St. Mary of the Lake. A History.


St. Mary of the Lake Parish was established by His Grace, Archbishop Patrick A. Feehan in September, 1901. It comprised the territory known as Buena Park, and was bounded by the lake on the east and by the following streets: on the north by Wilson Avenue; on the west by Racine, Clark, and the east line of Graceland Cemetery; and on the south by Waveland Avenue. In 1901, Buena Park was sparsely populated and the lakeshore reached as far west as Sheridan Road. There were only sixty families identified as Catholics who attended church when Father John J. Dennison was appointed to organize the parish. Finding a stable location for a church in the district was a difficult task. Vacant property was abundant, but prices were prohibitive and finally after a month of searching, one hundred feet of property was secured from Mr. Adam Schneider and another gentleman. Plans were formulated for a new building, which was to be a combination church and residence. Ground was broken the 20th of November, and the new building was begun almost immediately.

First Mass

It was hoped that Mass would be celebrated for the first time in the new building on Christmas Day. "Man proposes, but God disposes," and a siege of zero weather in early December frustrated plans and curtailed ambitions so that it was February 2nd before the first Mass was celebrated in the new edifice. The building cost $8,000, and the furnishings for the church and house cost another $2,000. We had - fortunately - secured the use of the Horace Greeley School for services on Sundays.

The first Mass was said in the assembly hall of this building on October 6th, 1901. A very representative congregation greeted the new pastor that Sunday morning, and a large representation of his Englewood and South Side friends and relatives joined them and contributed generously to the financial beginning of the new congregation. A meeting of the men was called and after the Mass thirty men of the congregation remained to discuss ways and means to raise funds. It was a most enthusiastic meeting and the pastor cherished the memory of that morning as one of the most sacred experiences of his priesthood. The spirit of good will and the generous encouragement he received from his parishioners was obviously a gift from his Divine Master and inspired him during the remainder of his life's work. At the end of the first year the parish had grown to one hundred families, numbering about four hundred souls. There was never a more enthusiastic or energetic body of workers than that first band of men and women who lent their heroic assistance to the building of God's Kingdom on earth. The Right Reverend Peter J. Muldoon, who was then the auxiliary and vicar general of the learned and saintly Archbishop Feehan, solemnly dedicated the little church on June 1st. Father Dennison carried on the work of the parish alone for over a year and a half when Father William Donaghue was sent to assist him.

During the first year a subscription effort was undertaken that realized about eleven thousand dollars and a similar amount of money was raised at a bazaar. The total revenue for the first fifteen months from all resources was twenty-two thousand dollars, a very large and generous offering from so few people. The Reverend Joseph A. Casey was appointed to assist the pastor in the work so auspiciously begun the year before. His valuable efforts served well in nourishing spiritual growth of the early parishioners. He was later appointed by his superior to administer at Mt. Carmel Church during the illness of that parish's pastor. Father Sheay, his replacement, quickly fit himself into the parish routine and ably assisted Father Dennison in attending to the many parochial details, interests and obligations of the young parish.

A New Church

In April 1913, Father Dennison announced plans to build a new church and rectory at the northwest corner of Buena Avenue and Sheridan Road. Before construction could begin, the Robert A. Waller home - which stood at 4210 North Sheridan Road - was purchased and moved to 1026 West Buena Avenue. The church was designed by Henry J. Schlacks - a Chicago native - who had already made a name for himself as a church architect despite his young age. He chose the Italian Renaissance style of architecture, patterning the structure after the Roman churches of St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major. The freestanding bell tower is a replica of the campanile of St. Prudentiana Church in Rome. The altar's pulpit and altar rail were all the creation of Mr. Schlack's genius and enterprise. The edifice was constructed at a cost of $127,000.

Archbishop James E. Quigley laid the cornerstone of the present church on June 29, 1913. Archbishop Mundelein dedicated the church on May 20, 1917. At that time, the parish membership numbered 600 hundred families. Work continued on the interior of the church for nine years. Ferdinando Palla of Pietrasanta, Italy was awarded the contract for all the marble work. Professor Lamesi designed the shrines. All the marble was from Carrera, the same marble used by Michelangelo. The statues are of St. Therese of Lisieux, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Jude, St. Rita, St. Anne, Sacred Heart, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Agnes, St. Raphael and St. Anthony of Padua. The large columns are made of scagliola (imitation marble). The structure that served as a baptismal font for many years was moved to the sanctuary and became the base for the main altar. It is a Corinthian capital and you can see these Corinthian capitals everywhere throughout the church. Try to count them!

Over the apse is a huge triumphal arch - a structure that was widely used in early Roman architecture. The arches over the side altars and the main cupola also reflect that architectural theme. They provide us with a vision of Mary and Joseph (not the original paintings) or a passageway for us to Christ and the Sacraments. F. X. Zettler of the Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich, Germany, was commissioned to do the stained glass windows. The church interior was completed in time for the XXVIII international Eucharistic Congress, which was held in Chicago in the summer of 1926. The gold tones of the ceiling with the paintings by Thomas of Christ the King and Queenship of Mary add to the otherworld atmosphere of the church.

A New School

While construction proceeded on the new church, ground for a new school was broken on the east side of Kenmore Avenue, just north of Buena Avenue. The school is the work of a young architect - Mr. Joseph W. McCarthy, a New York native - who arrived in Chicago in his early years and grew up in Chicago and who was himself a pupil in the parochial schools administered and taught by the Sisters of Mercy. The school - a two-story building with six classrooms on the second floor - was unsurpassed by any schoolhouse in Chicago at that time in terms of its lighting and classroom arrangement. The first floor has a very commodious and artistic auditorium which accommodates between six and seven hundred. It has a very large stage with an asbestos fire curtain and two sets of scenery. The whole scheme was a monotone in silver gray.

It had a modern method of ventilation for that era that kept the halls and classrooms constantly supplied with fresh air. The children's toilets were equipped with the very latest improvements and were termed "elaborate" in finish and execution. The building was considered absolutely fireproof. The Sisters of Mercy of St. Xavier's administered and taught at the new school. Their community had been instrumental in building the reputation of the parochial schools of Chicago and placing them on a plane that was equal - if not superior - to the public schools of our city. The influence of the sisters was immediately realized in the scholarship and conduct of the children, who were under the personal supervision of these good women.

The 1920s and 30s

Through out the 1920s, the Buena Park neighborhood continued to develop as a residential district with many new brick apartment buildings. In 1928, in recognition of his role in nurturing the growth of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Father Dennison was named a Domestic Prelate with the title Right Reverend Monsignor. He celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination on December 17, 1939. Early in 1930, the frame house that stood at 4220 North Sheridan Road was razed to make room for the new convent building. Ground was broken in July 1939 and the spacious new facility was completed by December 1939. The architectural firm of McCarthy, Smith and Eppig designed the convent in a Renaissance style. Following the completion of the new convent, the Sister's former residence (the old Waller home) was razed and the property on which it stood was graded as a playground and a parking lot.

The 1940s to 1960s In the 1940s, Msgr. Dennison purchased the Coombs (Rowland) Funeral Home at 4152 North Sheridan Road for use as a parish clubhouse. The first parish carnival was held on the grounds surrounding this brick mansion. Reverend Vincent M. Farmer served as administrator of St. Mary of the Lake during the last two years of Msgr. Dennison's life. The extraordinary development of the parish during the 54 years of Msgr. Dennison's pastorate paralleled the grow of Buena Park and Uptown. When the founding pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish died on December 5, 1955 at the age of 91, he left a magnificent parish complex which was located in the heart of a thriving community. Reverend Harry C. Rynard - a former professor at Quigley Preparatory Seminary since 1933 - was appointed pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish in January 1956. Father Farmer continued to serve as an associate pastor until January 1958, when he was named pastor of St. Finbarr Church at 14th and Harding Avenue.

Shortly before he was appointed pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Oak Park, Illinois in June 1962, Father Rynard purchased the Schmidt home at 4228 North Sheridan Road for the future use of St. Mary of the Lake Parish. Reverend John J. Hartnett, former head of the Latin department at Quigley Preparatory Seminary, succeeded Father Rynard as pastor in June 1962. Under his leadership, a weekly Spanish Mass was inaugurated in 1964 to serve the many Spanish­speaking families from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America who had settled in the neighborhood. In 1965, Father Hartnett supervised the razing of the Schmidt home. The property at 4228 North Sheridan Road was paved and fenced in for use as a parking lot. He continued to serve the people of St. Mary of the Lake Parish until May 23, 1966, when he was named pastor emeritus. Father Hartnett died on March 26, 1979 at the age of 69. Reverend John H. Kuhlmey, former chaplain at Holy Family Hospital in Des Plaines, Illinois, served as pastor from may 1966 until July 1971, when he was named associate pastor at St. Terese Hospital in Waukegan, Illinois.

The 1970s to 1990s

On July 16, 1971, Most Reverend Nevin W. Hayes, O.Carm., Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, was appointed pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish. A native Chicagoan, He had grown up on the south side of the city in the St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish. For nearly twenty years, Bishop Hayes had worked in Peru, South America. In 1965, he became the first American Carmelite to be consecrated a Bishop and in February 1971, he was named by Pope Paul VI to be Auxiliary Bishop to John Cardinal Cody. With the help of his parishioners, Bishop Hayes purchased a building at 4221 North Kenmore Avenue in 1974 for use as a community center. Since that time, St. Mary's Community Center (now part of the former convent building) has become an important part of the neighborhood. On June 26, 1974, Bishop Hayes was appointed pastor of St. Phillip Neri Church on the southeast side of Chicago.

Reverend John C. Rosemeyer - who was administrator of Our Lady Gate of Heaven Church on the southeast side of Chicago from 1972 to 1973 - was named pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish on August 28, 1974. He was well acquainted with the parish, having served as associate pastor from 1958 to 1963 and again from 1973 to 1974. In 1976 the sanctuary was renovated for the parish's 75th Anniversary. The entire church was cleaned, painted and re-gilded in 1986-87.Over the years parishioners have striven to maintain our inheritance of the beautiful structure of SMOL with continued maintenance and improvements, and in 1999 an Art and Architecture committee was formed with these goals in mind.

In 1988, Father Robert Mair was appointed pastor of St. Mary of the Lake. For much of its second half-century, and particularly during the terms of Father Rosemeyer and Father Mair, the neighborhood changed due to the departure of many long-time parishioners. The parish became a focus of ministry to the many poor people of Uptown. In the early 1970s, Uptown, once a regal, desirable community, was rife with crime, gang activity, prostitution and drug problems. Parishioners worked with Catholic Charities to establish a pantry, which is still functioning today with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. During these years poverty and low numbers of parishioners always put the operation of the parish in a threatened condition. Our first permanent Deacon, Ted Kuntz, was ordained in 1976. Four more deacons and one candidate have followed him.

In the 1970s and 1980s, attendance at the English mass began to ebb, while the parish added a second Mass in Spanish on Saturday evening to accommodate the crowd. The parish had become bilingual. Today we frequently have bilingual masses on holy days, and SMOL is home to a very active Spanish youth group, Kerisma, and a wonderful and lively Spanish choir at the 1:00pm mass on Sundays. The economic growth of the late 1980s and 1990s did not improve things for many of the poor of Uptown. However, it did result in a curious trend as the southern end up Uptown was built up and renovated into condominium homes, and dubbed by realtors as "Buena Park." Our parish now sits on the boundary of what was once considered the southern part of Uptown, now known to the new residents as Buena Park, and the northern part of Uptown, which remains a place where many economically disadvantaged citizens find a home. In recent years the parish has experienced a growth of young people and families, as well as an influx of parishioners from literally all over the globe. We have been blessed by the diversity and energy of the many cultures and new residents of our parish in these years.