In the Beginning
In 1894 a seedling was planted. Today that seedling has grown in to a fully matured, healthy and vibrant parish whose modern church, school, rectory and convent occupy an entire Melrose Park village block with three large auto parking facilities.
The seedling consisted of the beautiful statue of OUR LADY OF MOUNT CARMEL, sculptured in Naples in the year 1894, a replica of a similar image venerated for centuries. Some 1600 families are now enjoying the fruits of the zealous and sometimes dramatic efforts of a few humble people of God, inspired with a deep veneration for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
Most prominent among the founders were Emmanuela De Stefano and Anna Maria Prignano.
Grateful for the recovery of her husband from a serious illness, after invoking the aid of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, Emmanuela solicited funds to which she added a substantial sum of her own and retained a Neapolitan sculptor to produce the statue which now adorns the Sanctuary.
In July of 1894, the first Festa Della Madonna in Melrose Park took place on the De Stefano farm on 25th Avenue at North Avenue. Assisting Emmanuela was her good friend Anna Maria Prignano who lived with her family on the De Stefano farm. Father Thomas Moreschini ,a servite stationed at Assumption Church in Chicago, celebrated the Mass. Hundreds of Chicagoans of Italian Ancestry came to Festa of Madonna to see her image which was on display at home of Emmanuela at Lake Street at 19th Avenue.
The first shrine of Our Lady was built on two lots purchased by Mrs. De Stefano on 24th Avenue one block north of Lake Street. It measured approximately 30 feet by 40 feet of very ordinary frame construction. Let Father Benjamin Franch of loving memory take up the story.
Brief History Of This Sanctuary
Circa 1880 – the rapidly growing population of the greatly expanding metropolish of Chicago caused some Italian immigrant families to settle in the new village of Melrose Park. Fifteen years later – in 1895 – some pious persons, among whom Emmanuela Di Stefano merits special mention, gave thought to building a chapel. The difficulties which had to be surmounted were not a few because, there already being a Catholic Church and the village being small, the Bishop did not wish to grant permission for the erection of other churches in this village.
Somewhat in a state of agitation, Emmanuela proceeded with the erection of a frame church 30 x 40 feet on part of two lots of which she was the owner on 24th Avenue near Lake Street. For several years, this chapel did not have regular services – a few times a year the Servite Fathers of the Church of the of the Assumption on Illinois street came to celebrate the Divine Mysteries at the request of a Society which had been organized to commemorate the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Before long, the feast gained in proportions and popularity among the Italian people of Chicago.
In the year 1901, The Bishop of Chicago, under threat of interdict, ordered the Society, now in- possession of the chapel, to cede title to ordered the Society, now in the possession of the Chapel, to cede title to the Catholic Bishop of Chicago, as was the case with all other churches. In this crisis, it appeared that the Blessed Mother herself made the decision to stay in this rural village as it demonstrated by the following occurrence.
After the threat of the Bishop, Emmanuela Di Stefano had decided to take the image of the Madonna, which had been brought from Italy, to Chicago. A car had already been made available with several men to take away the statue. The very angry Italian population of the village, alerted by Father Moreschini, rector of the Church of the Assumption, became alarmed and decided to oppose this act with force. Therefore, when in fact, Emmanuela entered the church to take away the statue; the peal of the small bell of the church itself was used to sound the alarm. In an instant the small colony was at the scene, armed; men, women, and finally even children were shouting and threatening death to whoever would dare to touch the Madonna. It would certainly have a night of bloodshed if Mary herself had not intervened to prevent the profanation of the church and possibly even to saving the life of her devotee, Emmanuela. Suddenly although the sky had been clear, a fearful storm dispersed the furious crowd, preventing a bloody crime and removal of her Image.
After this occurrence, the Church title passed on the Catholic Bishop and continued to be administered from the time to time by the Servite Fathers. Only after the Most Rev. Archbishop James Edward Quigley was appointed to the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1903, was a full time priest, in the person of Reverend Antonio Pettillo, sent to the church. He remained until July of 1905. When he left he declared to the Archbishop that it was impossible to move forward for lack of funds.
It was at this time (September – 1908) that the writer finding himself unoccupied requested of and obtained from the Archbishop Permission to come on Sundays to celebrate the Holy Mass.
As time passed, he began to come more often until he became established as pastor. It certainly was not very flattering to the poor priest; the people were, in fact, suspicious and distrustful and consequently were not helpful, but with patience, a little at a time, he succeeded in winning a little faith so that after 2 years (1907) the church building was moved from the small lot to the spacious property where the present new church is being erected.SS to this text in the module Advanced settings.
Serious difficulties had to be overcome in the relocation of the church because the neighbors wanted, at all costs and by all means, to keep it there. The pastor was often threatened with death. Having relocated the church, he built a rectory which cost $4,000 and which could be completed only because the priest ceded all he possessed as he had to do also later to pay interest on the indebtedness.
After 1908 the inadequacy of the chapel became apparent and even though there was no money and little encouragement from the people, it was decided with the consent of the Bishop, to build the present church at a cost of $12,000.00. On the feast of St. Bartholomew, August 24th, ground was broken, the contractor being Michael Stangaro and brothers, the architect Bensoro of Melrose, already famous in this village.
May the Holy Mary of Carmel protect and give repose in the church to the people pf all this colony of Chicago together with the humble pastor: Father Benjamin Franch (Trentino) of the Missionary of St. Charles for The Emigrated Italians founded by Bishop Giovani S. Scalabrini of Piacenza, Italy.
In his humility, Father Franch did not mention in his brief history that the first Sunday Mass was attended by twelve people and that the Offertory collection amounted to 75 cents; nor that while the church was being moved to its new location on an intervening Sunday, he celebrated Mass on the “floating” church in the middle of a street for the few parishioners who dared to follow him into the church. The good Father Franch also made reference to receiving “little encouragement from the people” – another could truly have said that some of the people were hostile and openly antagonistic, even refusing to accept him as a Italian (Trentino). However, those who became aware of the priest’s steadfast character and fervent belief in the power of the Madonna’s intercession knew from whence he drew his ability to go onward.
By 1913, a parochial school had been added and by 1914 a convent for the sisters and a parish auditorium. Throughout the construction, the fine masonary work bore the evidence of the rigid supervision of Father Franch, who had himself been a stone mason before entering the seminary. Last to receive attention of the pastor was his own house, the rectory, which was repaired and modernized in 1928.
The Lithuanians have been a part of this parish from its early days. Realizing that the colony which had settled in Melrose Park had no church of their own and were not numerous enough to organize their own parish, Father Franch invited them to Mt. Carmel and willingly made arrangements to accommodate them, learning enough of the language to hear confessions and to read the gospel. He eventually arranged for Lithuanian priests to celebrate Sunday Mass and to conduct missions. The Lithuanians responded by taking an active part in the functions and societies of the parish and St. John Baptist Lithuanian Society (men) on March 22, 1914 and St. Anns Lithuanian Society (women) on April 30, 1915.
From his youth, Benjamin had nurtured the desire of becoming a priest. It was not until he was 26 years old that he was able to fulfill this desire. He made applications too and was accepted by the Parma Seminary of the Salesian Fathers (of St. John Bosco). His “advanced” age and limited education led the superiors to believe he should be a lay brother rather than a priest and after two years, having heard from a townsman Father Gembrini of a recently organized congregation “The Father of St. Charles” through the intercession of the pastor of Cloz, Benjamin was accepted by Venerable founder of the new order, Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini.
The rector of the Motherhouse of the order, the saintly Father Joseph Molinari came to Parma to accompany Benjamin to the seminary in Piacenza. After a year of novitiate, Benjamin made his perpetual vows and began intensively to study the special courses which were given him due to his advanced age. With perseverance and hard application, he completed the courses and on December 19, 1903, Bishop Scalabrini conferred upon him the sacrament of Holy Orders fulfilling his desire to become a Priest of God! On December 26th, Father Benjamin Franch celebrated his first mass in Cloz, his hometown, in the midst of his family and friends.
Father Franch’s first assignment brought him to the United States early in 1905. This assignment of one month at Sacred Heart Church in Boston, was followed by two nine month appointments as assistant first at St. Mary of Mt. Carmel in Utica, New York and then the Santa Maria Incoronata in Chicago.
His next assignment as a pastor to the troubled Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church in September 1905 was to last almost forty-nine years. For many of these years he also served as the Provincial Superior of the St. John Baptist (Western Province) of the Missionary Society of St. Charles (The Scalabrini Fathers) and it was during his term as Provincial that Sacred Heart Seminary was founded in September of 1935; land was acquired and the first building were erected in 1936.
Growth of the Village resulted in a corresponding demand for more parochial facilities and in 1950 permission was secured and granted to construct a new school of four classrooms and gymnasiums. The expansion of the school facilities created a corresponding need for convent space. In 1952, the convent was renovated and enlarged to accommodate 14 nuns.
Father Benjamin Franch was called to his reward on May 27, 1954. Rev. Salvatore De Vita, who had seen service as Pastor of Our Lady of Pompei Church in Chicago and as Vice- Rector of Sacred Heart Seminary, was appointed pastor to succeed him. Father DeVita Began a program of repairs and renovation. Properties were acquired to provide for parking facilities and for future expansion.
The school build in 1913, although well maintained, had become obsolete and no longer conformed with safety regulations. It had also became quite apparent by now that soon a new church would be needed so rather than undertake a program of repair and remodeling, which was prohibitive in cost, a long range program of complete renewal was adopted. In 1961, a new fire resistive 12 class room school was constructed on the North West corner of 22nd Avenue and Augusta.
The Parish responded generously and within a few years the debt incurred to construct the new school was retired.
Rev. Salvatore De Vita’s term as pastor expired according to the canonical rule now being enforced by the Scalabrinian Fathers. He was elected Provincial Superior and Rev. Adam A, Torresan was appointed as pastor to succeed him and came to the parish on November 8, 1964.
Father Adam had been an assistant under Father Joseph Lazzeri at Incoronata Parish where he returned as pastor after a term as Pastor at Holy Guardian Angel Church. He also served as Pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, in Vancouver, British, Columbia, and, Canada. He therefore brought to his new assignment a great deal of experience. He enthusiastically announced shortly after he arrived that the Parish should be undertake as soon as possible the construction of a new church. The Chancery Office, however, had adopted a program of curtailing new construction and permission was withheld until such a time as substantial portion of the cost of a new church was actually collected.
Finally in 1965, permission was granted and date was set for rating of the old church. Amid nostalgic sighs, parishoners came by invitation to take home statuary, bits of the altar and other souvenirs of the old church. Men of the parish pooled their talents and brawn and a temporary comfortable church was methodically set up in one day in the gymnasium. The old church was soon wrecked and removed. It was the last vestige of an old, sometimes hectic era marked by faith, zeal and heroism.
Ground for the new church was broken on Feb. 26, 1967. The cornerstone was laid on Sept. 24 1967. The beautiful modern style church is being completed as this history goes to press. It will comfortably seat 850. The Miraculous Madonna had been fittingly enshrined in a beautiful sanctuary.
We can only reiterate the wish of the good Father Benjamin Franch for the new church.
“May the Holy Mary of Carmel protect and give repose in the church to the people of all of this colony of Chicago together with its priests.”