St. Francis of Assisi Church at Roosevelt rd. and Newberry ave., the first German parish on the west side of Chicago, was organized in 1853 by Rev. Bernard Weikamp, who had been pastor of St. Peter Church (then located on Washington st. between Franklin and Wells st.). He directed the construction of a frame church at the corner of Clinton and Mather (later Lexington) st. On May 21, 1853, The Western Tablet reported that the edifice "will be ready for
divine services about the first of July." Bishop James O. Van de Velde, SJ, dedicated St. Francis of Assisi Church on Aug. 15, 1853.
In 1857, Father Weikamp was appointed to an Indian mission in Cross Village, Mich. His successor, Rev. Gaspar H. Ostlangenberg, a former pastor of St. Peter Church, served the people of St. Francis of Assisi Church until Jan. 3 1859. Rev. Ignatius Schnirch served the congregation from January to June 1859.
In 1859, dissension wracked this national parish. Apparently, Bishop James Duggan asked Rev. Arnold Damen, SJ, pastor of Holy Family Church on 12th st. (now Roosevelt rd.) and May st., to care for the German Catholics of the west side. Father Damen informed his provincial that The German congregation have given the Bishop a great deal of trouble, their church is at present interdicted, many of the people are going to the Lutheran church, others are turning infidels, but yet they all have a kind of confidence in us.
Due to lack of personnel, the Jesuits did not assume responsibility for St. Francis of Assisi Church. The task of reorganizing the parish fell to Rev. Ferdinand Kalvelage, who had been pastor of St. Mary Church in Freeport, Ill. (now in the Rockford diocese) since 1854.
In 1863, the Bohemian parish of St. Wenceslaus was organized at DeKoven and Desplaines st., not far from St. Francis of Assisi Church. In 1866, Father Kalvelage directed the construction of a large church on property which he had acquired at the southeast corner of 12th st. and Newberry ave., just a few blocks east of Holy Family Church. The cornerstone of the new church was laid on June 24, 1866. The old frame church on Clinton st. was purchased by the diocese for the new territorial parish of St. Paul. Following the destruction of this edifice in the Chicago Fire of 1871, St. Paul Church was merged with St. Patrick Church at Adams and Desplaines st.
Work on St. Francis of Assisi Church continued over the next few years. The tower of the edifice, which reached 190 feet, was completed in 1875. A few years later, a clock and a set of bells were installed.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Joliet, IL., had been placed in charge of the Parish school in 1867. In 1882, the Brothers of Mary from Dayton, Ohio, assumed charge of the boys in St. Francis of Assisi school, a commitment which endured until 1907. To provide adequate accommodations for the children of the parish, Father Kalvelage financed the construction of a spacious brick school which was completed at the southwest corner of 12th st. and Newberry ave. in the spring of 1884. The three story y structure contained 16 classrooms and an assembly hall.
A convent was completed about 1882 at 1230 S. Newberry ave. The Brothers' home subsequently was built at the back of the church. In 1885, a brick rectory was completed at 811 W. 12th st.
On Mar. 14 1892, the Chicago Inter Ocean reported that St. Francis of Assisi parish numbered 4,000 families. Following Father Kalvelage's death on July I, 1893, Rev. Dennis M. Thiele was appointed pastor. He had organized the German Parish of Holy Trinity at Taylor st. and Wolcott ave. in 1885, for families who were then moving west of St. Francis of Assisi Church.
In 1899, Holy Guardian Angel Church was established at 717 W. Forquer (later Arthington) st. for the many Italians who had settled in the neighborhood.
In 1900, 259 boys and 200 girls enrolled in St. Francis of Assisi school. The golden jublilee of the parish was celebrated on Aug. 16, 1903.
On Feb. 15, 1904, a fire broke out in the church causing extensive damage.
Architect William J. Brinkman directed the work of reconstruction. Although the new St. Francis of Assisi Church resembled the old edifice, it was said to surpass it in "style, solidity, and convenience."
At the time of the dedication of the new brick structure on May 17, 1905, the neighborhood around 12th st. was being settled by Italians, Greeks, and Jews.
No longer an exclusively German Parish, St. Francis of Assisi then included families of Austrian, Bohemian, Russian, Hungarian, Irish, and Italian descent.
Membership continued to decline as families moved away from the neighborhood. Whereas a record 285 baptisms were solemnized in 1894, only 89 baptisms were entered on the parish roll in 1910. Nearby Holy Family parish was also experiencing a decline in membership as Irish families moved to other parishes.
In October 1910, Father Thiele was named pastor of St. Matthias Church on the north side of Chicago. His successor was Rev. A. H. Leising, who had been pastor of St. Mary Church in Fremont Center (Mundelein) Ill.
On Nov. 29, 1913, The New World reported that the rooms on the first floor of St. Francis of Assisi school were being rented for social work, among the Italians. This was the nucleus of Guardian Angel Settlement, later renamed Madonna Center.
Father Leising left St. Francis of Assisi parish in 1916. He later was named pastor of St. Dionysius Church in Cicero, IL. On Nov. 18, 1916, Rev. Charles H. Epstein was appointed pastor. He came to Chicago from Plainfield, IL. where he had been pastor of Immaculate Conception Church (now in the Joliet diocese).
When the city y of Chicago drew up plans for the widening of 12th St., the future of St. Francis of Assisi parish was called into question. According to a history of the parish published in 1920, only 50 members signed a petition expressing their desire to have St. Francis of Assisi maintained as a parish.
Between 1910 and 1917, the number of baptisms had declined from 89 to 46.
Under Father Epstein's leadership, St. Francis of Assisi Church took on new life —first as a predominantly Italian parish, and later as a Spanish-speaking parish. As a result of home visits to Italian families in the neighborhood, enrollment in the parish school increased substantially, from 150 students in 1916 to 600 students by 1921.
Father Epstein directed the relocation of St. Francis of Assisi Church in May 1917. It was moved 32 feet south of 12th st. and the rectory was moved to 1206 S. Newberry ave.
In 1925, St. Francis of Assisi Church was still listed in the Catholic Directory as a German parish, despite the fact that its members were predominantly Italian. Between 1923 and 1924, the number of Spanish surnames listed on the parish register increased from 11 to 22.
According to historian Louise Año Nueva Kerr, the Mexican community in Chicago dates back to 1916 "with the recruitment of 206 railroad track laborers from the Texas—Mexican border." In a study entitled "Mexican Chicago," Kerr noted that by 1930, the city's Mexican and Mexican-American population numbered 20,000, "establishing Chicago as a major center of Mexican settlement in the United States. "
To meet the needs of Mexicans who had settled on the near west side, Rev. James F. Tort, CMF, opened a chapel on Van Buren St. on June 1, 1925. This center was soon relocated at 818 W. Polk St. near the Rock Island railroad yards. Additional catechetical centers were established in Clyde (now a part of Cicero, Ill.) near the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad yards; near the Rock Island railroad junction at Gresham on the south side; at 83rd St. near the Chicago and Western Indiana railroad line; and at 38th and Kedzie Ave. near the
Santa Fe railroad yards. In August 1925, approximately 800 Mexicans attended a mission in Waukegan, IL. sponsored by the Claretians.
So successful was Father Tort's chapel on Polk st. that he convinced his provincial, Rev. Andrew Resa, CMF, of the necessity of organizing a parish for the estimated 5,000 Mexicans who lived on the near west side. On Sept. 8, 1925, Father Resa wrote George Cardinal Mundelein outlining the pastoral needs of the Spanish-speaking in Chicago. The only Spanish parish in the city was that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, located in the steel mill district of South Chicago. Father Resa suggested that a new parish be organized for the Mexicans who were attending Mass in the chapel on Polk St.
Cardinal Mundelein offered the Claretians a piece of property at Polk and Morgan St, together with a loan of $90,000 toward the construction of a church and rectory. However, on Oct. 27, 1925, Father Tort met with Father Epstein who offered him the use of St. Francis of Assisi Church.
According to a history of St. Francis of Assisi parish written in 1978, the Jesuits of Holy Family Church suggested that the Claretians would do better not to build on the property at Polk and Morgan, but rather work on the invitation to operate out of St. Francis of Assisi Church. They noted that the German parish had declined considerably of late, and that the Cardinal might eventually consider giving it over to the Spanish-speaking apostolate. This turned out to be very providential advice, especially considering the financial crash of 1929 and what that would have meant to a debt-ridden church with poor parishioners.
In November 1925, the Claretians began celebrating the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass for the Mexicans of the near west side. The "wall-to-wall" crowd at the first Mass in St. Francis of Assisi Church amazed Father Epstein, who had become used to seeing only a small Sunday congregation. He lost no time in visiting Auxiliary Bishop Edward F. Hobart and in expressing his belief that St. Francis of Assisi Church might better serve as a Spanish-speaking parish. On Dec. 28, 1925, Father Epstein wrote a letter to the Claretians who staffed Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, inviting them to become his associates. This letter was sent in turn to Father Resa, the provincial, in California.
On Jan. 29, 1926, Rev. Domingo Zaldivar, CMF, arrived in Chicago from California and he took up residence at St. Francis of Assisi rectory. Before long, he was joined by a few other Claretian priests. Between 1925 and 1926, the number of baptisms solemnized in St. Francis of Assisi Church increased dramatically. Of the 238 baptisms recorded in 1926, 195 were of Mexican children. The 1978 parish history noted that: The number [of baptisms] kept increasing over the years, consistently topping 1,000 per year since the mid-50's right down to 1978. The greatest number of baptisms was 1,799 in 1957.
The Claretian Missionary Fathers were officially installed in St. Francis of Assisi parish on July 1, 1927. Father Epstein subsequently was named pastor of the German parish of St. Henry on the north side of Chicago. His role in the revitalization of St. Francis of Assisi parish was cited by The New World: Thousands of children in the district now peopled by Italian immigrants were attending the non-religious schools and drifting away from the Catholic Church ... In a short time St. Francis of Assisi School was popularized in the district. The large school of 16 rooms, long in disuse, and the auditorium were renovated and equipped for educational purposes...
The Claretians of St. Francis of Assisi Church continued their catechetical work at four locations—38th and Kedzie Ave; 45th and Ashland Ave; Roosevelt Rd. and Ashland Ave; and Harrison and Morgan St. They also conducted missions for Mexican workers in Waukegan, IL. and Franklin Park, IL. Members of the Claretian order also staffed Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at 91st and Brandon Ave. and Immaculate Heart of Mary Vicariate at 4515 S. Ashland Ave.
In November 1934, the Cordi-Marian Sisters from Mexico established their headquarters in the former St. Joseph Home at 1100 S. May St. They took care of the catechetical centers s in this parish as well as at 38th and Kedzie Ave.
Between 1927 and 1942, the following priests served as pastors of St. Francis of Assisi Church: Rev. Domingo Zaldivar, CMF, 1927-1930; Rev. Rafael Serrano, CMF, 1930-1932; Rev. Fidel Zapatero, CMF, 1932-1936; Rev. Joseph Puigvi, CMF, 1936-1939; and Rev. Augustine Leal, CMF, 1939-1942.
A program of renovation was begun by Rev. Joachim DePrada, CMF who served as pastor from 1942 to 1945. A new rectory, was completed at 813 W. Roosevelt rd. by Mar. 15, 1945. On July 4, 1945, Rev. Thomas Matin, CMF, was appointed pastor.
Disaster struck the parish on Jan. 24, 1946 when fire gutted the school, located at the southwest corner of Roosevelt rd. and Newberry Ave. Only a week before, a new gymnasium had been completed on the top floor. This part of the school was razed, and the building was ready for occupancy on Aug. 23 1946. During construction, the children attended classes in the rectory and in the nearby Chicago’s Boy’s Club.
On Aug. 18, 1946, Samuel Cardinal Stritch blessed the main altar in the newly remodeled parish church. On Nov. 9, 1947, the cornerstone of a new gymnasium was laid. Cardinal Stritch dedicated St. Francis of Assisi Mexican Youth Center on Aug. 1, 1948. The modern brick structure is located at 1235 S. Newberry Ave.
During Father Matin's pastorate, the Spanish Catholic Hour was established. This 30 minute program can still be heard at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings on radio station WSBC.
On Dec. 6, 1953, Cardinal Stritch presided at the centennial of St. Francis of Assisi Church. Between 1954 and 1976, the following priests guided this national parish: Rev. Manuel Jimenez, CMF, pastor, 1954-1960; Rev. Raymond Bianchi, CMF, pastor 1960-1966; Rev. Walter Mischke, CMF, administrator, 1966-1969; and Rev. Peter Rodriguez, CMF, administrator, 1969-1976.
In 1965, St. Francis of Assisi school was closed and the building was subsequently razed. In 1966, the University , of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus opened in the area just north of Roosevelt rd. Construction of this campus displaced many residents in the Taylor-Halsted St. neighborhood.
Rev. Thomas Paramo, CMF, has been administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Church since October 1976. Rev. Jose Gallego, CMF, and Rev. Raoul Lazaro, CMF, are associate pastors. Five permanent deacons—Benito Centeno-Soto, Zeferino Ochoa, Manuel Rodriguez, Arturo Velasco, and Jose Munoz—have been ordained from the parish.
The 125th anniversary of the founding of St. Francis of Assisi parish was celebrated on July 16, 1978. Music was provided by the chorus and mariachi of St. Vitus Church at 18th pl. and Paulina st.
St. Francis of Assisi Church continues to serve the needs of Spanish-speaking Catholics through such programs as legal aid, GED, and English language classes. Although many parishioners no longer live in the immediate neighborhood, they return to the church on Roosevelt rd. for Mass and for special celebrations such as the annual Mexican fiesta. Since 1929, more than 83 Claretian priests and brothers have assisted at this parish. For the most part, these men came from diverse cultural backgrounds. Although some were born in Mexico and the United States, others who served the parish had been born in Spain, Chile, Colombia, Germany, and Italy. The Sisters of St. Francis from Joliet, IL., staffed St. Francis of Assisi school for nearly 100 years.