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A Brief History of St. Nicholas Parish

St. Nicholas Parish was officially established on July 20, 1887, when Archbishop James Feehan appointed Fr. Otto Groenebaum to “establish a German Catholic congregation at South Evanston, Ill.”  The formation of the parish was the culmination of years of hope and effort by a growing element in Evanston: German-speaking people, mostly from Luxembourg. In the beginning, they worshipped at St. Joseph’s in Grosse Pointe or St. Henry’s on High Ridge. When St. Mary’s was founded in Evanston in 1864, German-speaking priests from St. Henry’s went there to offer services. After this practice stopped in 1870 (the pastor at St. Mary’s wanted the Catholic Church to appear less “foreign”), the growing Luxembourger community reverted to making the trek to St. Henry’s or adding their presence to a congregation at St. Mary’s, which was already outgrowing its church. By early 1887, a committee from the growing Luxembourger community petitioned the archbishop for a parish of their own, and when their wish was granted, they called the parish St. Nicholas, a name that honored the first name of many of the founding parishioners and was common in parishes back home.

The new congregation supported its parish enthusiastically. Property was bought at Ridge and Washington, and a first combination church and school was dedicated on May 10, 1889. The parish flourished with a combination of German and U.S. devotions and societies. But on February 3, 1898, the feast of St. Blaise, disaster struck. Fire destroyed the combination church-school and damaged the rectory.  A new school building was built in 1899. This building also served as a temporary church until 1906 and today houses our Social Hall, Chapel and Gymnasium. The cornerstone of our current church was laid on the feast of St. Nicholas in 1904, and the first Mass was celebrated there on October 7, 1906.

Bilingualism flourished in these early years, but the 1920’s were a period of great change and adjustment for the parish. The 250 German-speaking families who had been the mainstay of the parish were aging, and many young people were departing and joining other parishes. English was now the predominant language as many Irish-Americans and other non-Germans were filling the growing neighborhood. Technically within the boundaries of St. Mary’s parish, they attended the more conveniently located German national parish of St. Nicholas. The outcome was inevitable and logical: in 1927 St. Nicholas became a territorial parish.

The parish continued to grow. Baptisms doubled from the 1920’s to the 1930’s. Enrollment in the school remained at about 300, with more attending religious instruction classes for public school pupils. The 1940’s and 50’s saw even greater growth, with baptisms rising from 114 in 1945 to 230 in 1960, and the school enrollment doubling to 600. By the 1960’s, St. Nicholas had 4,500 parishioners and a full range of facilities. Its Luxembourg origins were a fading memory in what had become a territorial congregation in a prosperous older suburb.

In the 1960’s and 70’s the parish learned to pull together with a great communal spirit, and all elements contributed to the establishment of a parish council, as well as finance and liturgy committees. The CRHP weekends (Christ Renews His Parish) brought many to active witnessing of their faith and involvement in the parish. The Peace and Justice Committee actively pursued social issue by both education and action. Renew grew into Vision as the parish learned to gather in personal groups to share and challenge their faith. Coffee Cake Sundays contributed to parish community, and RCIA came to welcome newcomers into the Church.

The 1980’s brought new challenges and a period of difficult consolidation. The first impact was on St. Nicholas school. By 1980 it was clear that rising costs and decreasing student enrollments meant that multiple Catholic schools in south Evanston were no longer feasible. Through a long process of planning and discernment, the people of St. Nicholas and St. Mary’s parishes decided to consolidate their schools. It was hard for many to imagine St. Nicholas parish without St. Nicholas school, but the hard decision was made and Pope John XXIII school of St. Mary’s and St. Nicholas parishes opened its doors in the fall of 1986.

The community was about to be stretched again. In 1989 the archdiocese announced its intention to close Ascension of Our Lord parish in south Evanston. The beginnings of Ascension had been very similar to the beginnings of St. Nicholas. In 1912, a growing group of Polish immigrants petitioned the archbishop for a parish of their own. Still sensitive to the needs of immigrants, Ascension had also become home to a growing Hispanic community of immigrants from Mexico. Like the Luxembourgers and Polish from earlier generations, the Mexicans of Ojo Seco told their friends and relatives of the opportunities available in Evanston. They came in growing numbers and brought their own traditions and language. And they found a home at Ascension. Their community had been growing at Ascension since the 1970’s, and by the mid 80’s their sense of ownership had grown to the point where they took on the project of renovating the closed school for the use of the Hispanic Religious Education program.

The closing of Ascension was hard for both the Polish and Hispanic members of the parish. And St. Nicholas accepted the difficult challenge of welcoming everyone from Ascension parish when it closed in June of 1990. A Spanish Mass was started in the St. Nicholas chapel.  By 1995, the Hispanic community had outgrown the chapel, so the Spanish Mass found a home in the church at 1:00 p.m.  The Hispanic community continues to grow and accounts for around 40% of the worshippers at St. Nicholas.

Not only is the community growing, it is vibrant.  St. Nicholas now celebrates many Latin American customs throughout the year.  On December 12, we celebrate the Feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, beginning with the traditional Mañanitas.  With the end of Lent comes the obra, or Passion Play, at the Palm Sunday Mass, and the Neighborhood Way of the Cross on Good Friday. Parishioners look forward to September and Kermes, a benefit where flavorful Mexican fare, prepared by Hispanic parishioners, is sold to support the Catecismo program. Throughout the year, the Hispanic community expresses its spirituality with periodic quinceañeras and regular meetings of the Charismatic Circulo de Oración.

1991 saw the beginnings of a process that would take nearly ten years to complete: the renewal and reconfiguration of the church’s interior.   The most notable feature of the renewal is the placement of the altar, at the crossing of the nave and transept, with seating for the assembly circling it.  Another striking addition to the space is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, painted by renowned Mexican artist Octavio Ocampo.  The space and the altar were dedicated by Cardinal Francis George on June 5th, 2000.

St. Nicholas Parish has served a variety of immigrant groups over the years. The founding members from Luxembourg welcomed Catholics from Germany and Poland. African American Catholics became a growing element within St. Nicholas Parish during the Evanston school busing conversations in the 1960s. Caribbean Blacks, especially from Haiti, and Blacks from various African nations followed in later decades. And the closing of Ascension Parish in 1990 brought a thriving Hispanic community to St. Nicholas and reestablished the parish as a multilingual community with a significant immigrant population.

We strive for these ideals, set forth in our parish mission statement, in our worship, in celebration, and in outreach:  “We are the Body of Christ at St. Nicholas. Grounded in our diversity, we gather for worship, cherish the traditions of our Catholic faith, witness to the Gospel of Jesus, minister to others, and live as Christians in the world.”