in honor of the Immaculate Conception this week, signs of the Immaculate Conception are all over Chicago's Catholic culture, including some of our most famous churches that bear the name. Why not pay one of them a visit, and see what they have to offer?

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