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AVONDALE — The leaders of a historical Avondale church are asking parishioners, neighbors and fans for help preserving the aging structure.
St. Hyacinth Basilica, 3635 W. George St., is more than 100 years old. It was built thanks to fundraising among Avondale’s Polish enclave, which grew considerably during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said Kate Wietrzak, the church’s financial secretary.
In 2003, Pope John Paul II designated the church a basilica, an honor given to buildings with unique historical, artistic or religious importance that hold services for their communities, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Due to its age, the church requires ongoing and expensive maintenance, Wietrzak said. But with a dwindling congregation — the church’s school closed in 2014 — plus more recent challenges like pandemic disruptions and inflation, upkeep has proved difficult.
The restoration of the church’s largest tower took two years to complete and cost $120,000, some of which has come out of the church’s savings account, Wietrzak said.
“The greatest challenge is that the building is really old. Whenever contractors come in to fix something, they always find something else that is crumbling or falling apart,” she said. “It’s not just the towers; it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to help preserve the church.”
The history of St. Hyacinth Church can be traced to the influx of Polish immigrants to Chicago in the late 1880s, after Poland was conquered and divided between the Russian, Prussian and the Austro-Hungarian empires.
Many of the Polish immigrants settled in the Avondale area, which was on the outskirts of Chicago at the time, according to city and church records. (Avondale was annexed by Chicago in 1889.)
The area’s Polish population continued to grow, and by 1884, St. Stanislaus Kostka, the city’s first Polish parish in Noble Square, could no longer accommodate the number of worshipers attending regular services. Parishioners sought land to open what would eventually become St. Hyacinth Basilica, Wietrzak said.
“The parish started in a small wooden church … a few streets away from here near Milwaukee and Central Park avenues,” she said. “It was built by the Polish immigrants who came here and tried to find lives for themselves.”
By 1905, the parish had more than 600 families and had outgrown the wooden structure. Church leaders built a temporary brick building and hired architects Henry W. Worthmann and John G. Steinbach to design a larger, more permanent structure at 3635 W. George St., Wietrzak said.
On April 30, 1917, Father John Zdechlik blessed the ground the church would be built on, according to records.
On Aug. 7, 1921, what is now St. Hyacinth Basilica opened for worship for the first time, records show.
Worthmann and Steinbach’s architectural firm designed the church exterior in the neoclassical style, evoking the great religious structures of Rome.
The interior has Baroque elements showcasing art that depicts Biblical scenes. A 3,000-square-foot mural features saints and members of the church community who helped fund the construction of the church, records show. The church’s patron saint, St. Hyacinth, is the subject of a large mural at the main altar in the church.
“Worthmann and Steinbach were really prominent ecclesiastical architects that did quite a few really tremendous buildings,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.
Other churches the duo designed include St. Mary of the Angels in Bucktown and the now-closed St. Michael the Archangel in South Chicago, Miller said.
“St. Hyacinth Basilica is one of those great, cathedral-type buildings by [that] very prolific firm. The Chicago Historic Resources Survey has at least 61 buildings throughout the city that they designed that are ‘orange rated,’” he said.
The 1995 survey was conducted by the city officials to help identify buildings of historical and architectural significance. St. Hyacinth Basilica’s orange rating denotes an “architectural feature or historical association that made them potentially significant in the context of the surrounding community,” according to the survey.
While St. Hyacinth Basilica doesn’t have landmark status, it’s important to the Polish community, Wietrzak said.
“It’s just a beautiful church, definitely very unique, and people come from all over the country on pilgrimages to see it. It’s very special for Polish people and people in Poland to know about it, too,” Wietrzak said.
For example, the church hosted a Christmas Eve concert last year that was broadcast overseas, and when Polish dignitaries visit Chicago, St. Hyacinth is one of the places they always visit, Wietrzak said.
Despite the ongoing maintenance that the century-old building demands, Wietrzak is hopeful that fans of the church’s architecture and history will help support its preservation for years to come, she said.
Neighbors who want to help maintain the church property can donate on the St. Hyacinth website.
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