Happy Halloween, Chicago Catholics! Perhaps you may feel that Halloween is not an appropriate holiday for a column on Catholicism. Many would argue that it has more to do with old pagan rituals and the occult than anything in Catholicism, even though the holiday comes from tradition of “All Hallows Eve” on the night before All Souls Day.
Still, there are numerous examples of where Halloween traditions and the Catholic faith overlap. This is often true in places like New Orleans, but it can also be found in Chicago. In the spirit of that, today's column is about three uniquely Catholic locations in Chicago that are the subject of famous ghost stories.
The first is St. Rita’s Church, at 6243 S. Fairfield Ave. in Chicago, Illinois. Perhaps this is the most Halloween related of the three ghost stories, since it occurred on All Souls Day in late 1961. Early that evening, more than a dozen parishioners claimed to have experienced a ghostly visitation. This paranormal occurrence started when the pipe organ began to play by itself. Next, they witnessed six robed monks appear on either side of the organ. Three monks were wearing black, and three were wearing white. Panicked, the parishioners attempted to flee, but they found the doors of the church were mysteriously frozen shut. The phantom monks glided towards the parishioners while the organ continued to play on its own. Finally, the visions began to fade as the parishioners heard a disembodied voice whisper: “Pray for us.” Then a mysterious wind blew through the church, pushing the doors open, and parishioners fled in terror. The event was particularly chilling since it occurred on November 2, 1961, during the feast of All Souls Day. For those who aren't familiar with the event, it is a solemn day in the Roman Catholic Church commemorating all of those who have died and are now suffering in Purgatory. Unfortunately, All Souls Day is often overshadowed by the two days preceding it, Halloween and All Saints Day. In any case, it begs the question whether the ghostly figures who appeared in 1961 were indeed tortured souls who were manifesting their anguish to the St. Rita parishioners. Apparently we will never know, since current clergy at St. Rita's refuse to discuss the incident or acknowledge that it even happened, and only three people are still alive today who claimed to have witnessed the event.
The second spooky incident occurred at St. Turibius Church at 5646 S. Karlov Ave. in Chicago, Illinois. This is a very old neighborhood church that was founded in 1927 by Polish immigrants, and still has many Polish parishioners who worship there in the present day. (They also now they have many different ethnic groups located in the church at various times of the day.) During the 1950s and 60s, a priest named Fr. Joe Lechert was the pastor at St. Turibius. He was a chain smoker and a cloud of tobacco smoke could always be found whenever he entered a room. He was beloved by the congregation, and stayed as pastor of the parish for many years. Finally, - as is customary - he was reassigned to another parish by the Archdiocese of Chicago. He died shortly after learning the news. The stories about this event say that he died of a broken heart. A few years later, parishioners began to report strange unexplained incidents that occurred at the parish. Various parishioners and altar boys have since seen the ghostly figure of a man wearing a priest’s biretta just like the one Fr. Lechert wore. It is often accompanied by whiffs of cigarette smoke, even though there are no smokers present in the area and the church has long since banned smoking indoors. Other parishioners report that a black shadow has been seen lurking around near the alter and tabernacle. Still others report that the organ has been heard playing late at night when no one is in the church. The “Smoking Ghost” has now become a famous legend in Chicago, and whether its a real apparition or not, stories that the ghost of Father Joe Lechert wanders the church persist to this day.
The third and best known of the ghost stories is from Resurrection Cemetery, which is a Catholic cemetery located at 7201 Archer Ave. in Justice, Illinois. This place is home to the legendary Resurrection Mary, who is said to haunt Chicagoland. According to legend, it is the ghost of a young Polish girl (between the age of 17 and 22) from the 1930s. One evening, she went dancing with her boyfriend at the O'Henry Ballroom (now called the Willowbrook Ballroom). They got into an argument; she left in a huff and began walking up Archer Road, where she was suddenly hit by a car and died. She was buried in Resurrection Cemetery. Since then, various drivers have reported seeing a blonde woman, wearing a 1930s party dress, hitchhiking on the road. Those who have picked her up say that she requested a ride to the ballroom, and reported that she was quiet, formal, and that her skin was cool to the touch. Once the driver reaches Resurrection Cemetery, her figure vanishes in thin air. Some have even reported seeing her run towards the gates. In one well known 1977 incident, a passerby saw a woman locked inside the fence of the cemetery after dark. Rather than stopping, he called the police, who came to let her out. When the police arrived, she was nowhere to be seen - but they discovered that two bars of the main gate had been bent outwards, and the bars bore the imprint of human hands. Embarrassed, officials quickly removed the bars, but later reinstalled them, using a blowtorch to obscure the hand prints. What's more, the two burned areas can still be seen to this day.
Are any of these stories true, or they are just crazy urban legends that took on a life of their own after many retellings? I leave that question up to my readers to decide. Still, there can be no doubt that these stories left such an impact on their audiences that they were never forgotten. Have a Happy Halloween, my faithful readers, but be careful and stay safe. You never know when a ghost might be lurking about.