Archiver > IRISH-IN-CHICAGO > 2007-12 > 1198878345

From: Nan Brennan <>
Subject: [IRISH-IN-CHICAGO] Holy Family, O'Learys honor church's 150th year
Date: Fri, 28 Dec 2007 15:45:45 -0600

From today's Tribune

Holy Family, O'Learys honor church's 150th year

Church survived 1871 Chicago Fire, disrepair and a 2003 blaze -- and
Mrs. O'Leary's relatives help celebrate its storied history and
growing importance to city

By James Janega Tribune staff reporter 11:08 AM CST, December 28, 2007

The family wasn't comfortable there in the public gaze, not after all
the kicking around they'd gotten for being related to Mrs. O'Leary,
she of the infamous cow.

But they came to Holy Family Catholic Church on Thursday, smiling
awkwardly at attention avoided for generations, out of devotion to
the parish of their ancestors.

On Sunday, Holy Family will celebrate its 150th anniversary, having
survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and other assorted
calamities. Church leaders have spent the year renewing connections
to the past it shares with Chicago.

Among those links is the O'Leary family, the Irish immigrants and
onetime parishioners whose cow, the story goes, started the Chicago
Fire by kicking over a lantern a few blocks from Holy Family.

"It's come a long way," said John Lester Neeson, 82, looking at the

A great-grandson of Catherine O'Leary, the retired South Side
carpenter was invited to Holy Family on Thursday with his family as a
way of linking the church's long and turbulent past with its hopeful

Chicagoans love their history, and parish leaders have sought for
years to tie Holy Family's survival to the city's primal identity of
disaster and rebirth, of immigration, of showmanship and clout.

Holy Family survived the 1871 fire thanks to prayer and a strong west
wind, fought neglect in 1990 with six-figure donations from the
city's biggest institutions and $20 bills from poor families, and
bounced back from a basement blaze in 2003.

Its parishioners have represented the changing face of Chicago,
encompassing waves of Irish, Italians and African-Americans. It has
ridden the crest of Roman Catholic participation in city life and
weathered declines that have shuttered other urban parishes.

The church survived on a mixture of "determination, faith and prayer
-- and connections," said Rev. Jeremiah J. Boland, administrator of
the church.

O'Learys in the spotlight

More than once, it has fallen back on publicity stunts.

When asked about the importance of showmanship -- such as producing
long-silent descendants of the O'Learys -- Rev. George Lane, one of
the church's most successful fundraisers, smiled.

"It does help focus attention," Lane said.

Neeson and his sister Rosemary Kopfman, 80, are the great-
grandchildren of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary, Irish immigrants from
County Kerry.

The Holy Family registry shows that Neeson's grandfather, James, was
baptized at the church in 1863 and attended the parish school. A
great-uncle Cornelius was baptized there in 1860, one of the first in
the parish, which was founded in 1857.

Neeson and his wife, Doris, brought a family album brimming with old
newspaper headlines blaming relatives for burning down the city -- a
story the family has lived with for more than a century.

"Legends never die. They have a spurious immortality," begins a page
snipped from Stephen Longstreet's history "Chicago."

Though the cow has been exonerated, the family name has been
tarnished anyway.

"Unfairly and unjustly," Boland said.

Holy Family was founded by Rev. Arnold Damen, a Dutch Jesuit priest
who built the structure where one of America's fastest-growing cities
met the muddy edge of a prairie.

His plan to save his young church from the Chicago Fire involved
fervent prayers to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and a promise to light
candles in her honor if she interceded. The candles still burn in the
east transept.

By 1990, the church was threatened again, having become decrepit
enough that the parish needed to raise $1 million by midnight New
Year's Eve to save it from the wrecking ball. Lane organized an
around-the-clock prayer vigil with the slogan "Say Prayers and Send
Money." When the clock struck midnight, supporters had raised

Four years ago a fire broke out in the church basement. Though
firefighters from the station across the street put out the flames in
minutes, an insurance company spent millions of dollars and several
months to fix damage from smoke that filled the building.

When the workers were done, things were better than before -- better
than renovators planned.

"That was the most successful fire anyone ever had," Lane said.

No one knew how the fire started, though a few suspected arson.

"It's a mystery," Lane insists.

Having survived lean years, Holy Family is now positioned to ride new
growth in the neighborhood. The church's steeple, still the tallest
thing for blocks, now rises above shuttered public housing, expensive
town houses and the fresh red bricks of construction at the
University of Illinois at Chicago.

More baptisms this year

There were 375 families registered at the church at the beginning of
2007, a small number as Chicago parishes go. Still, there were more
baptisms at Holy Family in the last year than in the previous four,
Boland said, and parishioners are driving across the city for services.

After all these years, the city somehow feels invested in Holy
Family's survival, he guessed.

"It became an effort that all of Chicago got involved in," Boland
said. "This became part of our collective history."

- - -

Cardinal to say mass in Holy Family Sunday

Cardinal Francis George will say mass in honor of Holy Family
Catholic Church's 150th anniversary at 9:45 a.m. Sunday in the
church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd.

An open house will follow from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at which a restored
historic processional banner dating to 1861 will be displayed, along
with a collection of hand-carved gilded wooden angel statues dating
to the 1870s and a collection of chalices, gold monstrances,
candlesticks and church vestments brought from Paris in 1863.


Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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