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St. Fidelis Church at 1405 N. Washtenaw Ave. on the northwest side of Chicago was founded in 1926 by George Cardinal Mundelein to serve Polish Catholics who had settled just east of Humboldt Park. Although the national parish of St. Helen had been established nearby at Augusta and Oakley Blvd. in 1913, the Polish population of the area soon necessitated the organization of another national parish.

Cardinal Mundelein appointed Rev. John F. Zelezinski, a former assistant at St. Mary of Perpetual Help Church, to organize St. Fidelis parish in the territory bounded by Bloomingdale Ave. on the north; Division St. on the south; Kedzie Ave. on the west; and Western Ave. on the eaSt. To provide for the needs of the new parish, the Archdiocese had acquired the former St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church at the northwest corner of Hirsch St. and Washtenaw Ave. The $77,000 purchase price included the Gothic church and a parsonage at 1406 N. Washtenaw Ave. which became the parish rectory. Father Zelezinski celebrated Mass in the former Lutheran church for the first time on Sept. 26, 1926. With the generous support of his parishioners, he was able to enlarge the church and to install three marble altars. Cardinal Mundelein blessed St. Fidelis Church on Apr. 24, 1927 and in its account of the ceremony The New World noted that: "The neighborhood, which was practically all Jewish and people of the Lithuanian religion [sic], is rapidly growing into a Catholic community, ninety per cent Polish."

Because the neighborhood had already been built up with brick apartment buildings, no vacant lots existed on which to construct a new parish plant. For nearly 30 years after its organization, St. Fidelis parish was housed exclusively in turn-of-the-century buildings.

In September 1927, the Polish Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis from Stevens Point, Wis. opened St. Fidelis school in a building which was located one half block south of the church. The Sisters resided in part of this building for many years. In 1928, 10 classrooms were provided after Father Zelezinski acquired three apartment buildings across the street from the church, along with a soda factory which housed the heating plant for the school. The last piece of property acquired by the pastor was an apartment building on Washtenaw Ave. which was remodeled as a social center in 1936.

Within a decade, the membership of St. Fidelis parish grew from 150 to 1,000 families and the Sunday schedule of Masses increased from two to eight. By the time of the parish's 10th anniversary which was celebrated on Sept. 27, 1936, two of the Sunday Masses had been set aside for English-speaking members of the congregation.

On June 4, 1939, Father Zelezinski was invested as a Papal Chamberlain with the title Very Reverend Monsignor. The day marked the 25th anniversary of his ordination.

Throughout the 1940s, St. Fidelis remained a tightly knit Polish parish. While the original members of this parish were predominantly blue collar workers, their children became businessmen and professionals. The effects of the post-war population boom, coupled with the resettlement of Polish refugees, was keenly felt in the parish and the increasing membership, as recorded in the baptismal and marriage registers, taxed parish facilities.

In 1946, Msgr. Zelezinski was named a Domestic Prelate with the title Right Reverend Monsignor. Although he saw the need to improve and expand the parish plant he died before he could carry out this task. At the time of Msgr. Zelezinski's death on Sept. 26, 1957, the parish membership numbered 2,200 families.

Rev. Francis E. Ploszek, former pastor of Transfiguration Church, was named pastor on Nov. 7, 1957. Under his leadership, the present parish complex took shape.

On Mar. 25, 1958, ground was broken at 1405 N. Washtenaw Ave. for a new school building with accommodations for 1,000 students in 21 classrooms. The church was refurbished, and an apartment building at 2650 W. Hirsch St. was remodeled into a convent. As part of the renovation program, the rectory at 1406 N. Washtenaw Ave. was refurbished and a former classroom building was converted into a parish office. Albert Cardinal Meyer dedicated the new school and blessed the convent and rectory on Apr. 24, 1960.

Over the years, English remained the second language spoken by the Bohemians, Germans, Hungarians, Jews, and Poles who had made their home in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. However the latest newcomers to the area-Spanish-speaking families from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South America-were not welcome into the community. In the 1960s, many members of St. Fidelis parish moved away from Humboldt Park and the congregation then became predominantly Spanish-speaking with a number of elderly Polish parishioners who either could not afford to move or who did not wish to leave the parish. Absentee landlords and the accompanying decline in property values threatened the future of the neighborhood. As workers relocated with their businesses and factories, the parish membership was further diminished-and with it parish revenues.

When St. Fidelis Church had to be demolished in 1968 for reasons of safety, the congregation could not afford to build a new structure. Since then, Mass has been celebrated in the school cafeteria which now serves as the parish church.

Named pastor emeritus in 1968, Father Ploszek now resides in Antioch, IL On Nov. 15, 1968, Rev. Marion A. Matlak, former assistant at Our Lady of Victory Church, was named pastor of St. Fidelis Church. In order to meet the needs of the newest members of the parish he secured the services of Rev. Luis Flores, OSM and his associates at El Centro Priory at Division St. and Washtenaw Ave. who were fluent in Spanish. Father Matlak organized a Parish Council and when the number of religious teachers declined, he requested a subsidy from the Archdiocese of Chicago to hire lay teachers.

Following Father Matlak's appointment as pastor of St. Cornelius Church in January 1974, Rev. Joseph L. Fitzharris served as administrator until Mar. 6, 1974 when Rev. Joseph P. Grembla was named pastor. Father Grembla, who came to the parish from nearby St. Helen Church, is fluent in English, Polish, and Spanish and under his leadership, the many factions in St. Fidelis parish have begun to work with and for each other.

In the summer of 1976, many parishioners suffered enormous losses when their homes were destroyed by fires which had been set by arsonists. With the cooperation of homeowners and apartment dwellers in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, the parish staff of St. Fidelis continues to combat housing decay and to discourage the work of arsonists in the area. As subsequent arson investigations have shown, the problem continues because absentee landlords can actually make money when their buildings go "up in smoke."

A number of former parishioners returned to St. Fidelis Church on Sept. 26, 1976 to participate in the golden jubilee anniversary. Following the Mass, a reception was held in the parish hail. The 50th anniversary celebration concluded with a parish dinner on Oct. 3, 1976 at the Regency Inn, 5319 W. Diversey Ave.

From 1973 to 1977, Sister Lucila and Sister Maria, Missionary Sisters of St. Therese from Mexico City, worked among the Spanish-speaking families of St. Fidelis parish. In June 1974, Sister Edna Kazek and Sister Virgiose Ozog, Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, became members of the parish team and they have been joined in recent years by Sister Christine Ryan, OP. Like other members of the pastoral team who can speak at least two languages, associate pastor, Rev. John W. Hurley is fluent in Spanish. Rev. Anthony Stefaniak, a Polish-born priest, is in residence at St. Fidelis Church. He served as associate pastor from 1956 until May 29, 1974 when he was named associate pastor emeritus, Rev. Luis Flores, OSM has assisted at the parish on a part time basis since January 1971. Three permanent deacons-Juan Lopez, Julio Martinez, and Jose Viruet-have been ordained from St. Fidelis Church. Members of the pastoral team also serve the spiritual needs of patients at Norwegian American hospital at Cortez St. and Francisco Ave.

Active parish organizations include the Parish Council, School Board, Block Clubs, Golden Age Club, Hermanos and Damas, Zwiazek Dusz, the Apostleship of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Name Society, Ushers Club, Rosary Ladies, Third Order of St. Francis, and a group which makes home visits.

In 1978, 260 children were enrolled in St. Fidelis school under the direction of three Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis and seven lay teachers.

From "A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago" - 1980

Reprinted with the permission of the Chicago Archdiocese.

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