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The Heroic Sister

A Tale of Bravery of one Franciscan Sister of Chicago 

The Franciscan Sisters of Chicago entered the ministry of education in 1901, when they provided Sisters to teach at SS. Peter and Paul in Spring Valley, Illinois. After some initial success in that parish, the Sisters decided to staff a second school in 1902. This school was named St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr and it was located on the northwest side of Chicago in the Cragin community and also a part of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Sisters would teach at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr School starting in 1902 to 1992, making it the oldest and longest  place where they served.  In this article we will discuss the brief history of the school and retell a remarkable tale of one Sister’s bravery.

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St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr in Chicago

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The Beginning of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr

Cragin was a rural community on the northwest outskirts of Chicago.  It was officially annexed into the city in 1889 as its population began to increase. The area attracted a growing number of Polish immigrants who moved there for employment in the various manufacturing industries that were being located there. In 1893, members of the Cragin community petitioned the Most Reverend Patrick Feehan, the Archbishop of Chicago, to establish a Catholic church. He assigned the Reverend Vincent Barzynski, C.R. to help organize the newly formed parish and to build a church. Fr. Barzynski served as the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Chicago. He also was the spiritual mentor of Mother Mary Theresa Dudzik, the foundress of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. In the early months of 1893, the Polish immigrants in Cragin helped build a new church. On June 30, 1893, Fr. Barzynski officially dedicated the church and it was named St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr.  Priests from the Congregation of the Resurrection in Chicago traveled by horse and buggy to celebrate Mass once a week.  By 1897, the parish opened a Catholic school for the children in Cragin.  The school employed one teacher who was in charge of three grades.

Reverend Vincent Barzynski, C.R.

In 1901, the Reverend John Obysracz became the first resident pastor at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church. He asked the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago to come teach at the school that had grown substantially in just four years with now 85 students enrolled. The Sisters came to the school ready to teach in the fall of 1902. Sr. M. Aloysia Holysz became the principal and local superior and Sister M. Philipine Lama was assigned to be a teacher.  Sr. M. Gertrude Zimna was assigned household duties. The Sisters moved to a home next to the rectory. When Sr. Aloysia became ill, Sr. Philipine took over as principal in 1905. Sr. Mary Welter and Sr. Susanna Kielpinski joined her as new teachers at the school.  The Sisters were initially overwhelmed with the number of students but as time went on, they managed to turn the school into a success. Sr. Philipine would later become known throughout the parish due to her heroics and bravery. Born in 1877 in Poland, she emigrated to the United States in 1883 with her family and became a member of St. Hedwig parish in Chicago. She joined the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in 1900 and was later assigned to work in the ministry of education. 

In March of 1907, during Holy Week, the students at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr were having a typical school day as many looked forward to the coming Easter festivities. By the early afternoon, a sudden severe storm blew into the Chicago area from the northwest with high winds, rain, and lightening. Just as the students were being dismissed, a bolt of lightning struck the church tower and the church and school caught on fire. Sr. Philippine sprang into action, ordering everyone to evacuate, and successfully getting all the children out of the school. She sent a student to run to the fire department to inform them of the burning buildings and, also to tell the pastor.  Unfortunately, the pastor was in Chicago and unable to help.

When the roof of the church started to burn, Sr. Philipine felt she needed to save as many church items as possible, so she ran into the church and headed for the sacristy. Inspired by her courage, several men outside the church ran after her to help. They were successful in salvaging many church items. Since the pastor was delayed in arriving (as it was his duty to take out the Blessed Sacrament), Sr. Philipine went back into the church to get the Blessed Sacrament. Just as she held the Blessed Sacrament in her hands, the roof collapsed over the choir section. Sister rushed to the exit and made it out just in time unscathed as the entire roof of the church collapsed into a fiery rubble. Because of Sr. Philipine’s heroic efforts, no children were injured. Through her quick thinking, many church items as well as the Blessed Sacrament were saved. Sadly, the entire church and school were in ruins. By the time the fire department arrived, the fire had reduced everything to rubble.  

The Reverend Andrew Spetz, C.R. arrived at the scene fearing the worst. He was mistakenly told that the children and Sisters had perished in the fire. He made a total head count and confirmed that all survived, then gave thanks to God for the miracle that all were safe. Since the church and school were destroyed, the Most Reverend Peter Muldoon, the auxiliary bishop of Chicago, permitted use of a large hall that was owned by a parishioner for use as a temporary church and school. Everyone in the community worked together to convert the hall to a church where the Easter celebrations could be held. Just a few days later, they held Mass in the hall on Good Friday and Sr. Philipine was praised during the Mass by Bishop Muldoon for her heroics. This hall served as a temporary structure until a new church and school was built at the end of the year in 1907. Enrollment grew even more and by 1920 a new school building was built to accommodate the nearly 700 students that were enrolled. A new church was finished in 1926. More Sisters were assigned to work at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr. By 1930, an astounding 1,400 children went to school there.
 

Reverend Andrew Spetz, C.R.

Sr. Philipine continued her work in education.  She would teach in many different schools over the years including St. Adalbert in Whiting, Indiana, St. Stanislaus Kostka in Youngstown, Ohio, Sacred Heart in Cleveland, Ohio, and St. John Cantius, in East Chicago, Indiana (as well as several others). She returned to Lemont in 1946 and taught postulants until she retired. Sr. Philipine died on January 11, 1958 at Our Lady of Victory Convent.

St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr School continued to thrive throughout the years. Many Franciscan Sisters of Chicago taught there over the years and dedicated their lives to the children who went to school there. In 1992, the Sisters officially left the parish as the remaining Sisters that were still teaching were moved to other ministries that the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago sponsored. By 2004, enrollment at the school declined and the parish was forced to close the school.

 

In 2020, the parish decided to combine with nearby St. Genevieve Parish to form one large stronger parish now titled:  SS. Genevieve and Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr.  People in Cragin, continue to attend Masses at these churches that have been such a large part of this neighborhood. 

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