St. Ita Parish - The True Story
1. Chicago, 1900
On Saturday, June 23, 1900, Father John H. Crowe, a 36-year-old Irish Catholic curate assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish on the near north side, received a letter. The letter read:
Reverend and dear Sir: Please come to see me Monday morning and oblige
Archbishop of Chicago*
(* Chicago’s first Archbishop, appointed by Pope Leo XIII)
On June 25, Father Crowe obliged. He excitedly left the Archbishop’s study charged with a historic commission “to establish a new congregation at Edgewater, Chicago, and that neighborhood.” Six days later, on July 1, 1900, Father Crowe gathered together his parishioners - 53 families - for the first time, in the old Guild Hall on the corner of Bryn Mawr and Winthrop.
The Guild Hall was the center of community life at the time. Nearby was the Edgewater station of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. Down the street was a post office, at 1203 Bryn Mawr, and a grocery store owned by James McManus whose descendants still live in the parish. Evanston Avenue, now Broadway, was the main street of the community and a street car line was the “latest” in modern transportation.
Parish boundaries extended from Argyle to Devon and from the lake to the Chicago River.
Services were held at the Guild Hall every Sunday until Christmas Day 1900, when mass was said for the first time in the new frame church erected on the corner of Catalpa and Magnolia Avenues. Father Crowe lived in a two-flat at 5510 Magnolia until fall of 1901, when the brick and frame rectory was completed.
St. Ita’s first school opened in the church basement in September 1904, with an enrollment of 65 students. It seemed only natural that the Sisters of Mercy were placed in charge of the school, since four of Father Crowe’s sisters were nuns in that order.
The community and school grew rapidly. On April 2, 1906, ground was broken for a new school building which was ready for occupancy the following September. Only the basement and first story were needed, and therefore built, until the summer of 1909, when the building was completed. That fall, 542 children were enrolled, including 67 in a high school for girls.
The Sisters lived at 5510 Magnolia until New Year’s Day 1909, when they moved into their new convent that housed 17 comfortably. The parish was growing.
Like any dedicated pastor, Father Crowe hoped someday to build a new, bigger, more beautiful church to serve the needs of his growing parish. Like any self-respecting Irishman, he wished to build the church to honor St. Ita, the sixth century abbess who founded a convent and school in Killeedy, County Limerick, not far from Father Crowe’s boyhood home.
In 1923, Father Crowe proposed the new church to Cardinal Mundelein, who approved the plan and suggested the French Gothic architecture. A large “M” appears in the carved stone parapet all around the church, architectural evidence of the great interest the Cardinal took in the building and dating the church to his episcopate.
On September 14, 1924, the Most Rev. Edward F. Hoban, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, blessed and laid the cornerstone for the new church. In it is embedded a black stone from the ruins of the convent St. Ita, founded in Killeedy centuries ago.
The new church, at the corner of Broadway and Catalpa, faces east, includes the site of the old church and took three years to build. It is 186 feet long, 70 feet wide and 95 feet from the sidewalk to the top of the gable. Although the plan of St. Ita’s was influenced by certain features of the famous cathedrals of Chartres and Brou in France, it was, for the most part, the original creation of the architect, Henry J. Schlacks.
The church is built of limestone, quarried at Bedford, Indiana, and its walls are four feet thick. The open, airy tower, with its delicate tracery, Gothic arches, finials and gargoyles, rises to 120 feet. The tower alone, however, contains 1,800 tons of stone and rests on a foundation that extends nine feet below the sidewalk.
As the graceful square tower is the outstanding feature of the church’s exterior, the stained glass windows are the crowning glory of the interior.
The medallion windows, patterned after the cathedral at Chartres, are composed of more than 200,000 separate pieces of glass. The window over the main altar depicts the crucifixion. In the nave on the left is a window that commemorates the life of St. Ita and, on the right, St. Patrick. The magnificent rose window, now framed by the pipes of a four-manual Wicks organ installed in 1951, dominates the back of the church.
Many people today consider stained glass windows in churches purely part of the decorative scheme. Not so. True, they do enhance the beauty of the building, but this effect is secondary to the original purpose of portraying persons and events from Holy Scripture in order to instruct the people - sort of “visual sermons.” The medallions in St. Ita’s windows - too numerous to catalog in this article - depict the history of God’s dealing with man.
The flamboyantly Gothic altars of the church are closely modeled after the high altar of the church at Brou. The main altar, made of Istrian stone carved in Italy, rests on a platform of black Belgian marble. The sanctuary floor is of white Carrara marble and diamond-shaped pieces of yellow marble, called Convent Sienna, because the quarry in which it is found is owned by a convent of Sisters.
The Stations of the Cross are by Max Lanninger of Munich and are copies of the well known paintings of the German artist Feuerstein. The pews in the church are of the same wood as the wainscoting, fumed oak. The borders of the doors leading to the vestibule are richly carved with curious monkeys - a touch of the grotesque in keeping with the truly Gothic.
The church was completed during Holy Week 1927 and used for the first time on Easter Sunday, April 17. His Eminence, the Cardinal, dedicated it the following October.
The outer shell of a new rectory had just been finished when, on August 29, 1930, Father Crowe was fatally struck by a car across the street from the church he had served for 30 years. In September of 1932, Cardinal Mundelein named Msgr. C. Joseph Quille to succeed Father Crowe as pastor. The Monsignor had been superintendent of the Working Boys’ Home since 1906; he was loved and revered throughout the city for his work with young boys. He brought the parish through the worst of the Depression but succumbed to ill health in March 1942.
Two months later, Father (later Monsignor) Gerard C. Picard was appointed pastor and St. Ita’s began a new period of growth. The south wing of the school was erected in 1949 to hold an auditorium and a kindergarten. A 4500-pipe organ, one of the finest in the city, was installed in the church in 1951. A new convent was completed in 1955. The old convent was razed and a north wing was added to the school. In the late 1950s, the old school was completely remodeled. The building, originally red brick, received a new stone exterior to match the church and the new wings. The third floor of the old building was also removed.
Msgr. Picard was very much a “people” priest. He worked with the St. Vincent de Paul Society to aid the poor of the parish and encouraged the creation of Cub Scout, Brownie, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. An Altar and Rosary Society flourished and a Mothers’ Club was organized in 1950. An athletic program for the school children was started. In 1966, a mass in Spanish was added for the benefit of the large number of Cuban families who had settled in the parish.
In May 1968, Msgr. Picard was named Pastor Emeritus of St. Ita. Father Raymond J. Morrison was appointed in his stead to further the work of community outreach in the spirit of Vatican II.
Parish activities multiplied. Nursing Home Visitors and a Happy Days Club were formed for senior citizens. Some of the women started a Ladies Social Club. A Teen Club, a Young Adults group and a Boosters’ Club were launched. CCD classes grew and other religious programs were added. The basement of the church was transformed into Jubilee Hall, the scene of many memorable dances, International Nights, bazaars and Wednesday night Bingo.
The church was redecorated in time for the parish’s 75th anniversary. New lighting and kneelers were installed and glass doors erected in the front of the church to cut down on noise and dirt. Among other things, a beautiful shrine to Our Lady of Cobre was added at the back of the church.
In 1976, Father Richard J. Feller became pastor of St. Ita; in September 1988, the Rev. Laurence F. Maddock assumed that position. The 15 years since St. Ita’s diamond anniversary have brought many additional changes. We look forward to reading about them in the commemorative booklet now being prepared by parishioners.
2. Chicago, 1990
The first thing one notices upon looking at the Church of St. Ita is its cathedral-like massive facade, towering toward the heavens very much like similar edifices in Europe. Its architect, Henry John Schlacks, did indeed travel as a young man, rather extensively, across the European countries, primarily in Germany and France.
This is the same master builder who, at age 27, designed the Church of St. Martin at 59th and Princeton.
In his French and Germanic wanderings, Schlacks did many meticulous sketches of decorative details of existing structures. As the designer/builder of such notable Chicago churches as St. Henry, St. Ignatius (Rogers Park) and St. Mary of the Lake (Uptown), Schlacks knew pretty well what he was doing when it came to St. Ita’s.
It is interesting to note that none of Schlacks’ 17 churches around town repeat or copy each other. Each is a total entity unto itself, so extensive was his knowledge of his art.
St. Ita was constructed in the French Gothic style and it originally stood on open land. The years and buildings have closed in on St. Ita but, if you stand across the street on the southeast corner, you can easily “block out” the surroundings and visualize how magnificent the church must have looked back in 1927. It is meant to sit in a park with floral gardens, with trees and shrubs surrounding it. Progress always has a price. Beauty is too often sacrificed for convenience, and convenience is not always the answer to man’s needs.
One of the best times to see the church’s interior at its finest is on every fifth Sunday during the 3:00 p.m. organ recital. The stained glass windows are superb at any time of the day but, being predominantly in blue tones, they are more golden in the morning. The ethereal, mystical quality of the glass is revealed more so in the afternoon when blue, red and purple-magenta tones abound, thus enhancing the architectural forms of the interior.
During the concert, sitting near the center back, all the subdued shades mix and blend. A slight squinting of the eyes allows one to almost merge with those shapes and colors around him, and you get a good idea of the architect’s original intent - reverence.
Of all the churches that Schlacks designed, St. Ita was his pet. He designed its entirety, watching it grow day by day, and stood proudly by at its dedication. Others were usually employed for detail work, but he personally supervised the wonderful carved woodwork and sketched oil on the Stations of the Cross. He also helped assemble the thousands of pieces of stained glass, executed by the famous firm of Maumejean Freres in France, into the 2800 square feet of window space. The medallion themes were personally chosen by George Cardinal Mundelein and himself.
Once the style of architecture was decided by the Cardinal, Schlacks was off on a masterpiece of American ecclesiastical building. At one point in the venture, it was said that the two - Cardinal and builder - had a quarrel of some sort and commissions from the Archdiocese were few after that. But genius prevailed at St. Ita.
When Henry Schlacks died, his funeral was held in his parish church, St. Mary of the Lake, also of his design. He and his wife Margaret lie buried in St. Boniface Cemetery at Clark and Lawrence Avenues.
St. Ita stands today as a spectacular monument to a man’s artistic genius. It has survived in a nearly original state except for the pink and blue ceiling. The ceiling was formerly grey, a color that retained the look of stone on the inside of the church.
Despite this trivial note, St. Ita still inspires, still impresses one from every angle, from afar or up close. Most importantly, this graceful lady still stands with her huge tower reaching heavenward like a solitary finger pointing in the direction that man should cast his eyes and his heart. Such was the intention of the architect and, these many years and anniversaries later, St. Ita still accomplishes her mission. And she is still the most beautiful building the entire length of Broadway Avenue.
The people of Edgewater and our historical society proudly salute St. Ita on yet another milestone in her illustrious career. Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of her beholder!