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Immaculate Conception Church at 88th and Commercial Ave. was organized as a national parish in 1882 to serve Polish families in South Chicago. As a result of the enormous growth of the Polish popluation in this steel mill district, Immaculate Conception parish was divided three times to form the Polish parishes of St. Michael, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Bronislava. South Chicago remained outside the city limits until 1889, when it was annexed to Chicago.

The work of organizing Immaculate Conception parish was begun by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. On Dec. 19, 1881, members of this group purchased land at the southwest corner of 88th and Houston Ave. On Dec. 26, 1881, Rev. John J. Radziejewski, then an assistant at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, celebrated Mass for the Poles of South Chicago in St. Patrick Church at 95th and Commercial Ave. Early in 1882, Archbishop Patrick A. Feehan appointed Father Radziejewski pastor of Immaculate Conception parish.

A store on 92nd St. between Ontario (Brandon) and Burley Ave. was rented and Mass was celebrated at this location for several months until the structure was destroyed by fire. Polish families then attended Mass in the new German Catholic Church of SS. Peter and Paul on 91st St., just east of Exchange Ave. Parish records indicate that on alternate Sundays, a sermon was preached in Polish.

Father Radziejewski and the parish committee sold the property on Houston Ave. and on June 26, 1882, they purchased 10 lots from the Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock Company at a cost of $7,345. The property was situated on the north side of 88th and Commercial Ave. On Mar. 24, 1884, the parish school was opened under the direction of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word from Houston, TX.

In July 1884, Father Radziejewski was named pastor of St. Adalbert Church and Rev. Michael Pyplacz, a former assistant at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, was appointed pastor of Immaculate Conception Church. Under his direction, the basement of the frame church was converted into classrooms.

The new pastor lived in rented quarters until a coal shed was remodelled as a parish residence. Parish records indicate that this project cost $426.84. In 1885, a larger building on Commercial Ave. was acquired and this two story structure served as parish rectory for the next four years.

In 1885, the Felician Sisters of Detroit, MI were placed in charge of Immaculate Conception school. They took up residence in a two story frame convent which had been constructed on Commercial Ave.

In 1887, $1,407 was expended in order to repair the frame church after it had been weakened during a storm. In that year, a bell tower was erected alongside Immaculate Conception Church at a cost of $465. In 1889, a brick rectory was built at the northeast corner of 88th and Exchange Ave. and a frame building was erected on Exchange Ave. for use as a parish hall. The former priests' residence was purchased by a parishioner; it was later moved to 8736 S. Commercial Ave.

By 1890, Immaculate Conception parish numbered 1,100 families. Polish families continued to settle in such great numbers in the "Bush"-the area bounded by 83rd St., 86th St., the tracks of the South Chicago branch of the Illinois Central railroad, and Lake Michigan-that in 1892, Archbishop Feehan divided the territory of Immaculate Conception parish to form St. Michael Church at 83rd and Bond Ave. (now South Shore Dr.).

At the time Father Pyplacz was named pastor of St. Joseph Church at 48th and Hermitage Ave. in January 1894, the parish debt at Immaculate Conception Church had been reduced from $24,000 to less than $4,000.

Rev. Victor Zalewski (Zaleski), former pastor of St. Joseph Church, succeeded Father Pyplacz at Immaculate Conception parish. In 1894, the School Sisters of St. Francis from Milwaukee, WI, were placed in charge of the parish school.

On May 6, 1894, Immaculate Conception Church was destroyed by fire. On Aug. 31, 1894, members of the parish filed a suit in Circuit Court to prevent Father Zalewski from letting contracts for the erection of a new church until they had been consulted on the matter. On Sept. 8, 1894, The New World reprinted a story about the controversy which had appeared in the Chicago Inter Ocean on Sept. 1. The article quoted Chancellor Rev. Peter J. Muldoon as follows:

Some time since the church was burned. The debris has been cleared away, and with the consent of the Archbishop of Chicago plans were drawn up for a new brick structure by Architect Martin Carr. At present only the basement is to be erected. Bids were asked for, and the most satisfactory were accepted by the pastor, Rev. V. Zaleski, and Architect Carr. Work has already been commenced on the foundation. The pastor is the representative of the Archbishop. There is no committee that has any power to set itself up as representative of the congregation.

The Circuit Court rejected the suit on Nov. 1, 1894 and on Nov. 11, 1894, the cornerstone of Immaculate Conception Church was laid by Archbishop Feehan. For the next four years, Mass was celebrated in the basement of this structure.

In September 1895, Father Zalewski was appointed pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Sobieski Park (now Calumet City), IL. On Sept. 26, 1895, Rev. Francis M. Wojtalewicz began his 47 year pastorate at Immaculate Conception Church. He had been assigned to this parish following his ordination on Dec. 21, 1889. In 1891, Father Wojtalewicz organized St. Mary of Gostyn Church in Downers Grove, IL (now in the Joliet diocese), and from 1892 to 1895, he served as pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Church.

With the generous support of his congregation, Father Wojtalewicz was able to pay off the $1,500 parish debt in 15 months. In 1898, work began on the superstructure of the church. The massive brick edifice, located at the northwest corner of 88th and Commercial Ave., was completed according to the plans of Martin A. Carr. Archbishop Feehan dedicated Immaculate Conception Church on Apr. 23, 1899.

Between 1896 and 1899, enrollment in the parish school increased from 500 to 750 children. According to a history of the parish published in 1957, "Lack of facilities made it impossible to insist on an eight year elementary education. Public examinations were conducted in school in the presence of parents, and children were released as soon as they were able to read and had a sufficient grasp of elementary school subjects."

By 1900, 950 children were enrolled in Immaculate Conception school and the classrooms in the church basement and parish hall were severely overcrowded. William J. Brinkman was commissioned to draw up plans for a new school. To make room for the structure, the parish hall was moved in March 1901 to the southwest corner of 88th and Escanaba Ave. The cornerstone of Immaculate Conception school was laid on May 26, 1901 and the four story brick building, located at 8739 5. Exchange Ave., was dedicated on Nov. 17, 1901. The School auditorium was opened on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1901.

In 1904, the brick rectory was moved from the northeast corner of 88th and Exchange Ave. to 8735 5. Exchange Ave. where it was fitted up as a convent. The Sisters' frame residence was purchased by a parishioner and the building was later moved to 8436 S. Escanaba Ave. The present two story brick rectory, located at 2944 E. 88th St., was completed in 1905 at a cost of nearly $24,000.

In addition to enlarging the parish plant, Father Wojtalewicz established many social and cultural groups. A parish library was founded in 1897 and in 1906, an evening school for adults was organized.

By 1907, 1,120 children were enrolled in the parish school under the direction of 24 School Sisters of St. Francis. A crisis developed when the Sisters were recalled to their Motherhouse in Milwaukee, WI. Twelve sisters on the faculty of Immaculate Conception school announced their decision to become members of the religious order known as the Sisters of St. Joseph. This order was established in Stevens Point, WI., following a decree of the Apostolic Delegate dated Apr. 9, 1902 which permitted Polish members of the School Sisters of St. Francis to separate from the predominantly German community. Through the intervention of the Apostolic Delegate, 12 School Sisters of St. Francis were assigned to Immaculate Conception school to complete the academic year. By the fall of 1907, the Polish Sisters of St. Joseph were in control of the parish school.

In 1910, St. Mary Magdalene Church at 84th and Marquette Ave. was established to serve the increasing number of Polish families who had settled at the northwest end of Immaculate Conception parish. The last division of this national parish occurred in 1928, when St. Bronislava Church was established at 87th and Colfax Ave.

On Mar. 10, 1912, President William H. Taft visited Immaculate Conception school and addressed a crowd of 10,000.

Following the declaration of Polish Independence in 1918, members of Immaculate Conception Church raised $25,000 in the Fund for Poland. In that C year, 146 parishioners died, many of them victims of influenza. Church funeral were temporarily halted, and funeral rites were performed in the homes of the deceased.

By 1925, 1,347 children were enrolled in the parish school. As part of the preparations for the 50th anniversary of the parish, Father Wojtalewicz established a fund for marble altars. However the onset of the Depression made it impossible to raise the necessary $40,000, and the plans were abandoned. However, a new organ was blessed on Mar. 2, 1930.

On June 5, 1932, thousands of Poles gathered in Immaculate Conception Church to celebrate the golden jubilee of the founding of the parish. At the parish banquet, Father Wojtalewicz reflected on the history of the parish, noting that:

For the past 37 years there has never been any bazaar for the benefit of the parish because abusive drinking and gambling does no good for the church. Moreover, neither the church nor school can be maintained by lotteries. The income of the parish was always small, the largest being in 1931 when we had an income of $31,000, and yet the church, school, rectory and convent had been paid for completely already in 1909. Our parish has been partitioned twice at our request because we were not interested in an income. We were interested in giving Catholics a place in a church and in making room for their children in a Catholic school . . .

The pastor went on to explain why he had recently refused a request for English sermons in Immaculate Conception Church: . . . .only a small number of people would understand the English sermons. It would be a disadvantage to those who could not understand. If they really want English sermons then let them go to the Irish. I can not act against my own conscience and our parish will be a Polish parish. If our youth understands more in English than it does in Polish it is their own fault . .

Despite the Depression which deeply affected the steel mill workers in South Chicago, members of Immaculate Conception parish continued to give generously of their money. In 1936, aid was given to the Sisters of St. Joseph who were building Lourdes high school for girls at 4034 W. 56th St. Contributions were also sent to aid the largely Polish parish of St. Turibius in Chicago. Following the invasion of Poland by the Nazis in 1939, members of Immaculate Conception parish contributed their time and money to the Polish Relief Fund.

Father Wojtalewicz died on Apr. 12, 1942 at the age of 81. His successor was Rev. Stanislaus P. Chyla, who had served as an assistant at Immaculate Conception Church following his ordination in 1914. Father Chyla returned to South Chicago from St. Salomea Church at 118th and Indiana Ave. where he had been pastor.

One of the first changes Father Chyla made was to introduce sermons in English. Increasingly, Immaculate Conception became a bilingual parish. In March 1947, the "Youth Journal" was published for the first time. The popular monthly publication was later renamed "The Voice of the Immaculate Conception Parish."
From Aug. 9 to Aug. 12, 1949, Hollywood came to South Chicago. With permission of diocesan authorities, scenes from "Appointment with Danger" were shot in Immaculate Conception Church and on the parish grounds.

On Aug. 18, 1949, Father Chyla was named a Domestic Prelate with the title Righ Reverend Monsignor. He was invested with the robes of a Domestic Prelate on Nov. 13, 1949.

Fire broke out in Immaculate Conception school on Sept. 21, 1951 causing extensive damage to the fourth floor auditorium. This part of the school structure was razed, and the exterior of the building was given a new facade. An auditorium was then constructed in the basement of the church and this hail opened on June 22, 1953.

On Mar. 14, 1956, ground at 8731 S. Exchange Ave. was broken for a new convent. This modern brick building, designed by C. Krajewski, was completed at a cost of $250,000. The Sisters moved into their new quarters on Feb. 22, 1957.

On Dec. 8, 1957, Samuel Cardinal Stritch presided at the diamond jubilee anniversary of the founding of Immaculate Conception Church. As part of the ceremony, he dedicated the new convent.

Msgr. Chyla celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination on Apr. 28, 1963. In June 1964, Rev. Francis J. Lesniak was appointed administrator of Immaculate Conception Church. On Mar. 4, 1966, Msgr. Chyla was named pastor emeritus and Father Lesniak was appointed pastor.

In Decmber 1966, Father Lesniak was named a Domestic Prelate with the title Right Reverend Monsignor. He directed the renovation of Immaculate Conception Church to conform with the liturgical changes handed down by Vatican II. During his pastorate, Msgr. Lesniak served as Vicar Delegate of Region VII and as a member of the Archdiocesan Board of Consultors.

Msgr. Chyla died on Nov. 12, 1968 at the age of 70. Four months later on Mar. 7, 1969, Msgr. Lesniak died. His successor at Immaculate Conception Church was Rev. Henry J. Michalek, who came to South Chicago from Summit, IL., where he had been an assistant at St. Joseph Church.

Beginning in the 1950s, enrollment in Immaculate Conception school declined as Polish families moved out of South Chicago. Between 1960 and 1965, enrollment dropped from 620 to 394 children. By 1972, many Spanish-speaking families had moved into this part of South Chicago replacing Polish families who had left the neighborhood. In June 1976, Father Michalek was named pastor of St. William Church.

Rev. Chester S. Lesniak, a former associate pastor of St. Roman Church, has been pastor of this parish since Aug. 4, 1976. At the time Father Lesniak came to South Chicago, Immaculate Conception parish numbered approximately 1,500 Polish and Spanish families. In 1978, 266 children were enrolled in the school under the direction of three Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis and seven lay teachers.

The boundaries of Immaculate Conception parish are rather indeterminate as it is just one of several national parishes in South Chicago. Over the years, this cluster of parishes included: St. Joseph (Lithuanian) Church, 88th and Saginaw Ave.; St. Bronislava (Polish) Church, 87th and Colfax Ave.; St. Mary Magdalene (Polish) Church, 84th and Marquette Ave.; St. Michael (Polish) Church, 83rd and South Shore dr.; St. John the Baptist (Slovak) Church, 91st and Burley Ave.; Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexican) Church, 91st and Brandon Ave.; and SS. Peter and Paul (German) Church, 91st and Exchange Ave.

Active parish organizations include the School Board, Home and School Association, Mothers' Club, Ladies' Aid, Rosary, Civic Society, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and Holy Name Society. Rev. David A. Nowicki is associate pastor.

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

Reprinted with the permission of the Chicago Archdiocese.

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