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Angels help turn former parish into mission

By Michelle Martin


Since 1958, Chicagoans have associated the name “Our Lady of the Angels” with the horrific fire that took the lives of 92 school children and three BVM sisters in the parish school.

In the years following the fire, the Italian families that populated the parish in the late 1950s moved out, as black families moved in and some real-estate agents played on the fears of the remaining white residents — a pattern of panic peddling repeated all over the West Side.

By 1990, the once-flourishing parish was merged with St. Francis of Assisi Parish, a little more than a half-mile away. Even then, the rebuilt school remained open until 1999.

Now the former church is occupied by a Protestant congregation and the school building houses the Galapagos charter school. Kelly Hall, the former parish center, sits vacant on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Hamlin.

But the Our Lady of the Angels Rectory remains as the Our Lady of the Angels Mission, with a memorial to those who died in the fire on its neatly kept front lawn. The mission was the brainchild of Cardinal George, who wanted to keep a Catholic presence alive on the site of one of the most tragic events in the history of the archdiocese.

Run by Father Bob Lombardo, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, the mission offers material help in the form of food, clothing and household goods. The help is needed; the area in which the mission is located had a median household income of about $21,000 in 2006, and 35 percent of adults did not have a high school diploma.

“It seemed like a good fit, working in a poor neighborhood, to have a Catholic presence that would complement what’s being done by the local parishes,” said Father Bob, as he is known to volunteers and neighbors. “The cardinal’s thought was that due to the history here, especially the fire, it would be important to have some kind of a Catholic presence. The number of poor people here is sizable.”

The mission also offers a quiet place to pray, both for its neighbors and for other residents of the Chicago area. The second and third floors feature guest rooms that can be used by participants in organized retreats or those who want to come for a day or two of prayer on their own.

The building, with its Vatican flag out front and San Damiano crosses (a mark of Father Bob’s congregation) in every room has been adapted to fulfill the mission of the priest’s congregation, to serve the poor and to preach.

Growing already

Soon, the service to the community will grow exponentially. Under a partnership with the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Kelly Hall will be renovated and opened up with after-school programs, opportunities for children and families to eat healthy meals (and bring the recipes home), senior recreation and sports leagues.

Already, the Greater Chicago Food Depository shows up once a month or more with a truckload of food, including meat and produce, for 250 families. The mission provides a small army of volunteers to help sort and distribute groceries

“We pretty much live by divine providence,” said Lombardo, because the Fransican Friars of the Renewal follow the Franciscan tradition of living on the alms given to them. But the gifts, in material goods and in time, have been plentiful.

Park Ridge help

Many of those volunteers have come from St. Paul of the Cross Parish in Park Ridge, part of a parish-wide outreach coordinated by Adrienne Timm.

Timm, who coordinates social service ministries in the parish, was looking for an opportunity that would allow all kinds of parishioners to contribute not just treasure, but also talent and time, somewhere close enough for people to visit regularly. A parishioner and classmate of Father Bob from Notre Dame University suggested the mission. When Timm and the pastor, Father Carl Morello, visited, they were hooked.

“There’s something for everyone to do,” she said. “Teenagers can help, families can volunteer together. At the beginning, it was really cleaning up the rectory — a lot of cleaning. Now it’s more helping with the food distribution.”

Parishioners at St. Paul of the Cross provided the bedclothes and other fittings for all the guest rooms, Timm said, using a simple method: She took Father Bob to Target and they registered for sheets, towels, even lampshades. Then she put a notice about it in the parish bulletin. Every item was purchased and donated.

Other jobs were done by local trade unions, who used the renovation as a training opportunity for their apprentices.

“They repaired the floors and the walls, the roofer’s union repaired the roof … a lot of it was just by word of mouth,” Father Bob said. “I’ve seen a very good slice of life.... There’s a great love for the church, and the goodness of people wanting to reach out to their neighbors.”

Timm said that for her and her fellow parishioners, the mission has provided a concrete way to live out their faith.

“We need to have a connection to the hungry people who are there,” she said. “We need to see Jesus in their faces. So often, they are invisible.”

For Lombardo, who was invited to build the mission three years ago, the project seems to have taken a long time.

“I’m not a very patient person,” he said. “Having something that needed to be renovated forced the panic buttons to stay unpushed. With the delay, I saw God’s hand — I could almost see the little hairs on his fingers.”