The "French connection" to the Ridge: Mission "church of miracles" continues to thrive in Morgan Park

By Carol Flynn, Ridge Historical Society, 2019

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The original Sacred Heart Church ca. 1913 before the brick facade was added. The side door at which Fr. DeNorus greeted visitors is visible.
Photo from the RHS newspaper archives.


The Ridge Historical Society offered its condolences and support to the people of France upon the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. The world has lost countless – indeed, too numerous to count – historic sites and buildings through the ages, many to fire. Fortunately, France has pledged to restore this 800-year old cultural and religious landmark. The Blue Island Ridge has an interesting “French connection.” There was an early group of French settlers here, and their legacy to the community is also a church, the historic and charming Sacred Heart Church at 11652 S. Church Street.

Nestled in an out-of-the-way side street in Morgan Park, Sacred Heart is a Catholic church that has no geographic parish boundaries yet boasts a loyal congregation that is united by its spirit of community and commitment. With its design and decoration, elements of which date back over 100 years, the church has the ambience of a country church, which indeed was its start.
Sacred Heart was originally founded in 1892 for French settlers in the area. French explorers, including the legendary Fr. Jacques Marquette (1637-1675), were the earliest recorded European visitors to the region, and it was their rendition of the Native American word for “wild onion,” Checagou, that gave the city its name. At one time, the Illinois Country, a vast area including Illinois, Indiana and Missouri, was controlled by France, but the territory was ceded to Great Britain following the French and Indian War (1754-1763). French fur traders and trappers traveled throughout the area and interacted with local Native Americans. Priests came from Canada to establish missions to tend to this strongly Catholic population and to convert the Native Americans.

According to documents available from the church, Sacred Heart was first established in Alsip, but after another unfortunate fire, was moved closer to the Purington Brick Yards at 119th St. and Vincennes Ave., where many of the French people worked. Today’s church dates to 1904-5 and originally appeared as a wooden frame church built on posts in a swamp. The church was established as a “national church” which meant it served a particular nationality, not a defined geographic area.

Local folklore relates that for years the French workers brought over bricks from the brick yard, one or two at a time. The brick masons, it is said, were given permission to take the bricks that were used to line the ovens as those bricks were marked with black spots and therefore not fit to sell. In 1922, the present brick structure was formally added on. The church as it stands now is actually the old frame church clad with this Purington brick.

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Sacred Heart Church as it appears today, covered by the Purington bricks.
Photo by C. Flynn.

Father Raymond DeNorus, a missionary priest born in France, became pastor in 1912. From all accounts, he was a very charismatic man. He enjoyed a good time, yet he was a man deeply devoted to his faith. He dispensed medicine, holy water and blessings from his side door. Numerous miracle cures were reported to have taken place over the years. Crutches, canes and braces left abandoned at the church were hung on the side walls. Services at the church drew large crowds and it became a place for pilgrimages. During this time the church became known as the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a shrine being a special place of devotion that attracts travelers from afar.
Fr. DeNorus retired in 1935. In the following decades, Sacred Heart settled down into a typical mid-twentieth century church. The early French settlers had long been replaced by German and Irish workers and other nationalities that had flocked to America. The church was modernized and simplified in keeping with the times. Fr. J. Barrett, one of the pastors, was instrumental in establishing Holy Name of Mary Church for Catholic African Americans in Morgan Park.

By the late 1970s, church attendance and donations had declined across the country for all mainstream denominations. In 1979, the Archdiocese of Chicago under the direction of John Cardinal Cody decided to close and demolish Sacred Heart, citing as its main reasons a shortage of priests and the expense of construction needed to correct building code violations. Members of the congregation rallied to restore and preserve the church. The church was closed from 1979-1982, but after the death of Cardinal Cody, the new Archbishop, the late Joseph Bernardin, agreed to review the matter.
In a letter dated November 3, 1982, Bernardin announced that Sacred Heart would be reopened. A number of conditions were established, including that the building had to be brought up to fire and safety codes. Sacred Heart was made a mission of Holy Name of Mary Parish. That meant it became a worship site within that parish and would be served pastorally and administratively through that parish. There are only three other mission churches in Chicago.

Now a Cardinal, Bernardin celebrated Mass at the restored Sacred Heart Church. A plaque in the entryway of the church marks this occasion: “In Commemoration of the joyful visit of JOSEPH CARDINAL BERNARDIN with the devout and tenacious people of Sacred Heart Church on Trinity Sunday May 29, 1983.”
Today, Sacred Heart is administered by the pastor of Holy Name of Mary Parish. Several other priests volunteer their time to say Mass and deliver the sacraments. The church does not have a school but offers Religious Education Programs. The church is self-supporting, relying on contributions, and the buildings are well-maintained. One of the greatest strengths of the Sacred Heart community is the commitment of volunteer time and effort to run most of the activities of the church.

The late Francis Cardinal George, as head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, visited Sacred Heart Church as part of his promise to visit every church under his authority. He professed his liking for the little mission church and even commented, perhaps only half-jokingly, about moving into the residence in the back of the church when his retirement time came. Cardinal George was a member of the order of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the same order to which Fr. DeNorus belonged, according to a document on the Church’s website.

In the Catholic Church, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is widely practiced and well-known. The physical heart is considered the representation of Christ’s divine love and suffering for humanity. The devotion originated in France in the late 1600s when a nun, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, claimed that during a series of apparitions, Jesus promised certain blessings to those who practiced devotion to his Sacred Heart. The Vatican’s position is that the manifestation and promises are true. The name Sacred Heart was very fitting for a French mission church.

One of the promises made by Jesus was, “I will bless those places wherein the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and venerated.” Given its history, from almost-certain destruction to total preservation, this seems very true for this little French mission church.

 

 

For more information contact RHS at 773-881-1675, ridgehistory@hotmail.com.

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Ridge Historical Society

10621 S. Seeley Ave., Chicago