Father Bob Lombardo and mission volunteers assist a resident with some groceries for her family. Photo by Karen Callaway/Catholic New World

The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels is bringing hope to Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood. 

The mission has taken hold over the last six years, filling needs both human and spiritual. For neighborhood residents, who live in one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden areas of Chicago, it works with the YMCA of Metro Chicago and the Greater Chicago Food Depository to provide a safe place for recreation and fresh food. For young people, it provides opportunities for service and reflection. For its base of volunteers, it offers an opportunity to work where it will have an immediate impact. 

And for the new Franciscans of the Eucharist, it is home.

Rising from tragedy

The new religious communities — one for men, one for women — take their name because it is the Eucharist that is behind the rebirth at Our Lady of the Angels. Soon, they hope to celebrate the Eucharist in Our Lady of the Angels Church. 

The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels takes its name from its location, the former Our Lady of the Angels Parish. The parish was the site of one of the worst school fires in U.S. history on Dec. 1, 1958, when a blaze that started in the basement of a stairwell raced up it like a chimney and engulfed the top floor, killing 92 students and three Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While the school was rebuilt, the parish succumbed to changing demographics, and it was consolidated with nearby St. Francis of Assisi Parish in 1999. The new school building closed in 2000. 

In 2005, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George invited Father Bob Lombardo, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, to come to Chicago to re-establish a Catholic presence in the neighborhood, whose population had changed from mostly Catholic ethnic Europeans to mostly non-Catholic African-Americans. 

Father Lombardo, an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, called on the Irish alumni network and set to work, first making the rectory habitable, with a chapel where the Eucharist was reserved in the tabernacle, space for small groups or individuals on retreat and weekly food pantry and clothing distributions. Once a month, the Greater Chicago Food Depository came with its mobile food pantry, a refrigerated semitrailer with fresh produce and meats. 

Connections with area trade unions provided much of the skilled labor and once the rectory was done, Father Lombardo began to welcome more volunteers, and continued to offer them more opportunities for spiritual formation and development. Some of the people who came were discerning a call to the religious life, Father Lombardo said, and explored other communities. But they kept coming back and saying that what they felt called to do was at the mission. 

“I invited them to come in and live here and enter into a period of discernment,” Father Lombardo said. “We got approval from Cardinal George, and that’s how the community was born. 

The Franciscans of the Eucharist women’s community now includes three novices, and the men’s community has one in discernment. 

Mission driven

Meanwhile, the mission grows. A memorial to the people who died in the fire was dedicated on the fire’s 50th anniversary. In January 2009, Kelly Hall, the former parish center, reopened as the Kelly Hall YMCA. The mission coordinates programs for neighborhood seniors in the mornings and the YMCA runs after-school care and nutrition programs for children in the afternoons.  

The community members help with the morning senior program, with the food distribution and sometimes with the after-school activities, all while engaged in their own education and formation. They plan to offer their services teaching religion in area Catholic schools as well, Father Lombardo said. 

After the lease on the church expired, the mission began putting together donations of money, material and labor to bring it back as a place of Catholic worship. The first cost estimates were about $2.2 million, Father Lombardo said, as the church needed a new roof, new heating system and new bathrooms.  

But the mission now is only $45,000 away from its goal. 

“We hope to have perpetual adoration here,” he said. “We want to continue our efforts to see Christ in the Eucharist and seeing Christ in the poor. But everything is still in the beginning stage. Our priority is still the formation of the young people.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.