BY ANDREW MORKES, AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
No parishioner should have to say goodbye to his or her church. But that’s what I’ve had to do twice in the last 20 or so years. Hope Lutheran Church, my childhood church, closed when I was in my early 30s, and Our Lady of Victory (OLV) Catholic Church, the first church that my wife and I attended in Jefferson Park, held its last mass on November 21. Granted, we were no longer parishioners at OLV when it closed, but the closure hit us hard.
Hope Lutheran Church and School was located in Marquette Park—a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. I was baptized at Hope and attended Nursery-8th grade there. I served as an acolyte, participated in Boy Scouts, and played on the school’s basketball and soccer teams. My mom volunteered in the school kitchen for decades, and my father served on the church’s Board of Trustees. My parents, brother and wife, and other family members were married there. I think about Hope often, but especially around Christmastime. Every December, parishioners assembled and decorated two 15-foot Christmas trees on either side of the altar. Dozens of poinsettias were placed in holders along the main aisle to the altar, as well as below the Christmas trees. In some years, the choir would walk down the aisle with lit candles at the beginning of the service and then place them near the altar. Luminarias were sometimes placed outside the church. And us kids would participate in a Nativity Play that was part of the main Christmas Eve service. Hope at Christmas was stunning, and I remember the pride we all took in our beautiful church. When the service was over, I remember all of us kids getting a bag of oranges and a mesh stocking of candy. We were in heaven. Hope was the centerpiece of my life for more than 25 years and losing it was like losing a good friend. Its absence hurts me to this day. Because one’s church/school is often the center of one’s life—especially when you are young. But Hope, like other churches in Chicagoland, closed its doors. All that’s left are some keepsakes and friendships from this great place.
But this essay is mostly about the closure of Our Lady of Victory (which became Our Lady of the Rosary in its last merged version before its closure). My wife and I had attended OLV sporadically since 2005 when we first moved into the neighborhood, but then became members in 2010. When you think of a quintessential Catholic church, you think of OLV. Some “big picture” thoughts about the church:
Our Lady of Victory was founded in 1906, and built in a revised Spanish style. Before its closure, it was the oldest Catholic parish on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago.
The interior of the church is exquisite. The beautiful words about the life of Jesus and one’s faith spoken by the priests and readers were matched by the beautiful art and other imagery that adorns the church.
There are actually two churches at OLV—the main sanctuary (which was completed in 1954), which I just described, and a lower one (which was built in 1928 and is known as the Marian Chapel). The Marian Chapel is beautiful in its own right and was used regularly during the summer.
OLV had a great chancel choir.
OLV, like any church, is not just about the beauty, but also about the people (whether they were true believers or casual Catholics), their love of God, and the stories of their life in the neighborhoods around the church. I always felt a sense of warmth of comfort sitting in the pews during mass or having a cup of coffee downstairs in the school hall after mass.
Before I share some memories about OLV with you, let me say the following:
- The archdiocese handled the closing/merger poorly—as it has for nearly every instance of a school/church closure in the past few decades (and more).
- I understand the financial rationale provided by the archdiocese as to why some churches might need to be closed, but many believe that the closure parameters that were being applied to other churches did not apply to OLV. In response to an appeal by 150 parishioners to save OLV, the Vatican acknowledged that the parish was financially solvent but denied the request to save the parish. Something is wrong with this story. As far as I know, the parish was vital, not in debt, and had enough money to pay its bills. Save Our Lady of Victory Inc. was established in March of 2021 to support community efforts to stop the Archdiocese of Chicago from closing this historic church. Visit its website for more information on why the church should have been saved. Additionally, check out the “Separating the Myths from the Reality” section at the website for information that further debunks the archdiocese narrative.
- The OLV church building is one of the most significant historical buildings left on the Northwest Side of Chicago and for that—and other reasons—it must be protected and saved. “Since its beginnings, the Archdiocese of Chicago has closed approximately 110 churches and parishes in just the city limits of Chicago, until about 2019, with approximately 57 of the 110 churches also demolished over time,” according to Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit advocacy organization. We can’t let this church be demolished. Preservation Chicago included Our Lady of Victory on its 2021 list of endangered buildings. Click here to learn more about the church’s history.
- Each closure of an old, traditional, and beautiful church is just one more attack on Chicago’s cultural and religious heritage. The Chicago archdiocese often fails to understand that while one’s faith can be practiced anywhere, parishioners love their beautiful and classic churches, which provide a link to the past, the world of art (which, in its highest forms, exists on a realm that is outside of regular human existence), and the sublime stories and mysteries of their faith, which are conveyed in the beautiful paintings, stained glass windows, statues, and other art in their churches. In short, too many new and surviving churches are so modern that they drain all the wonder from one’s worship experience. Of course, this is just my opinion. Some people love the simple and clean looks of modern churches.
- Although the efforts by Save Our Lady of Victory Inc. and others did not convince the archdiocese/Vatican to save the church as a consecrated building, we must save this beautiful church building in some form or another for the benefit of the community. Can the church proper be given landmark status? Which well-known architects and historic preservationists can we appeal to to help make this happen? The media has been steadily reporting this story, but what can people do to take this reportage to the next level so that it influences decision-makers? Who is in a position of power to convince the archdiocese to save the building or sell it so it can be saved? And what can we do to convince them to do the right thing and save the church building?
Memories of Our Lady of Victory
OLV is now closed, and the next few months and years will reveal if the actual church building can be saved. Regardless of what’s written in this final chapter, we will always have our memories. Although we only spent about five or six years there as parishioners, our family has vivid memories of OLV. My son was baptized at OLV, participated in its OLV for Me faith development program for 3–5 year olds, and attended its school until kindergarten (OLV’s school closed a year later). We met many of our current friends at OLV during school and church events.
Until this year, I was a member of its Holy Name Society, which was a fascinating club of men—ranging from their 20s to 80s from many backgrounds—who did a LOT of good in the parish and also knew how to have a REALLY good time late into the night in the parish hall once a month. Sometimes, us “younger” guys brought our kids, who would play in the gym and occasionally sneak cans of pop from the beer cooler. One of my best memories is attending a special mass for departed members of the society in the school hall. OLV’s fantastic priest, Father Michael Wyrzykowski, led the mass using a makeshift altar made of folding tables, the bingo sign looming above him as he prayed before men who could be both profound and profane (or maybe just irreverent) all in a 10-minute span during the social part of the Holy Name meeting.
Last year—days before Chicago’s shelter-in-place pandemic edict was implemented—we attended the parish’s annual St. Pat’s Day Party in the school lunchroom/hall, which reminds me of the lunchroom/hall of Hope Lutheran Church. It had become a tradition for us, as it had for many. Hundreds of people packed into the hall to eat their fill of corned beef and cabbage; talk with good friends; listen to music; dance; dream of winning great raffle prizes; drink tasty beer brewed by Mike, one of the Holy Name guys; and enjoy the sound of bagpipes. I should say BAGPIPES!!! Because they were so loud that you felt that they would literally bring down the walls of the church hall like the trumpets of the Israelites brought down the walls of Jericho. The thunder of the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band bagpipes and drums made you feel alive and primal—the beer probably helped, too. Since COVID, the St. Pat’s party was the last time I was part of a group of 50 or so people.
That is, until last Sunday, when my family attended OLV’s last mass, which felt more like a combination family reunion and wake to me, but also a celebration of a life well lived. There were hugs and tears and stories and a lot of long gazes around the church to take everything in before it was all taken away by the archdiocese. The pews were packed, and the church was bathed in bright sunlight for most of the mass. I felt lucky to be in attendance. Although we’d only attended OLV regularly for perhaps five or six years before transferring to a new church/school, we missed everything about the church. But as a person who’s lost my childhood church and school, I felt—and continue to feel—a special affinity for the OLV lifers who could cite generations of family members attending and mountains of memories. That’s how I felt about Hope Lutheran.
The Power of Memory and Love
The parish of OLV has been merged with two other churches. The church and other buildings are now closed. People are fighting to save (in some capacity) the beautiful upper and lower churches and the awe-inspiring art that they contain. But even if the beautiful church is destroyed (and its art re-purposed or stored in some archdiocese warehouse), the people—and their memories—remain. The stories of multi-generations of families that made OLV their home. The tales of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Of St. Patrick Day parties, Bingo nights, basketball games, and decades of classes at Our Lady of Victory School. Of special teachers, priests, deacons, religious educators, and nuns. Of friendships made at OLV and maintained for years. These are things that the archdiocese cannot take away from the parishioners.
My church/grammar school has been gone for almost 25 years, but Hope Lutheran comes briefly alive again when I share memories about it with friends and family member who attended these institutions; enjoy Facebook conversations and photos about it on its Hope Group page; and savor the few keepsakes I have from the church and school. I will do the same with Our Lady of Victory. I’d much rather have the real thing, but we all know that in the end, we’re often left with only memories of the things that we love.
It’s too late for the parish of Our Lady of Victory, but not for the church building. It would be wonderful if the former church could be saved and used for masses/services by other churches. Or perhaps it could be used as a community or arts center. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to still be able to pass by and see the former church regularly? Whatever is decided, the community should have a major role in the decision-making process. Because while the archdiocese owns the property, the true owners of any church are its parishioners.
Copyright (text, except quoted text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos, except photo of Hope Church) Andrew Morkes
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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.