is difficult for us in the beginning of the 21st century to believe that our beloved
Saint Ignatius had its roots in what was then an upstart town on the prairie. In
1850, Chicago consisted of little more than nine square miles. Outbreaks of disease
such as cholera, smallpox, and tuberculosis were common. Yet Chicago, on the doorstep
to the rich soil of the Midwest, located on an inland port and connected to the
Mississippi River by the Illinois and Michigan Canal, soon became the shipping point
to the east for agricultural commodities. The new technology of the railroad further
enhanced the city's stature as a transportation hub. Manufacturing and retail made
household names of Field, Palmer, and McCormick.
Chicago had grown from a village of 3,000 in the 1830s to a population of 60,652
by 1854. An influx of immigrants, including considerable numbers of Catholics from
Ireland and Germany, came to work on the railroads, in the mills, and in the slaughterhouses.
The need for clergy to serve this influx was great.
The United States was a missionary country in the eyes of the Church, much as we
view third- world countries today. The famous Jesuit missionary to the United States,
Peter DeSmet, often made journeys to his native Holland to recruit young men to
become missionaries to take up the great task of serving the Church in the United
States. One of these young recruits was Arnold Damen.
After he completed his theology studies, Fr. Damen was ordained in 1844. He served
as associate pastor and pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Saint Louis. In 1857,
at the request of Most Reverend Anthony O'Reagan, Bishop of Chicago, Fr. Damen was
assigned by Rev. J.B. Druyts, superior of the vice province of Missouri, to establish
the first permanent Jesuit house in Chicago.
The Bishop of Chicago first offered to turn over to the Jesuits Holy Name Church
along with the nascent University of St. Mary of the Lake. Fr. Damen, however, wished
to found his mission with his own parish in what was then a sparsely inhabited part
of the city. Critics questioned Fr. Damen's sanity at establishing a parish on the
prairie southwest of the central city. How, some were wondering, could anyone build
and expect to support a parish where there are no parishioners? Nevertheless, land
was inexpensive and Fr. Damen answered his critics by saying, "I shall not go to
the people; I shall draw the people to me." Thus did Fr. Damen set up the present
Holy Family parish.
The parish flourished so that within one year the church building had to be enlarged.
More and more Irish immigrants were settling the prairie around the church as Fr.
Damen had envisioned.
Soon there was a need to educate the children of the parish and thus began a series
of grammar schools staffed both by the Religious of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters
of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By 1865, nine hundred boys and five hundred
girls attended the parish schools.
As early as 1862, the Jesuit board of consultors to the Missouri vice province decided
that there ought to be a Jesuit college in Chicago and it appears that a college
was always in Fr. Damen's plans from the time he reached Chicago. The time, however,
was not opportune. The country was engaged in the Civil War, and the cost of borrowing
money was high. The new University of St. Mary of the Lake closed because of financial
difficulties. Furthermore, Holy Family Parish consisted largely of newly arrived,
mainly poor, Irish immigrants. It is a tribute to Fr. Damen's fund-raising ability
that he could secure the funds for the Holy Family Church and the system of grammar
Fr. Damen's tactics and financial management became legendary within the parish.
Once, when invited to stay for dinner while visiting one of the families in the
parish, Fr. Damen is said to have replied, "I'm in great trouble today and what
would be better than a dinner to me would be a helping from the sugar bowl." The
sugar bowl contained this family's loose cash, from which this parishioner invited
Fr. Damen to help himself. It was also said about Fr. Damen that "whenever he wants
a big collection, one-half of his sermon is about hellfire and the other half about
St. Patrick." Another time, in an act smacking of showmanship, Fr. Damen auctioned
his horse and buggy to raise funds for the parish.
Fr. Damen's management of funds also would raise a few eyebrows today for his audacity
in using leverage to achieve his goals. The parish and its schools demanded a large
amount of property, little of which during the early years was owned free and clear.
It was Fr. Damen's practice to use whatever equity the parish held in its properties
to borrow money to purchase more land immediately. The parish property was valued
at $250,000 in 1865, according to a report written by Fr. Damen to his superior.
Such a far-flung enterprise, however, could not rely solely on the generosity of
the early parishioners and Fr. Damen's aggressive style of fund-raising. Furthermore,
the provincial insisted that no funds for the college be raised from Holy Family
parish. Whence, then, would come the funds to start the college? Fr. Damen was well
known throughout the country as a preacher and year after year he spent the months
from September to June traveling the country giving parish missions. Not only did
he employ his stipends toward the needs of his parish back home in Chicago, but
he also would make a direct appeal to the congregations he was addressing on the
mission circuit. It was especially through such appeals to people all over the United
States, people who had never been to Chicago, that Fr. Damen raised the money to
begin construction of Saint Ignatius in 1867. Still, Fr. Coosemans, the provincial,
believed that the time still was not ripe. Fortunately, Fr. Coosemans was called
to Rome on business and Fr. Damen, shrewd as a serpent, asked for and received permission
to begin construction from Fr. Keller, the acting superior. When Fr. Coosemans returned
from Rome, he discovered that the foundation of Saint Ignatius was completed and
work on the first floor begun. There was no turning back.
Nevertheless, $100,000 was needed to complete construction, which required more
borrowing. Fr. Coosemans, citing the debt Fr. Damen owed the province for the construction
of Holy Family, refused any more credit for the construction of the college. Interest
rates in a country just emerging from the Civil War were prohibitive at 10 to 12%.
New sources had to be found and Fr. Damen turned to his native Holland.
One of Fr. Damen's companions on the missions was a fellow Hollander, Fr. Van Goch,
whose brother was a wealthy businessman in Holland. Fr. Damen requested that Fr.
Van Goch contact his brother to ascertain whether he could lend the money. Fr. Van
Goch's brother agreed and, having obtained permission from both the provincial and
the father general, Fr. Damen set out for Holland to close the deal. In a report
to Fr. General Becks, written in the winter of 1868, Fr. Damen gives a glimpse of
his business acumen:
Now, to borrow money in this country I shall be obliged to pay ten per cent and
perhaps more. This interest is too much and I am not in favor of paying so much.
Therefore we have written to Holland to Mr. Van Goch, a very rich man, the brother
of Father Van Goch, my companion on the missions. He has replied that if we come
to Holland and give him the necessary security, he will give us all the money we
need to finish the college, at four percent. That will save us six thousand dollars
a year, and this saving, put out at interest here, will in ten years, with added
interest, enable us to save more than a hundred thousand dollars. Thus in ten years
we shall have paid all the debt of the college. This we can undertake without any
difficulty or danger. The revenues of our Chicago house are at least thirty thousand
dollars a year, of which we can save fifteen thousand dollars surely. Our other
Fathers say twenty thousand, but I shall put it at fifteen thousand. Consequently
in six or seven years we shall be able to pay all the debt, even without counting
any revenue from the college.
These funds were enough to complete the part of the original building running north-south,
plus the east wing on the front of the building facing Roosevelt Road. This L-shaped
structure was ready to begin instruction with thirty-seven students and a faculty
of three plus a president, prefect of studies (principal), and a prefect of discipline.
It is worthwhile to pause here to emphasize that the construction of Saint Ignatius
College was funded almost exclusively by persons with no connection to Holy Family
parish and no connection to Chicago. The college's early donors most certainly never
saw the results of their generosity. All looked promising for the new institution
as it began its second year of operation with sixty-one boys enrolled. Then on 8
October, the Chicago fire began at Jefferson and DeKoven Streets, just five blocks
from Saint Ignatius. Much legend has sprung up in the Saint Ignatius community about
how the flames were headed toward the school, how Fr. Damen stood on the porch and
prayed that his beloved church and college be saved. God heard his prayer. With
flames about to reach the new college, the wind suddenly shifted and destroyed the
central part of the city. Like all myths, there is a gram of truth to this one,
which over time through exaggeration and confusion of facts became a wonderful story.
In fact, Fr. Damen was in Brooklyn at the time, giving a parish mission. When he
had heard of the great fire, he spent that night in a vigil praying that the college,
the church, and his parishioners be spared. He made a vow that if his prayers were
answered, he would keep in Holy Family seven lights burning in front of the picture
of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He then took the next available train to Chicago
and arrived to find most of the city in ashes, but his parish and college spared.
He kept his vow; to this day, seven lights burn in front of the picture of Our Lady
in Holy Family Church. It is true that during the fire, the wind shifted, but not
on the very doorstep of the school as the popular legend has it. Rather, the fire
never came west of Jefferson Street where it had begun, well away from Saint Ignatius.
As one of the few buildings left intact, Saint Ignatius immediately became a relief
center and shelter. Among those who moved into the college were the Benedictines
and the orphans of the Sisters of St. Joseph who occupied the classrooms in the
main part of the original building, and the Bishop of Chicago, John Foley, who set
up his residence and office on the first floor of the west wing where now is the
Deans' Office. It is amazing that, with the demands put upon Saint Ignatius as a
shelter and relief station, classes resumed a mere two weeks after the fire.
The term "college" as we conceive it does not adequately describe the institution
or its course of studies. The concept of a high school was still in its infancy
and the curriculum offered at Saint Ignatius ran the spectrum from junior high school
to the bachelor's degree. A course was offered in basic grammar and arithmetic for
those boys still needing to acquire or improve these skills. The next higher course
of studies was a three-year program called Humanities, which concentrated on Latin,
Greek, literature, and rhetoric. The final year leading up to the bachelor degree
was called Philosophy. In addition, Saint Ignatius offered a commercial course,
which concentrated on bookkeeping, business mathematics, and office skills for those
not working toward the bachelor's degree. Saint Ignatius was thus a more comprehensive
institution than it is today.
Attendance rose steadily during the first decade from the original thirty-seven
students in the first year to 215 by the end of the decade. It appears, though,
that attendance was quite fluid and that very few students remained at Saint Ignatius
for the full course leading to the bachelor's degree. In the academic year 1878-79,
for example, there was no class higher than the second year of humanities and no
degrees were awarded. This should not be surprising considering the period under
discussion. One must remember that the regulations for attending school were not
as strict as today and that there was no mandate that children attend school until
the age of sixteen. Such decisions were left up to the family. Consider also the
clientele of the school, made up of the sons of newly arrived immigrants. Those
of us familiar with the stories of our own families know that the children were
needed to go to work to help support the family. Education meant training for a
better job than one's parents and so, many students went to school long enough to
obtain job skills. Consider also that very few individuals, almost exclusively men,
went to college and received degrees. Colleges and universities were the preserve
of the well-off and offered a classical curriculum such as the one leading to the
Saint Ignatius bachelor's degree and not geared to providing job skills. Furthermore,
in an age when academic standards were really standards and little attention was
paid to a student's self esteem, a survey of the student records from the early
years shows that few received grades higher than "C," and many received lower grades.
So it appears that the attrition rate due to inadequate performance was higher than
today. Given these factors operating against higher education, it is amazing that
the college division managed to survive. Yet it is a tribute to Fr. Damen and the
Jesuits that they had the vision to offer the opportunity for advancement through
higher education where there seemed to be a small market for it.
Attendance steadily increased through the '80s and '90s until, by 1894, 400 young
men were attending Saint Ignatius. The school needed more space and it was decided
that a new building was needed. Work began on the "Hoeffler Building," known today
as the "1895 Building." Generations of students down through the 1970s have also
tagged it the "New Wing." In addition to new classrooms, the new building housed
"state of the art" chemistry and physics labs that remained in use until 1992. It
also was the first part of the physical plant to be wired for electricity. The new
building marked the end of the first twenty-five years of Saint Ignatius and signaled
further expansion of the Jesuit education apostolate in Chicago in the new century.
(excerpted from Saint Ignatius College Prep: 125 years of Jesuit education, a history
prepared by Raymond J. Heisler '78. Copies available upon request.)
Throughout the campus of Saint Ignatius College Prep, the letters IHS are predominantly
displayed. IHS are the first three letters of Jesus in Greek. Saint Ignatius of
Loyola chose these letters as a symbol for the Society Jesus, or Jesuits, a religious
order he founded in 1540.