The Recessional at Holy Angel's 125th Anniversary Mass: February 6, 2005.
A Memorial History of Holy Angels Church on the occasion of its 125th Jubilee: 6 February 2005
by Father Robert Miller
Holy Angels Catholic Church: 1880 – 2005
“125 Years of Pride, Passion and Power”
“This is the day of rejoicing – let us rejoice and be glad!” As we celebrate today 125 years of presence “on the battlefield” of this Grand Boulevard neighborhood, it is good for us to pause, reflect on our past, and praise God for His timeless blessings!! The entire history of Holy Angels Church has been a story of facing adversity and finding blessings! The Holy Angels story is a story of multi-racial, multi-generational people – white and black, young and old, clerical and lay - who have stood strong against the ADVERSITY of their times, had PRIDE in themselves and their Church, and showed POWER and PASSION for their beliefs. There is not enough time to mention all the challenges Holy Angels has faced thru the years. But on this 125th Jubilee, let us recall some challenges – and victories - so that our God may be glorified and our ancestors be honored!
Holy Angels Church began in 1880 with Irish immigrants who came to Chicago’s south-side seeking a place of freedom, opportunity and a place to worship their God. Finding a beautiful boulevard lined with oak trees, 20 Irish residents from the area gathered for their first Mass with Fr. Denis Tighe in an upstairs room over a furniture store on 37th Street & Cottage Grove. The people of the area were
strongly anti-Catholic and resisted every effort to sell the Irish land or property for a formal church building. So as their church membership was growing, the Irish resorted to trickery - they rented a non- used church in the area, and secretly bought up little parcels of area land! They then announced the formation of Holy Angels Church on the corner of Vincennes & Oakwood.
Soon a school was built under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy (the tuition was $1.00 a month!) As the church grew to 600 families, a beautiful Romanesque church was built and dedicated
in September 1897. As the early 20th century moved along, Holy Angels became the center of many southside Irish hearts. But in the 1930-50s, a major challenge gradually began to impact Holy Angels. Prejudice is a harsh and unfortunate reality, even in churches and religious institutions – but it was a sad truth for Holy Angels and other Chicago Catholic churches. The neighborhood slowly changed from Irish to African-American as blacks moved from the south to Chicago in great numbers – also seeking opportunity, freedom and a place to worship. Thousands of white church members (as well as many in the area) moved elsewhere, even as blacks were assigned places in the back of church. Church attendance plummeted, and Holy Angels School enrollment dropped to a mere 90 children. It was also about that time that the Ida B. Wells Homes were built just north of the church itself.
But God had a new plan for a new generation! In 1946 Cardinal Stritch mandated that the school and church be open to all the community, and he appointed a new pastor for faith-filled black Catholics
in the Bronzeville community. Fr. James Duffin arrived with energy and openness, willing to "move with the Spirit of the moment". He wanted both Catholic education and evangelization to be dominating factors in a resurgent black Catholic community at Holy Angels. So, despite the low enrollment, he built 4 new classrooms, and brought in a Franciscan nun who would soon become legendary - Sr. Mary Hortensia.
With this new twofold emphasis on Catholic education and Christian evangelization in the community, Holy Angels School / Church again began to surge in membership. School enrollment rose to 750
children, and soon the School became the largest black Catholic grade school in the country, whose policies were universally emulated. Thousands of African-Americans were evangelized, baptized, and
formally brought into membership at Holy Angels Church in the mid-20th century. Legendary priests such as Fr. Joseph Richards, Howard Tuite, Robert Burns, Patrick Curran and James Mollohan served the rapidly growing congregation. Then, in June 1969, another legendary chapter of Holy Angels Church began. Acknowledging the growing cultural self-awareness and social issues of African-Americans, Fr. George Clements was appointed as one of Chicago’s first black pastors, and the new pastor of Holy Angels Church. Before long, due to his inimitable personality and outspoken social stands, Fr. Clements became a nationally known figure renowned for his fights for the rights of Chicago's black community. He was controversial in his civil rights stands, and prophetic in his support for adoption of young black children - even to the adopting of 3 children himself. It was Fr. Clements who dusted off an old Holy Angels slogan to use once again in facing the challenges of his generation: "We've Got It Together By Ourselves". Fr. Clements brought public recognition, social responsibility and cultural pride to Holy Angels Church.
With the arrival from Louisiana of the beloved Fr. Paul Smith as principal in 1970, Holy Angels School continued to grow in renown, success and achievement for the thousands of black children
who attended there yearly. Despite Fr. Smith’s tragic murder in November 1996, Holy Angels School continues its proud reputation to this day. Through Fr. Smith’s efforts, and the work of the School
Sisters of St. Francis, Holy Angels School today boasts of highly qualified African-Americans in every professional field – even the priesthood (with the 2004 ordination of Fr. Jerome Parrish).
But on June 9, 1986 tragedy struck Holy Angels Church - a devastating fire burned the great Gothic church to the ground. But for a membership who had faced adversity before – no challenge
would prove too great, and no mountain too high to climb. For nearly 5 years, tireless efforts and campaigns were begun to build a new house of worship. Contributions were made by great and small
folk alike, and on a beautiful day in June 1991 a new church was dedicated on the very site of the old worship site. With his task done, Fr. Clements resigned and moved onto a national ministry.
In 1992, Holy Angels was blessed again with yet another well-known and beloved black priest as their pastor, Fr. John Calicott. Fr. John's uniquely charismatic and empowering leadership style brought
a new Gospel spirit and broad-based ministry to Holy Angels - Spirit-filled Gospel Masses, community outreach programs, structured committees and parish leadership groups. Despite the uniquely painful cross he had thrust upon him, Fr. John remains a model, mentor and man of God for so many. In the summer of 1995, Fr. Robert Miller came to Holy Angels as co-pastor, and is presently a very active Administrator of Holy Angels. Fr. Bob brought his own unique enthusiasm, passion for ministry and “action-oriented” spirituality to Holy Angels Church. The last decade has seen exciting new parish ministries that fit the changing atmosphere of the area and church - RCIA, Children’s Liturgy of the Word, AIDS Outreach, Fundraiser & Jubilee Committees, Spiritual Seekers and many more.
The year 1996 saw yet another chapter in Holy Angels long, prophetic social outreach history - the beginning (from Holy Angels’ dining room!) of Genesis Housing Development Corporation. Genesis is
a four-church not-for-profit community development group working for affordability in housing, homeowner education and job training in this neighborhood. Genesis’ first 24 houses (completed in 2002 and the most affordable housing on the south-side) has made 24 hopeful dreams into inspiring realities in the rapidly redeveloping Grand Boulevard neighborhood. Plans are now well underway for nearly 60 new units of housing in the next 12-18 months.
125 years!! Praise God! Holy Angels has been a blessing for multitudes of people for three centuries! Despite devastating accidents, horrible accusations, fire and inner-city problems, Holy Angels
Church and School now moves forward into the 21st century in a truly dynamic way! Thousands come to find healing ... to rest in a haven of comfort amidst struggle ... to see a beacon of hope in urban despair ... and be energized by a source of Truth amidst culture's lies. The “holy ground” of Holy Angels Church has become nationally recognized as a Spirit-filled, prophetic, passionate, powerful House of the Lord! And strengthened by the Lord, we will remain – on the battlefield for the Lord, a prophetic voice in the wilderness, a source of pride, passion and power!