A Century of Christian Caring: St. Barbara Parish
Great steamship lines docking at Ellis Island were unloading wave after wave of Polish immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century. These new arrivals were looking for a better way of life, looking for freedom from Russian army conscription and from restrictions on their language and religion. Thousands headed for Chicago and Bridgeport, where the mills, factories and packing houses provided plenty of employment.
The nearest Polish parish, St. Mary of Perpetual Help, bulged at the seams. The pastor, Rev. Stanislaus Nawrocki, obtained approval to buy land for a new parish along Throop Street. In 1910, his younger brother, Rev. Anthony Nawrocki, became the first pastor of the new St. Barbara parish.
Rev. Nawrocki’s first priority was a grammar school, convent, and rectory. Mass and the sacraments were celebrated in the basement hall of the school while construction went forward on the church.
The domed, Renaissance-style church took two years and $175,000 to build. No pillars were used in the interior so sight-lines would be clear for the 1,200 worshippers that could be accommodated. A solemn dedication and consecration took place July 5, 1914. The other parish buildings had debts but there was no mortgage on the church – a sacrificial feat, considering the average wage of the time was less than $12.00 a week.
As soon as the school was built, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis were there. This order ministered to Polish immigrants and helped them adjust to life in America. After the upheavals of World War I, new arrivals nearly doubled the Polish population of the parish.
Rev. Francis Grzes, second pastor at St. Barbara, presided over the necessary planning to serve that growing community. The school had to be expanded and the convent enlarged to accommodate the extra teachers. The pastor and his assistants vacated the rectory and moved into new quarters, the present rectory, in 1922. The former rectory was remodeled to serve as a second convent building.
An $82,000 school addition was completed in 1924, adding an auditorium, six-lane bowling alley, billiard room, and kitchen. The six classrooms also accommodated a two-year commercial high school. Parishioners now had a spacious social center for all ages. Recreation and entertainment revolved around plays, dances, sports, clubs, and parties.
Such activities brought the parish family together during the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and World War II. In 1934, Reverend Stanislaus Radniecki was appointed as the third pastor of St. Barbara, and served until his death in 1956. It was an era of further expansion.
Returning soldiers from World War II married and began families at a record pace. The high school upgraded to a four-year institution in 1947, changing its admission policy to young women only. St. Barbara’s schools hummed with activity in the post-war Baby Boom era. Events such as May crowning, Little League baseball, and summer carnivals crowded the parish calendar.
Reverend Stephan A. Bernas became pastor in January 1957, but served less than three years before his death in 1959 at age 48. Rev. Edward Radwanski stepped in as pastor to lead St. Barbara into its golden jubilee in 1960. At that milestone, Cardinal Albert Meyer remarked about the parish that “only the recording angel in heaven knows all the good that has been accomplished.”
The next St. Barbara pastor, Reverend Edward Skupien, was appointed in 1966, but it was more like a coming home party because he had grown up in the parish. Father Skupien took St. Barbara through the many changes instituted after Vatican II, carefully building on the existing strengths of the people he knew so well.
One facilities challenge came in the summer of 1970 when lightning struck St. Barbara church, starting a fire at the top of the dome. Though the flames were quickly contained, there were months of necessary repair work before the building reopened, with a much smaller structure replacing the original rooftop tower.
Father Skupien served the parish until 1983 when he retired as pastor emeritus and handed over pastoral reins to the Reverend Albin Ciciora, who presided over the diamond jubilee anniversary. Father Ciciora also made several additions to the physical plant, including additional meeting spaces in “mobile units” placed on the grounds adjacent to the school building.
Reverend Michael Yakaitis became the eighth pastor of St. Barbara in July 1993, following the death of Father Ciciora earlier in the year. Struck by the warm spirit and continued vitality of St. Barbara, Father Yakaitis set as his goal “to expand the number of people who participate in the life of this parish and to help everyone here feel a real sense of ownership.”
During his time as pastor, St. Barbara expanded its outreach evangelization efforts, including a quarterly newspaper, as well as cleaning, repairing, and fully restoring its impressive display of stained glass windows. The parish even added additional stained glass to the front church towers in 1999, replacing plain glass panes with four stained glass scenes that had been in storage since their original home at Niles College Seminary had been demolished.
Father Yakaitis also had to arrange for the closing of the high school in 2001. Despite its excellent academic performance, the high school was no longer able to maintain the necessary enrollment level to ensure fiscal viability. However, the portions of the building previously used by the high school were then used to enhance the offerings by St. Barbara Elementary School, including additional facilities for science, technology, and the arts.
In 2002, Father Yakaitis transferred to other ministries for the Archdiocese of Chicago and was succeeded as pastor by Reverend Robert Behnke. During his brief time at St. Barbara, Father Behnke supervised the parish efforts to meet the goals set by the Archdiocese for its Millennium Campaign fund raiser, allowing the parish to establish a fund set aside for painting and restoring the church interior.
Reverend Dennis Ziomek became the tenth pastor of St. Barbara parish in 2010, after serving as parish administrator since 2005. Under his guidance, St. Barbara successfully marked its centennial as a time of spiritual and physical renewal.
That included the painting and restoration of the interior of the church by the Oosterbaan & Sons company in 2012, which beautifully revitalized and showcased the artistic treasure that is St. Barbara, as first designed by its people 100 years ago. It is a stunning home to a dedicated Catholic community.
Always engaged for more than a century, St. Barbara parishioners have consistently rolled up their sleeves for whatever needed to be done to help individuals, families, and the community at large. They have effectively worked with church and public officials over countless important issues.
Parishioner demonstrations helped to shut down the nearby open-air quarry whose limestone dust was a health hazard, and whose subsequent use as a dumping site posed risks for the neighborhood. Today that space is the Palmisano Park, an urban nature showpiece.
In the late 1980s, the consolidation of Catholic parishes throughout Chicago shut nearby churches in Bridgeport, leaving those parishioners deeply saddened. St. Barbara was spared and its people have always offered a consoling welcome to the former members of St. Bridget, St. George, Immaculate Conception, and St. David.
That welcoming spirit continues today to all who step up to the church door, into the school classrooms, or who enter any parish event.
We invite you to visit St. Barbara yourself to experience firsthand the joy, excitement, and spiritual renewal for yourself.
Walter J. Podrazik, Parish Historian Grace DuMelle, Heartland
Historical Research Service