St. John of the Cross Parish History
Chicago suburbs grew briskly following World War II, and Western Springs was no exception. By 1960, the Village was expanding dramatically with the development of a new subdivision on land formerly occupied by J. C. Vaughan’s Seed Nursery.
In June, 1960, Rev. William J. Bennett was appointed pastor of a new parish to be established in Western Springs. Catholics in the area had been served by the parishes of St. Francis Xavier and St. Cletus in LaGrange and St. James at Sag Bridge in Lemont. Father Bennett had been assigned to St. Francis Xavier following his ordination in 1935 and he returned to the area twenty-five years later for what would be his last assignment in active ministry.
On August 10, 1960, Albert Cardinal Meyer, Archbishop of Chicago, authorized the establishment of the new parish, to be named in honor of St. John of the Cross. The first parish building was a duplex apartment unit located on Burlington Avenue, housing administrative offices, living quarters, a lending library and religious goods counter as well as a basement chapel used for weekday Masses and baptisms. Some 650 families registered in the parish; Sunday Masses were held in the gymnasium of Lyons Township High School South Campus. Each Sunday, women of the altar committee spruced up the gym, while a group of men brought over a portable altar, altar vessels, vestments and other items needed for three Sunday Masses. The first Christmas liturgies that December drew 1,720 worshipers.
Father Bennett believed a school would be the foundation of the parish, and in mid-summer of 1960, a committee was appointed and charged with building and staffing a school. As plans were drawn by the firm of John L. Bartolomeo & Associates, parishioners quickly pledged over $400,000 – equal to more than ten times the cost of an average Western Springs home at the time. A $675,000 loan from the Archdiocese provided the remaining funds for construction. On December 11, 1960, ground was broken for a building to include sixteen classrooms, a gymnasium and parish offices plus a “temporary” church — that would be used for 15 years. The building also housed living quarters for Father Bennett and his first assistant, Rev. Martin R. Borowczyk.
The school opened on September 6, 1961, with 595 students, and the first Mass was celebrated in the church space on September 24. Staffing the school were six sisters from the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and eleven lay teachers. The sisters, also known as the Ladies of Loretto, were led by Mother M. Anastasia O’Connor, who would serve as school principal for the better part of the next twenty-five years
The original land provided for St. John’s Parish was about 5.5 acres, most of which was occupied by the school building. In 1962, a number of parish men formed the “Builder’s Club” which secured all the property between 49th and 51st Streets and Wolf Road and Caroline Avenue, doubling the parish property to the present 11 acres.
In 1964, the first addition to the school was completed with eleven classrooms, including a kindergarten.
The sisters lived in a house on Johnson Avenue until the permanent convent was completed in 1966. Plans for both the convent and the rectory, built in 1968, were drawn up by parishioner Stanley L. Glodek.
St. John of the Cross Parish quickly became an active faith community. In those first years, organizations were launched to enrich the spiritual and social life of the parish and to reach out to those in need. Among them were a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Program for religious education, Women’s Club, Holy Name Society, St. Vincent DePaul Society, bridge and bowling groups and a teen club. Small rummage sales organized by the Women’s Club in the 1960s to raise funds for the school library were succeeded in 1972 by a sale in the rectory garage. The “Garage Sale” has grown into an annual event occupying the entire school building that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet parish needs and to support a variety of charitable organizations.
In 1966 a School Board was established, one of the first in the Chicago Archdiocese. The following year, an elected Parish Council was formed.
Also during that time, a permanent Choir was organized to enhance parish liturgies.
In March, 1974, the Parish Council voted to formulate plans for a new church building. Within a few months, a Church Building Commission was chartered and nine members of the parish were named to serve on the Commission for the duration of the project. Committees of the Commission were charged with developing interior design and the organ and sound system.
The Commission members studied liturgical reforms following Vatican II to assure the new church would accommodate those changes. The Commission approved a construction budget of $800,000 and retained the architectural firm of Loebl, Schlossman, Bennett and Dart. Edward D. Dart, a highly-respected church architect, was chosen to design the church. Dart, known for his use of natural materials such as brick and tile, wood and textured concrete, said, “They bear the imprint of man.”
Ground was broken in October, 1975. Sadly, Mr. Dart passed away suddenly before the groundbreaking, but the building was completed according to his vision. On Christmas Eve, 1976, two Masses were celebrated in the new church.
In the ensuing years, the church building received a number of awards from architectural groups and was featured in several architectural journals.
Father Bennett retired in June, 1980, and was succeeded by Rev. Joseph F. McDonnell.
When the parish celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1985, it included 2,400 registered families. There were 788 students in the school and 350 youngsters in the Youth Catechesis program.
As the number of parish committees and organizations grew and additional staff was added, the need for meeting spaces and expanded parish offices became apparent. In 1989, a $3.6 million building project was proposed, which included a Parish Center, new facilities for the school and remodeling of the rectory.
Ground was broken in 1991 for the Parish Center, designed to complement the unique architecture of the Church. Opened in 1992, the building contained offices for administrative personnel plus flexible gathering spaces that quickly became a hub for parish activities. Also that year, a computer lab and an art room were added to the school.
In 1996, Father McDonnell retired and was succeeded by Rev. Richard P. Hynes.
The new century started off with the installation of a 3600-pipe Visser organ in the church. Music continues to be an important element in worship at St. John’s, where a ministry of cantors and six choirs lead the congregation in songs of praise at liturgies throughout the year.
In 2001 work began on still another school project to include a modern Learning Resource Center and Multi-purpose Room. That addition created an enclosed courtyard in the school complex. When construction was completed the following year, a quote from St. John of the Cross was incised into the West wall of the building: In the evening of life we will be judged on love.
In 2007, Father Hynes completed his assignment as pastor and assumed new responsibilities at the Archdiocese of Chicago. Rev. David P. Dowdle was appointed the fourth pastor of St. John of the Cross Parish. He has continued to formulate programs to accomplish the administrative, spiritual, educational and outreach objectives of the parish.
At the start of 2010, the 50th anniversary year, there were 3875 registered families in the parish community, 683 students in the school and 1,111 youngsters participating in the Youth Catechesis program.
During the past half century, the people of St. John of the Cross Parish have contributed generously to erect the buildings that now comprise the physical plant of the parish. But they also have established dynamic programs that exemplify a vibrant faith community. Today, some 50 groups in more than 35 categories offer opportunities for spiritual development and social interaction that draw the enthusiastic participation of thousands of parishioners, from youngsters to seniors.
St. John’s maintains sharing relationships with a Chicago prison ministry as well as six parishes: three in the Chicago area and others in Kentucky, Mississippi and Africa. Every month for more than 25 years, foodstuffs and household supplies have been collected for donation to food pantries at area churches. A vibrant group of high school students conducts service projects locally and around the country. Outreach efforts directly touch individuals through the Share Christmas program.
When founding the parish, Father Bennett affirmed, “This is a parish for all the people.” Fifty years later, that principle continues to be the energizing force of St. John of the Cross Parish.