St Mel Holy Ghost History     

From St. Mel’s Grade School Centennial book  1886-1986


St. Mel Church


Originally, the parish of St. Mel, as well as many of its adjacent parishes, were a portion of Our Lady of Sorrows parish.  The original name of the parish was called St. Philip’s.

 People began settling this outlying area of Chicago when a car shop called North-Western opened on Kinzie Street between what is now Pulaski (then called Fortieth Street) and what is now called Kenton (then called Forty-sixth Street). 

 To minister to the spiritual needs of these people, the Servite Fathers offered Mass services in the old Tilton School building, Lake Street and Kilbourne (then called Forty-fourth Street).

 Not long after, on July 28, 1878, the Right Reverend Thomas Foley, Administrator of the Diocese, laid the cornerstone of  St. Philip’s Church at the corner of Park* and Keeler (then called Forty-second Street).  Five years later, the Servite Fathers resigned their jurisdiction, making way for the appointed Diocesan pastor, Reverend P.J. McDonnell.

 When Reverend McDonnell arrived, the land was a beautiful expanse of prairie, dotted with a very limited number of homes.  150 families were served by this new parish which covered a huge expanse of territory:  from Homan Avenue to the east, Melrose Park to the west,  Roosevelt Road (then called 12th Street) to the south, and North Avenue to the north.  All of this expanse was prairie.

 In September 1886, St. Philip’s Parochial School opened, and the teachers were of the order Sisters of Providence, from St. Mary’s, Indiana.  Upon their arrival, the Sisters made their home at a rented house on Park Avenue.*  A few years later, they moved to a house somewhere on Keeler.

 Before long, it was clear that the city’s population was growing at an extraordinary rate.  The little brick church would not be able to serve the numbers of people moving into the prairie.  A new site was sought and would have been at the corner of Monroe Street and Kildare Avenue (then Forty-third Avenue) but not enough property could be secured.  For that reason, the planners decided to purchase property on Kildare Avenue and Washington Boulevard.  In 1895, the basement of that church was built.  On May 3, 1896, it was dedicated as St. Mel’s Church, and the old name, St. Philip’s, became officially extinct.

 *Research must be done to learn what is the current name for Park Avenue.

 One year later, in 1897, four additional lots on Washington Boulevard were purchased and in the fall of 1898, construction of the Rectory began.  Martin Carr was the architect for that as well as for the basement of the new church.

 In 1902, another lot was purchased on Washington Boulevard and in 1907, the southeast corner of Kildare Avenue and Washington Boulevard was purchased.  St. Mel’s Convent was erected there.

The community had generously donated funds through these years in the hope of completing the rest of the church.  However, it was clear that the original frame school building on Park Avenue was insufficient to cope with the educational needs of the parish.  Agonizing over where to place the funds – toward the completion of the church or the replacement of the school, the school contribution choice won. 

 In 1906, ground was broken for St. Mel’s Parochial School.  It was completed one year later.  Archbishop Quigley solemnly blessed the new school.  It was semi-fireproof throughout with every valuable convenience known to science.  It was capable of accommodating over 1300 pupils.

 In 1907, the entire church property on Park Avenue was sold to the Chicago Board of Education. 

The next improvement began on April 14, 1908 when ground was broken to erect St. Mel’s Convent.  The sisters moved in that November.  It was the first parochial convent building in the Midwest to provide separate rooms for each member of the community. 

 On June 19, 1910, Archbishop Quigley laid the cornerstone of the new church, anticipating the completion of the rest of the church which was a Romanesque style of architecture, richly furnished with the best Carrara marble of Italy.  The Daprato Statuary Company furnished the marble and the Stations of the Cross.   The church was built to accommodate 1250 people.  Its acoustical design was considered excellent.  The architect of this portion of the church was Charles I. Wallace of Joliet, Illinois.

The parish leaders long wanted a high school for boys, but Archbishop Quigley vigorously opposed the idea because he deemed the challenge of finding teachers too great.  However, when Archbishop Quigley was replaced by Archbishop Mundelein, the idea had found a supporter.

 The property at the corner of Madison Street and Kildare Avenue was purchased in 1912.  The property for the Brothers’ Home, where the high school teachers would live, was purchased in 1917. The Christian Brothers teaching order accepted the request to teach the parish’s high school boys.

  St. Mel High School had 26 classrooms, a lunch room, an assembly hall, a well-equipped gymnasium, a locker room, and a shower room.  The architects for the school were Gustave F. Steinback of New York and William F. Gubbins of Chicago.

In 1925,  Monsignor McDonnell finished construction of a second grammar school in St. Mel Parish, at 4322 W. Madison Street.  Inscribed in stone over the entrance were the words “Morals” and “Culture”.  1,370 children were enrolled under the direction of 28 Sisters of Providence.  At the same time, 480 boys were enrolled in St. Mel’s High School.

 In June 1928, the Sisters of Providence announced plans to relocate Providence High School to a new building to be constructed at the southeast corner of Monroe Street and Central Park Boulevard, overlooking Garfield Park.  This all girls’ institution was first established in 1887 in Our Lady of Sorrows parish.  Cardinal Mundelein dedicated it on May 12, 1929.

 On June 22, 1930, Monsignor McDonnell celebrated the50th anniversary of his ordination.  St. Mel parish then numbered more than 2,000 families, making it one of the largest Irish parishes in the diocese.

 In the summer of 1930, the old rectory at 22 N. Kildare, was torn down.  Charles L. Wallace drew up plans for a five-story building on the same location. 

 Monsignor McDonnell died on March 13, 1931 at the age of 77.  He had served as pastor of St. Mel parish for 58 years.   On March 28, 1931, Rt. Rev. Msgr. Francis A. Purcell succeeded Msgr. McDonnell as pastor of St. Mel Church. 

 In the 1930’s, Russian Jews from North Lawndale and the near west side began to move into the West Garfield Park neighborhood.  Still, the Irish remained the largest foreign-stock group in the community.

 In 1938, Msgr. Purcell was named administrator of Holy Ghost parish,.  In 1941, a decision was made to consolidate the two parishes.  In March 1941, construction of a combination church-school building at the southeast corner of Adams and Kildare had begun.   The pupils of the new St. Mel Holy Ghost School would be residents of homes south of Madison Street in the grades first through fifth.  In later years, the former rectory of Holy Ghost parish at 211 S. Kildare, would be used by the Sisters of Providence who taught at that school.

In 1945, a book was written to support contributions to a parish subscription fund drive.  The book was called A Pictorial Tour of St. Mel-Holy Ghost Parish.  It provides fascinating information:  “At St. Mel Church, in the Shrine Chapel and at Holy Ghost Chapel, there are 14 Masses on Sundays, beginning at 5:00 a.m. and continuing until 12:00 noon.  Six Masses of devotion are celebrated each week day at St. Mel Church and two at Holy Ghost Chapel… The (number of students) receiving a Catholic education is almost staggering.  Approximately 1800 students are enrolled in the grammar school and 1500 in the high school.  Arrangements are made so children of kindergarten and lower grades may attend schools near their homes with Madison Street as the line of division.  … Something comparatively new in our educational facilities is the kindergarten at St. Mel and Holy Ghost Schools.  They try to develop in the little tots the faculty for working and playing with others as well as preparing them for first grade work.  There are periods of play, prayer, and religious instruction, singing, work preparatory to arithmetic and reading, and supervised games to introduce the fledgling students to the rudiments of reasoning.   … The social life at St. Mel-Holy Ghost has as its scene the parish halls and gymnasiums.  They are the converging points for young and old.  They are used for parish social events, the meetings of the societies and athletic contests.  Gatherings of this sort foster a closely-knit parish spirit as well as a supply of wholesome recreation for its youth under the direction of the priest moderators.”

 St. Mel Holy-Ghost parish continued to increase in membership in the years following World War II.  On August 22, 1947, the Catholic newspaper, The New World, reported that the parish school will accommodate approximately 150 more pupils this year owing to the conversion of an auditorium into seven new classrooms. 

 In 1954, a program for the deaf was established in St. Mel School in cooperation with Catholic Charities.  The first graduates of this program received their grammar school diplomas in 1962.

 In 1959, Msgr. Purcell was named Pastor Emeritus.  He died on March 3, 1963 at the age of 91.  In November 1959, Most Reverend Raymond P. Hillinger was named pastor of St. Mel-Holy Ghost Church. 

 In the 1960s, several parishes on the west side of Chicago underwent racial change from white to black communities.  In 1960, the West Garfield Park Community Area was 15.8% Black and 2.2% Puerto Rican.  Of the 14,590 housing units in the neighborhood, 80% were rental units.  The stability of the community was at risk.

 On May 1, 1960, after a five-week enthusiastic campaign among parishioners, men of the parish assembled on a Sunday afternoon in St. Mel Church.  They were there for final directions and instructions before going out into the parish to visit each family.  Each wage-earner in the parish was to be asked to pledge a weekly or monthly contribution to a fund which would make it possible to construct a new parish building called Purcell Hall.

 The perceived need for a gymnasium-auditorium was the inspiration for this new building idea.  Hillinger believed that parish social life was made increasingly difficult for lack of space.  Any large gatherings (dances, card parties, breakfasts, lectures, meetings) required hall rental.  Any indoor athletic event for school children was impossible without renting gymnasium space. 

 On April 10, 1961, there was a fire in St. Mel’s Shrine Chapel.  No one knows how it started.  It was discovered at 8:00 a.m. and was quickly extinguished.  However, for the next six months, Mass was celebrated in Sodality Hall and the high school gymnasium.  Damage to the basement chapel and to the church was so great that extensive remodeling and redecoration had to be done.  Insurance payments, parishioners’ contributions, and donations from local businesses paid for the recovery expense.

 In September 1961, ground for a new community center was broken at the northwest corner of Washington Boulevard and Kildare Avenue.  This modern brick and steel structure, designed by the architectural firm of Gaul & Voosen, was dedicated by Albert Cardinal Meyer on September 8, 1962. 

 Between 1962 and 1963, St. Mel-Holy Ghost parish underwent rapid racial change.  As white families moved away from the West Garfield Park neighborhood, enrollment in the parish grammar school declined from a record 1,919 students in 1961 to 1,067 in 1966.  For a short time, a number of Spanish-speaking families belonged to the parish.  The Holy Ghost School building at 4237 W. Adams Street was sold to the Chicago Board of Education and reopened as Nathan Goldblatt School in September 1965.

 Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., violence erupted in the East Garfield Park area on April 5, 1968.  Many buildings in the business district along Madison Street were damaged by fires.  Hundreds of families in the neighborhood around Garfield Park lost their homes.

 On May 9, 1968, the golden jubilee of St. Mel High School was celebrated.  On June 21, 1968, The New World announced that Providence and St. Mel High Schools would reopen in the fall as a single institution under the name Providence-St. Mel.    It lasted 10 years.  It closed in 1978, reporting that repairs to rehabilitate the 50-year-old structure would cost nearly $200,000.   The priests called a special Priests’ Senate to vote for fund-raising action to save this last Catholic high school on the city’s west side, but they were unable to win support from the Archdiocese.  Much bitterness was caused over the Archdiocese’s termination of its support for the school. 

 Bishop Hillinger was named pastor emeritus of the parish on November 15, 1968.  He died on November 13, 1971 after a prolonged illness.

 On Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1969, representatives of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and area priests celebrated a special Mass at St. Mel-Holy Ghost Church.  More than 1,000 members of 10 parishes in the Lawndale-Garfield area attended.


Holy Ghost Church


On September 18, 1896, Archbishop Patrick Feehan appointed Reverend Joseph Wanner to organize Holy Ghost Church for German Catholics who had settled in the neighborhood west of Garfield Park.  For nearly two years, he celebrated Mass in a store at the corner of Lake Street and Kildare Avenue.

In 1898, a combination church-school structure was erected at 4341 W. Adams Street, according to the plans of architect Henry J. Schlacks.  Living quarters were provided in the building for Rev. Wanner.  The Sisters of St. Agnes from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, opened Holy Ghost School in 1898.  They took up residence at 4227 W. Adams Street.

 In 1904, Father Wanner resigned, and Father William G. Faber replaced him as pastor.  Father Faber directed the construction of a brick rectory at 211 S. Kildare Avenue in October 1909. 

 Until 1920, there were 300 families and an enrollment of 200 children at Holy Ghost School.  At the SundayMasses, there was an attendance of about 2,500 people.  Holy Ghost Parish celebrated its silver jubilee on June 11, 1922. 

 In 1965, Holy Ghost Chapel and School closed for financial reasons.