Life & Soul

A community rebuilt from the ashes

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds and his son, Stefan, have their photo taken in front of a life-size "Flat Francis" in Daley Plaza in Chicago last month (CNS)

On the feast of St Francis of Assisi a new religious order is born as two of its members, Sisters Catherine and Alicia, are solemnly professed. They are Franciscans of the Eucharist, dedicated to adoring the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and serving the poor on Chicago’s West Side.

The ways of God’s Providence are subtle and mysterious, and it is tempting for us to construct meaning from them that suits our purposes and reduces their complexities to something we can manage or control. Nevertheless, we need to scan their workings for those things that motivate faith and confidence, to help us bear the times when the Cross is heavy and crushing. This new order is such a sign.

On December 1, 1958 a fire broke out in Our Lady of the Angels parish school in the Humboldt area of Chicago’s West Side. The school was run by the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a teaching order founded by Irish immigrant women in the 19th century. The school, built in the 1920s, housed 1,600 pupils. To this day the cause of the blaze is not known, but arson is suspected. The fire burned undetected in the basement for some time and then ignited the wooden staircase of the building which acted like a chimney, drawing the heat and flames to the second storey. The fire flashed through the lofts above the classrooms in the north wing.

At this time there were no regulations concerning fire doors, alarms or sprinkler systems, and pupils and staff were faced with the dilemma of waiting to be rescued or jumping 30ft on to the concrete ground below. Survivors told stories of the Sisters making the children sit and pray and wait, but soon the heat and fumes became too great and there was a rush to the windows. Many died jumping, scores more were injured, and though the firemen arrived within four minutes of being called, by then the fire had taken such hold that some classrooms exploded into flames as the pupils stood at the windows, killing them instantly as the firemen and bystanders looked on in horror.

It was one of the worst school fires in American history. Ninety pupils and three of the Sisters died; many more were badly injured. It destroyed the community. A new school was opened, but many Catholic families moved away, and the school and parish went into a terminal decline. The neighbourhood changed and became a poor African-American community with high unemployment and the attendant problems of drugs, prostitution and gun crime.

The diocese closed Our Lady of the Angels parish in 1990; the school closed in 1999.

By 2005 there were no Catholic parishes left open on the West Side, which was when the late, great Cardinal Francis George asked Fr Bob Lombardo, a Franciscan of the Renewal, if he would start a mission at Our Lady of the Angels. Fr Bob arrived to take over a dilapidated church with holes in the roof, its presbytery similarly neglected, as well as the abandoned BVM convent.

He asked the neighbours what their needs were. Help with food and clothing and a safe place for children to play and learn, came the answer. He recruited a team of volunteers to begin work on the church. Some of them wanted to help with other aspects of the mission, and a small volunteer community lived in the presbytery. Some of these men and women discerned that they were called to consecrate themselves to the mission, and now they are Franciscans of the Eucharist.

Ten years later they have raised more than $11 million and the church, the presbytery and the convent are restored. The parish is thriving, and they have huge food, clothing and childcare programmes. All the resources they require are donated – even the food the community eats. This amazing restoration is possible because this nascent community presents an image of consecrated religious life which has captivated others by its authenticity and coherence. The Franciscans are highly visible in their habits with their San Damiano crosses. They own nothing and yet have all they need. They are young, they shine with joy, yet the source of this joy is something the world cannot give. They are innovative and flexible in their mission and orthodox in their faith. A light shines in a place that had lost hope.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (9/10/15)

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