St. Odilo Parish History
In April 1927, George Cardinal Mundelein commissioned Fr. William J. Roberts to form a new parish in order to meet the needs of the fast growing city of Berwyn, Illinois. Father Roberts was granted the unique privilege of selecting the name for this new parish. At his request, the parish was dedicated to St. Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny, France who began the great feast known as All Souls Day.
The chancery office purchased a site on the corner of Clarence Avenue and 23rd Street in a district of homes that had grown rapidly due to the recent extension of the Douglas Park elevated train. The purchase price was $48,000 and included 300 feet of frontage on Clarence Avenue.
In the meantime, Father Roberts quickly gathered a small but energetic group of volunteers to help him establish a temporary site for St. Odilo Church at a vacant storefront that still exists on the corner of 22nd Street (now Cermak Ave.) and Clarence Avenue. The church, a chapel in appearance, had a capacity of about 200 people.
The first Mass was celebrated at 8 o’clock on the morning of June 12, 1927 by Father Roberts, assisted by altar boys James Mueller and Edward McGovern and with the help of Mr. & Mrs. Frank Kiedrowski and Mr. & Mrs. Lysle Goyette. Professor George Hrusa directed the choir, and making her debut as the St. Odilo organist was Genevieve Doyle McNichols, who would continue as the church’s only organist until 1983.
The next week, the St. Odilo Building Fund Committee was formed for the sole purpose of raising money to build a permanent church building. This committee initiated all of the activities of the various societies, and all of the funds generated were tabulated and coordinated by them. Fundraisers included card parties held in parish homes and in the “parish hall,” as well as carnivals and picnics. Through these activities the parish was able to raise a total of $22,000 in just seven months.
The cornerstone for the first church building was laid in
May, 1928, and following the breakneck pace of events under Father Roberts, the new church was completed 6
months later at a cost of $150,000 and dedicated by Cardinal Mundelein with a Mass on November 4, 1928. A shrine for the poor souls was built in the church, and weekly devotions were held in their honor. At that first Mass, Cardinal Mundelein granted special privileges to St. Odilo Parish to give a 200 day indulgence applicable to the souls in purgatory for each visit to the new church.
The building (the present school building) followed the Northern Italian style of architecture, and contained a church on the first floor, a school on the second floor and a parish hall in the basement. The original plans called for a third floor, but it was not built at that time. Two additional pieces of property were purchased on the southwest corner of East Ave. and 23rd St. for the original rectory and convent.
The Sisters of Charity, B.V.M. came to St. Odilo in September 1928 to take on the task of running the school at the invitation of Father Roberts who had been taught by B.V.M nuns. Sister Mary Celerina was the first principal with a teaching staff of six other nuns. The school used temporary quarters in the basement of the storefront church for teaching classes until the new building was completed. When classes were resumed in the new building, there was an enrollment of 250 students.
St. Odilo chapters of the Holy Name Society for men and the Altar and Rosary Society for women as well as a Young People’s Club were formed in that first year. These groups organized countless social and spiritual activities for the parish for many years.
Many of the early parishioners, including Gen McNichols, Prof. Hrusa, and many B.V.M. sisters had previously attended Blessed Sacrament Church in Chicago but moved out to the then new community of Berwyn when St. Odilo Church was founded. Today, Blessed Sacrament is St. Odilo’s sharing parish. Several times a year, parishioners of St. Odilo donate gifts and supplies to help the less fortunate families there.
Gen and Joe McNichols
WWII and a Changing of the Guard
December 1941 saw the beginning of American involvement in WWII and the departure of many young men of the parish. Some families sent more than one son to war. During that time a Red Cross Chapter was formed where mothers and grandmothers wearing white uniforms rolled bandages for the wounded. A Junior Red Cross was organized where girls from the school were taught to knit gloves, hats and scarves for the servicemen. During WWII novenas were held weekly and were very well attended. School children also did their part to support their brothers, fathers and sisters in the service by buying savings stickers each Monday morning for 10 cents each. There was strong competition to fill up their savings bond sticker booklet thus showing support for the war effort. Each morning the day began with a patriotic song as well as the Morning Offering recited in each classroom. After enduring years of combat, all the men from Saint Odilo returned, even though some had been wounded or captured as POWs. The end of the war saw returning servicemen taking advantage of the GI bill by going on to higher education, or rebuilding their lives and families.
On December 26, 1945, the parish was saddened by the sudden death of its pastor and leader, Father William Roberts. A new pastor, Father Patrick Buckley arrived on January 12, 1946 to take over the responsibilities of St. Odilo. Father Buckley arrived from St. Barbara Parish in Brookfield with a reputation as a builder, and build he did. One of the first things he did after arriving was address the people as to the need for a building program, and like Father Roberts, he had the ability to be very convincing.
The first buildings that Father Buckley replaced were the original rectory and convent, which were located where the present church building stands. They were white frame houses trimmed in green that housed the priests and offices and all the nuns- at least one per grade plus the principal (superior) and the music teacher. Father Buckley determined that the buildings were overcrowded and in a deteriorating condition, so he had plans drawn up for the present rectory and convent, which were dedicated on June 15, 1952. Thinking of the possible future need for land for a larger church, the convent was built on a new site that had formerly been the school playground, and the rectory was built across the street on the former site of a bicycle shop and one or two homes. The land where the present church now stands was made into a playground and parking lot.
In 1953 Father Buckley decided that more classrooms were needed in the school and oversaw the addition of a third floor on the church/school, which had been part of the original building plan. The classrooms were only partially completed by Christmas 1954, making for a difficult teaching environment until they were fully completed for the 1955 school year.
One of the first associates under Father Buckley was Father Ed Flannery who became very popular with the school children and adults as well. Parishioners looked forward to hearing his melodious voice especially when he sang his favorite, “Golden Days.” He had been awarded the Purple Heart for valor in the Army, and he was instrumental in creating a national Purple Heart Veterans Association.
Other associates under Father Buckley that had a great influence on the parish were Father Francis Nolan and Father Donald Duffy. As Father Buckley grew older, Father Duffy took over many of the duties of running the parish and was instrumental in organizing the fundraising efforts that were to begin in 1962 to raise money for a new church. Father Nolan and Father Duffy were very active in the various organizations in the parish by that time: the Holy Name Society, the Altar and Rosary Society, The MOSO Club, the Midilians, the Mr. & Mrs. Club, the St. Vincent DePaul Society, the Medical Missions, the Vestment Committee, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, as well as school athletic activities. Father Duffy directed and took part in many variety shows, and Father Nolan was often his partner in the programs. According to a parishioner who recalls their antics, “Martin and Lewis could have learned something.”
In 1962, with the steady growth of the parish continuing, it became apparent that a new, larger church was necessary to meet the needs of the growing parish. Now that the parish finances were on solid ground and the other facilities in were order, Father Buckley asked Cardinal Meyer for permission to build on the now vacant land and to convert the existing church into more classrooms for the school. Cardinal Meyer and his consulting board approved everything in Father Buckley’s plan except the method of raising money with which to pay for it. After consultation with the Cardinal, the board, and other pastors, it was decided to hire a professional firm, Curtis M. Crum of Kansas City, to run the fundraising effort.
A building campaign was launched to raise $500,000, which was to be combined with $200,000 that the church already had in the bank. A large team of volunteers was organized, and four glossy newspapers entitled “Campaign News” containing articles by the Cardinal, the Pastor, and campaign leaders were published, beginning March 11, 1962, to explain the campaign to the parishioners. An editorial in one of the papers reads, “ If we would but realize every time we enter a church, the terrific sacrifice that was made by the good people who have gone before to make that church a reality, then we would realize the sacred trust imposed upon us not only to maintain that church but to be ever anxious to improve it.”
On Sunday, April 1, 1962, parishioners were asked to stay at home in the afternoon while an army of 375 men went door to door to every house to personally write down each family’s pledge to the campaign. Families were asked to consider pledges of between $10-$40 per month over three years. The campaign was very successful, and within weeks the diocese purchased the two homes directly south of the open site on East Ave and demolition was begun. About the same time, the grassy areas around the school were removed and trees taken out to construct the present parking lot/playground. Bids for the project were taken during June, and the Architectural firm of Andrew G. Stoecker and the General Contracting firm of William C. Kuhlman were chosen to direct the project. Ground was broken on July 4, 1962, and Bishop Cletus O’Donnell dedicated the building on September 9, 1963. The total cost of the new building was just over $550,000. The following year, in accordance with Vatican II, the altar was moved forward to its present location at a cost of $1700.
With the completion of the new church, the task of remodeling the old church still remained. Construction began in the summer of 1964 and was completed by October of 1964. The main floor was converted into classrooms, washrooms and an assembly hall (presently the library and computer lab), and the basement remained as an auditorium with a larger kitchen. New windows were installed on the whole building. A new principal’s office was made in what was the pipe room of the old pipe organ, which to the best of anyone’s memory was dismantled and discarded. The pews were donated to another church, although no record exists as to which church. Total cost of the remodeling was just over $100,000.
Inside the Old Church 1955
Another Changing of the Guard
Father Nolan left in 1964 to be replaced by Father Walter Huppenbauer. Father Duffy left in 1966, as well as Father Buckley, who retired in July after twenty years of hard work and loyal dedication to the parishioners of St. Odilo. He passed away in October of that year.Reverend J. Justin Laibach took over the reigns as pastor in 1966. He had many years of experience as pastor of St. Theresa Parish in Chicago, where he had faced the task of rebuilding the church and school after a tragic fire. Like Father Buckley before him, it was difficult for him to fill the shoes of his well-loved predecessor, but he accomplished this and was soon accepted by all in the parish. Father James Nallen, who came to St. Odilo directly from the seminary in 1966, assisted him along with Father Huppenbauer. Also serving under Father Laibach between 1973-1977 was Father John Crosby, who along with his brothers Nicholas and Tom, had graduated from St. Odilo School and gone on to the priesthood. Father Laibach served St. Odilo until his retirement in 1978. He passed away the following year.
Stepping in after Father Laibach was Father Charles Skach, who was no stranger to St. Odilo. As a boy, while attending St. Odilo School, his first “assignment” was to sell the New World newspaper in front of the church after Sunday morning Masses. He graduated from St. Odilo School in 1939, and after high school he entered the seminary. He was ordained on May 3, 1951, and celebrated his first Mass at St. Odilo. Father Skach taught theology at Loyola and DePaul Universities and for 13 years served as chaplain and teacher at Lourdes High School for girls. In 1978, after serving several Chicago area parishes, Cardinal Cody called upon him to return once more to the parish of his youth, this time as pastor. Under Father Skach’s leadership, two wonderful Sisters were made a permanent part of the rectory staff: Sister Lori Keen of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and Sister Gracite Daly of the B.V.M. Sisters. Both served St. Odilo from 1983-1991. Father Skach served from 1978 until his retirement in 1990.
In 1991, Father Peter Cyscon, known to parishioners simply as “Peter,” came to St. Odilo. Under his leadership, the parish undertook the challenge of retiring a $300,000 debt to the archdiocese, as well as making overdue and costly repairs to all of the parish buildings. Father Tom Kaveney, a former pastor of Father Peter, served the parish since his retirement in 1992 until his death in 2014. Msgr. Richard Saudis, an associate from 1992-1995, continues to serve and reside at the parish while he works full-time at the Archdiocesan offices.
During 2002, the 75th Jubilee Year of our parish, many volunteers worked together to coordinate five special events. The festivities were kicked off on January 1, the Feast of St. Odilo, with a special Mass with donuts and coffee afterwards. The next event was a Mardi Gras dinner and dance held in the parish hall on February 9, featuring a live Dixieland band. A special Mass to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the first Mass at St. Odilo was held on June 30, with Francis Cardinal George presiding. In attendance were members of nearly every graduating class of St. Odilo School, members of the founding families of the parish, current and former B.V.M. sisters, current priests of the parish, and former priests Fr. McKiernan and Fr. Duffy. On September 8, a parish picnic and an outdoor Mass were held at the Forest Preserve National Groves at 2900 S. Des Plaines Ave, not far from where the first parish picnic was held at McBride’s Grove on August 13, 1927. Music was provided by World Class Noise, which included music director Paul Rau on keyboards. The Jubilee Year came to a close on November 2 with another special Mass on the Feast of All Souls and a dinner and dance at Pierre’s Banquet Hall on Harlem Avenue afterwards.
Father Anthony Brankin came to St. Odilo in 2006. During his tenure the parish has looked both backwards and forwards. The parish has now added a traditional Latin Mass and contemporary Spanish Masses every Sunday and Holy Day, as well as providing all of the Sacraments in Spanish as well as English. The electronic organ in the church has been replaced with a newly renovated pipe organ. The School remains an important and strong part of the parish mission as well as flourishing CCD and adult Catechism programs. Weekend Mass attendance numbers have been steadily increasing, and the parish is a thriving center of spiritual and community activity. Through the careful maintenance of the buildings and a joyful commitment to the spiritual life of the parish, it is our hope that we may honor the tireless efforts of Father Roberts and those first parishioners in 1927 by continuing their work, and that the community of St. Odilo Parish will continue to help many generations to come to know the Lord and each other in a most special way.
The present church is built in 1962