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The Great Fire of Chicago almost destroyed this beautiful church, but prayer intervened

HOLY FAMILY CHURCH
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A special novena saved the church where Mr. and Mrs. O'Leary were parishioners.

Many people believe that Holy Family Church is one of the most beautiful Catholic places of worship in Chicago. But it almost burned down during the great fire of 1871. And the cow that is usually blamed for kicking over a lantern and starting the fire was owned by parishioners of Holy Family, the O’Leary family.

The conflagration started a few blocks east of the church. The pastor, Fr. Arnold Damen, was in Brooklyn, New York, preaching a parish mission. He was advised that the flames were spreading toward the structure. He had a special interest in saving the church: he is the one who started construction of the building in 1856, to serve Irish, German and Italian immigrants.

There was nothing he could do but pray. Invoking Our Lady of Perpetual Help to save the building, he promised to light seven candles before the statue of the Blessed Mother in the church when he returned

Lo and behold, the wind shifted, and the church was spared.

Fr. Damen kept his promise, lighting the candles when he returned to the Windy City.

To this day, seven electric lights burn at Our Lady’s shrine in the east transept of the church. Those worshiping at Holy Family, including recent Hispanic immigrants and African-Americans, have another reason to keep up the tradition, and be thankful for prayers answered.

Neglect of a building, whether through lack of funds or whatever, can be just as devastating as a massive fire. In the 1980s, Holy Family was falling into disrepair, and it lacked the sizable parishioner base to support much-needed renovations. The main sanctuary was closed because the roof leaked and plaster was falling. Christmas of 1987 did not bring glad tidings but bad news: the church would be torn down and replaced with a small structure that would be more appropriate to the 150 or so parishioners.

But in late June of 1988, the Jesuit provincial superior, Father Robert Wild, told Father George Lane, S.J., that he could work with the parishioners to try to save the church. But they would have to raise $1 million by Dec. 31, 1990. As the parish website tells the history:

Father Lane and board member, Dick Barry, decided to reenact or replicate Father Damen’s strategy to save the church from the Chicago Fire of 1871. A prayer vigil was held from Dec, 26 until Dec. 31, with the deadline on Dec. 31. The motto and plea was to “Say Prayers and Send Money.” The money came pouring in, but it was obvious that a more dramatic gesture was needed. An open house was held on Sunday, Dec. 30th, the feast of the Holy Family. The media were told of the open house and from noon to 5 o’clock, between 2 and 3 thousand people came to see the church. Each one had a story—my grandparents were married here, I was baptized here, etc.—and each one had a check or a cash donation. By the midnight deadline, a total of $1,011,000 had been received. The people had saved their big old church through the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

If you visit, you’ll see a Victorian Gothic church with a 65-foot ceiling. A thousand worshipers can be seated in its 15,000 square-foot interior. A carved walnut communion rail sets off the sanctuary. The church has the oldest stained glass windows in Chicago. It also has 29 wooden statues by 19th-century sculptor Charles Oliver Dauphin of Montreal, the largest collection of that artist’s work in the world.

An unusual feature is that the main pillars slant outward and are 18 inches off plumb. Structural surveys have shown that the pillars are not moving, the parish website assures visitors.

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