JEFFERSON PARK — After 115 years, the oldest Catholic parish on the Far Northwest Side will hold its last Mass this weekend — but neighbors hope it won’t be the last time they’ll be inside the historical building.
The Our Lady of Victory Church, 5212 W. Agatite Ave., which was founded in 1906 and has been home to Irish, Polish and German congregations, will close Sunday as part of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Renew My Church plan. Restructuring planned for the Northwest Side will group eight churches and schools into three new parishes.
While the archdiocese has no immediate plans for the building, it mentioned options for selling the property when it announced the closing last year. This sent parishioners and community members into a panic, as they want to make sure the building is preserved and stays a neighborhood asset.
Susanna Ernst, president of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society and an Our Lady of Victory parishioner, said the church’s architectural significance, community outreach and growth in the 1920s to ’50s make it important to the area.
“We have very, very few significant buildings in the area,” said Ernst, a longtime Jefferson Park resident who got married at the church. “We don’t want to see this building have a question mark on it, because it’s one of the few [historical] things we have left here.”
In March, Ernst helped found a campaign called Save OLV to bring attention to the closure. The group is gathering input on what neighbors want to see housed in the building. The group — made up of the society’s board members, Preservation Chicago and Our Lady of Victory alumni and parishioners — appealed the closing to the Archdiocese of Chicago via Canon Law. Their bid was denied.
The group then appealed to the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican in April, stating the church was solvent, had no debt and had active parishioners paying the bills. The Vatican agreed but said the decision still lay in the hands of the archdiocese, Ernst said.
After Sunday, the parish will no longer hold services but the building won’t immediately close. The group also appealed to the Vatican to not officially close the building itself and are waiting for a response.
While their efforts to save the parish were not successful, Save OLV’s members now want the building to remain in the community and be of service in some way.
Local aldermen and state representatives have joined in on the awareness effort, Ernst said. Earlier this year, Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) named North Laramie Avenue from West Agatite to West Sunnyside avenues as Honorary Our Lady of Victory Way.
“A lot of people want to see it as a Catholic space moving forward [or] as a sacred space for any religion … [or] any particular use that would enable that building to survive and be a legacy for our community and a vestige of our past,” Ernst said.
Archdiocese spokesperson Susan Thomas would only say “options are being explored for the property.”
‘This is Our History’
The Our Lady of Victory parish was formed in 1906, and the three-story church and school were built in 1910. They welcomed an influx of newcomers to the Far Northwest Side, mostly Irish, Poles and Germans. In 1927, the church added buildings on the side of the original structure to fit its growing parish: a convent, a rectory, two open courtyards and a grotto, according to Preservation Chicago.
In the early ’50s, architectural firm Meyer and Cook was commissioned to design the upper church of Our Lady of Victory in a Spanish Mission Revival style, creating arched windows, doors and arcades that are rare for the city, Ernst said. The Northwest Chicago Historical Society thinks it’s the only church with an asymmetrical steeple design in Chicago.
“This is our history, our architecture. This is ours,” Ernst said. “It belongs to the community. And when you take this away from us, you don’t just take it away from Catholics — you take it away from every single person.”
Ken Leja, a Forest Glen resident who was born in Jefferson Park and frequently passes the old church, is not religious but said the church elevated the community and was an integral part of the neighborhood. In addition to its architectural beauty, the church’s outreach work, like acting as a food pantry and offering items to residents in need, was beneficial, Leja said.
“That church satisfies everyone,” Leja said. “I am going to be sad that it [will] close. … Churches are anchors that keep the community healthy and active.”
Leja wants to see those services return to the space to fill the hole the church will leave, he said.
Preservation Chicago added the church to its list of 2021 endangered buildings and recommended it be repurposed as another religious space, an event venue or as housing.
“The community needs permanent, affordable housing, and its proximity to the second-largest transit center in Chicago makes it an ideal location,” according to the organization.
To honor the efforts of Save OLV and to pay homage to its parishioners and church, Lake Effect Brewing Company in Old Irving Park released a beer Tuesday called Our Lady of Victory Ale, a German Kölsch inspired by the cultures prominent in the parish.
The beer’s launch party, held at The Windsor Tavern and Grill, 4530 N. Milwaukee Ave., brought a full house of guests to enjoy the brew, share memories of the parish and learn more about efforts to save the building.
The beer is meant to “bring people together to start a conversation” about the church, said Clint Bautz, Lake Effect’s owner and brewer. He lives near Our Lady of Victory and often sits in its garden.
Paul Martin bought a couple of six-packs at the party to bring back to his family. He and his five siblings attended Our Lady of Victory’s school and were members of the parish for more than 50 years. For the lifelong Jefferson Park resident, the church closing has filled him with anger.
“It sucks, and I don’t like the Catholic religion no more because of this,” Martin said. “I was part of that church my whole life, 57 years. The best neighborhood you could grow up in was Our Lady of Victory, no doubt about it. Every one of my friends still say that to this day. It was beautiful.”
Martin plans to attend the final Sunday Mass. He said he’s sad the church is gone and its namesake beer made him feel a little emotional.
“This is for my family who all went to the school,” he said, pointing to the cans of beer on the bar. “I am going to whip it out at Thanksgiving dinner with all my family there and we will all have a beer. That means a lot to me.”
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