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September 23, 2012

St. Joseph Parish in Back of the Yards turns 125

Missionary of the Sacred Heart Fr. Hugo Leon Londoño, pastor of St. Joseph, escorts Cardinal George out of church following Mass.Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Deacon Roberto Rivas holds the book for Cardinal George to kiss following the Gospel.Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

A parishioner prays during the Mass. Cardinal George was the main celebrant at a Mass with parishioners of St. Joseph Parish, 4821 South Hermitage in Chicago, in honor of the parish's 125th anniversary on Sept. 1. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Cardinal George was the main celebrant at a Mass with parishioners of St. Joseph Parish, 4821 South Hermitage in Chicago, in honor of the parish's 125th anniversary on Sept. 1. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Parishioners and guests share the Sign of Peace during the Mass. Cardinal George was the main celebrant at a Mass with parishioners of St. Joseph Parish, 4821 South Hermitage in Chicago, in honor of the parish's 125th anniversary on Sept. 1. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

By Alicja Pozywio

STAFF WRITER

St. Joseph Church, built 125 years ago at the southwest corner of 48th and Hermitage, was there for practical reasons: Workers employed at the Union Stock Yards, mostly Polish immigrants, needed a place to worship.

Today, all that remains of the city’s famous meatpacking district is the Yards Gate, but the church remains vibrant. St. Joseph Parish celebrated its 125th anniversary Sept 1 with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal George.

“We are a committed community and faith centered parish,” said Father Hugo León Londoño, a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the pastor of St. Joseph Parish for the last four years.

He said the parish demonstrates the reality of building the kingdom of God on earth.

“We have people from different ethnic groups and cultures and we are trying to live in peace with each other,” said Londoño.

The number and variety of groups active at St. Joseph mirrors the community.

“We have a group for every age and ethnicity joining the parish,” said Mark Wojciechowski, who has been a St. Joseph parishioner for the last 20 years. For the last seven years he has served on the parish’s finance and leadership committee. There is a group for youth, for young adults, Polish seniors, Spanish seniors, a prayer group, a sports group, a men’s group and a support group for those who want to nurture their marriages.

“Church membership is 75 percent Mexican and the rest are Americans, Polish and Afro-Americans,” said Wojciechowski.

St. Joseph is the oldest Polish church in Chicago’s Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood. The parish began its history as a mission of St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish. Although 1887 has been regarded as the founding date of the parish, the property was purchased in 1885, and St. Joseph Church was dedicated on Dec. 19, 1886.

The neighborhood has experienced many changes over the years. Once a home to Eastern European immigrants, today it’s a mostly Hispanic residential and commercial community confronting serious challenges.

“The biggest problem we have here is violence, gangs and a high rate of unemployment,” said Londoño. In the past the parish had an elementary school with 1,530 students at its peak in 1925 and a high school with 300 students in 1941.

Both schools were under the direction of the Felician Sisters. St. Joseph’s High School closed in June 1996 due to low enrollment and the grade school closed in June 2002.

On Sept. 24, 1997 St. Joseph Parish became the Shrine of St. Joseph, Patron of Family Life. Every year the parish prepares to celebrate the feast of St. Joseph by praying a special novena to the saint.

Londoño is leading the “Now & Forever” campaign to honor the rich past of the parish and prepare for the future.

“Just like every other church that is over a 100 years old, St. Joseph needs some repairs. The most urgent need is to repair the church towers,” said Wojciechowski.

The goal is to collect $1 million. The price of tearing the towers down would be the same as what is needed to fix them.

“The priority is the safety of the community. We want to continue working and praying together,” said Londoño.”