St. Mary: The First Catholic Parish in Evanston
“On June 26, 1864, Catholics living in the North Shore area known as Evanston gathered in the Calvary station of the Chicago and North Western railroad ‘for the purpose of choosing a committee to take action relative to the building of a Roman Catholic church in the village of Evanston….Lack of funds delayed the completion of a church so the Catholics of Evanston continued to attend Mass in the German parish of St. Joseph in Wilmette, four miles to the north or to the Luxembourger parish of St. Henry at Devon and Ridge Avenue in Rose Hill, four miles to the south. A list of 88 Evanston Catholics compiled in the 1860s indicates that the majority were of Irish birth or descent. Intent on establishing an English-speaking parish of their own, they continued to raise funds for a church building.
On August 15, 1865, the first Catholic Mass in Evanston was offered in the open air under a white oak tree in a grove, just opposite the present west entrance to Calvary Cemetery.”
- Vol. II, A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago:
It was just four months after the end of the Civil War, and eight years since the town of Evanston was founded. Rev. P.M. Flannigan presided, aided by altar server, David Philip O’Leary, the son of the family who owned the surrounding farm. A kitchen table was used for an altar. This day, August 15, 1865, marks the establishment of St. Mary parish. One year later, a small frame “mission church” was built near the site of the current church on Lake Avenue and Oak Street. Mass was offered here on alternate Sundays by German-speaking priests from Wilmette and Rose Hill. A more permanent church and school was built in 1869, most of the work being done by local residents. Fr. Michael Donahoe was appointed the first resident priest of St. Mary at Christmas, 1872. The double spired church of limestone was designed in 1892 by renowned architect Stephen A. Jennings. The building survived a fire in 1908 and was renovated several times, most recently in 2004.
The Founding of St. Nicholas
Meanwhile, the Evanston Luxembourgers continued to make the trek to Wilmette or Rose Hill where Mass was presided by German-speaking priests. In 1887 the community successfully petitioned the archdiocese for a parish of their own. They called their parish St. Nicholas, honoring the first name of many of the founders and common in their homeland. Property was purchased at Washington Street and Ridge Avenue and a combined church and school building of frame and brick veneer was dedicated on May 10, 1889. Then, on February 3, 1898, the feast of St. Blaise, disaster struck. Fire started in the school kitchen and completely destroyed the church-school and severely damaged the rectory. Thanks to the bravery of several of the Sisters of St. Agnes, who were teaching when the fire broke out, all the children were safely evacuated. Amazingly, the only injury was a minor one to a fireman who had to jump from the window to escape the flames.
The community immediately began work on a new school building, which was completed within the year. While the church and school were being built, the community gathered at Burden’s store on the north side of Main St. between Sherman and Custer. Once completed, the lower level of the new school served as a temporary church until the permanent church which stands today was completed. This served as a church until 1906 and today serves as Social Hall, Chapel and Gymnasium. The cornerstone of the new and current church was laid on the feast of St. Nicholas, 1904, and the first Mass was celebrated here on October 7, 1906.
By the 1920’s the parish was increasingly more diverse, and English had become the predominant language; the last German Mass celebrated at St. Nicholas was in 1925.
In the 1970s and 80’s, Ascension parish, just a few blocks west of St. Nicholas, which had historically served a predominately Polish community, was becoming home to the growing Hispanic community of immigrants from Mexico. The Archdiocese of Chicago closed Ascension in June, 1990, a decision that was difficult for both Polish and Hispanic communities. St. Nicholas accepted the challenge of welcoming everyone from Ascension, starting a Spanish Mass and incorporating Hispanic traditions and holidays. The Hispanic Community continues to grow and currently makes up approximately 50% of the parish.
In 1991 St. Nicholas underwent a renewal and reconfiguration of the interior of the church, placing the altar at the center of the nave and transept with seating for the assembly circling it.
A New School, A New Parish, A New Era
Both St. Mary and St. Nicholas maintained their own parish schools until the 1980s when it became no longer feasible to maintain both schools in south Evanston. The difficult decision was made, and St. Mary’s and St. Nicholas’ schools merged and adopted a new name: Pope John XXIII. The new school opened its doors on the St. Nicholas campus in the fall of 1986.
On July 1, 2022, St. Mary and St. Nicholas parishes combined to become one: the Parish of St. John XXIII.
From Catholic immigrant groups in the nineteenth century, who desired to gather and worship in their own languages, to today when both St. Mary’s and St. Nicholas’ churches celebrate the diversity of varied ethnicity and life experience, the Catholic community of Evanston and its surrounding area has grown and changed. Our community continues to be greatly enriched by more recent immigrants as well, from many countries including Mexico, Haiti, Africa, the Philippines, and Central America.
The new parish of St. John XXIII aspires to embody the vision of Vatican II. As we strive to become one family under Christ, our Catholic faith is strengthened, and the work of the Spirit continues to shine through.