BACK TO THE LIST
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
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
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
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
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.
Rev. Francis M. Wojtalewicz began his 47 year pastorate at Immaculate
Conception Church. He had been assigned to this parish following his
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
9, 1902 which permitted Polish members of the School Sisters of St. Francis
to separate from the predominantly German community. Through the intervention
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
occurred in 1928, when St. Bronislava Church was established at 87th and
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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: . .
a small number
would understand the English sermons. It would be a disadvantage to those
who could not understand. If they really want English sermons then let
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.
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
From "A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese
of Chicago" - 1980
Reprinted with the permission
of the Chicago Archdiocese.