The story of St. Benedict Parish began in 1902 when local Catholics sought to provide an education program for their children closer to home. Around the turn of the century, when most of the property of West Lakeview was still farmland, the German Catholic families of this area were outlying members of St. Matthias Parish, located at Ainslie Street and Claremont Avenue. Their children traveled a considerable distance to and from school, and severe winters made the commute difficult. While the initial requests to develop a Catholic school nearby were rejected by the Archbishop, the pioneering spirit of the families prevailed and the new parish of St. Benedict was formed.
The welfare and safety of the children was the guiding factor in choosing the comer of Irving Park Road and Leavitt Street for the new St. Benedict church/school building: at the time, Irving Park Road was a boulevard, which meant it was free of trolley cars. The first mass was celebrated in the new wooden church on February 2, 1902. Within three years, the parish quickly outgrew the facilities of the combination church and school and a new church was built on the corner of Bell Street and Irving Park Road. This new facility featured the church on the second floor—currently our Ackerman Center—and a classroom and clubroom on the first floor—our Social Center.
Growth in the parish was rapid, from 90 families in 1902 to approximately 350 families in 1908, with 300 children attending the parochial school. Families moved into the area from all parts of the city, but primarily from other German parishes including St. Joseph’s Parish, the first German parish on the north side (1846), located near Division and Orleans Streets. In fact, it is because our parish founders heard the Benedictine fathers and sisters at St. Joseph’s speak so highly of St. Benedict that they chose him as the patron of their new parish.
Soon, housing for the School Sisters of St. Francis, who oversaw the school, was outgrown, and it was also clear that the second church was inadequate for the expanding community. By 1916, the parish enrollment had grown to approximately 800 families and the building of a new church structure was imperative.
The faith and support of parishioners overcame the economic instability of World War I. The small wooden church on the corner of Irving Park Road and Leavitt Street was moved and replaced by a new structure, begun in 1917 and completed in 1918 at a cost of $170,000. The faith and devotion of the people were expressed in the stained-glass windows imported from Munich and the hand-carved Stations of the Cross from Oberammergau. The continued growth over the following years included the completion of the Elementary School (1924); the construction of a convent on Leavitt (1927), now known as Laboure House, a wonderful example of outreach to the elderly in our community and a reminder of the sisters who once taught in the elementary school; the establishment of a two-year commercial school, which served students in the 1920s and ’30s; the construction and opening of the high school (1950); and the building and dedication of the gym building (1954).
In the mid-1990s, the church building was facing a number of maintenance issues. Topping the list of needed repairs was roof and brick restoration. As the Legacy Committee began raising funds for such work, it became apparent that the inside of the church also needed help. Out of those initial discussions came a movement to renovate the entire interior of the church to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the parish in 2002. After three years of planning, work on the renovation/restoration of the church began in December 1999. One year later, the restoration, renovation and innovation of the church were completed. With the goal of inclusion—conveying a message that all are welcome—the church was made handicap accessible with the installation of an elevator and ramps. In addition, plastering and painting was completed, the lighting and sound systems were upgraded, and pews and kneelers were refinished to further beautify our faith environment and extend the legacy of the parish founders. Today, the Centennial Campaign continues as other needed renovations to campus buildings are undertaken to prepare our church and schools for the next one hundred years of ministry to the North Center community.
In December 1999, St. Benedict Parish received an extremely generous and unexpected gift to facilitate further growth of its educational ministry. An anonymous trust that provides capital grants in support of Catholic schools donated $4.6 million toward the construction of a three-story, 40,000-square-foot brick building on the corner of Byron Street and Bell Avenue, replacing homes and a six-flat that had once served as residences for clergy and other religious and, more recently as administrative offices and preschool classrooms. Opened in October 2001, the new building houses facilities serving all of the schools, including preschool classrooms for 120 young children, two science labs, a music center, a lunchroom and kitchen, a 40-seat chapel, a nurse’s station, and additional classrooms and offices.
A century ago, a small group of people had a dream, a spiritual birth grounded in the cornerstone ministry of education. The realization of that dream continues today in the education and formation of more than 1,000 children at the Schools of St. Benedict, from preschool through high school, and in the numerous other vital ministries of St. Benedict Parish. Since 1902, the faith, generosity, and commitment of the people of St. Benedict Parish have inspired involvement in organizations, ministries, and activities within the parish whose reach extends far beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood. Today, St. Benedict Parish is a community of nearly 1,600 households which reflect the diversity of heritage, age and economics that befit a large urban parish—a strong faith community which is as much a part of our legacy as the buildings on our block.
This history of St. Benedict Parish was drawn from numerous articles that have appeared in parish publications including The Bulletin and The Bell Tower.