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Sunday, March 3

Gapers Block

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This column is the next installment in my occasional series examining the real people behind our Chicago street names. We learn this week that Damen Avenue was named for Father Arnold Damen, a Jesuit priest and founder of one of Chicago's oldest Catholic parishes.

Arnold Damen was born in Holland in 1815 and emigrated to the U.S. to study theology and enter the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. He was ordained in 1844 and first served as the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1857, however, Father Damen was sent to Chicago when the Bishop of Chicago, Reverend Anthony O'Regan, invited the Jesuits to establish a house in the city. Damen was originally offered the position of pastor at the Church of the Holy Name, but he wanted instead to found a new parish on the outskirts of the city.

Damen founded Holy Family Church in 1860. The present address of the church is 1080 West Roosevelt Road, now considered part of the Near West Side, but in 1860 this area was little more than sparsely populated prairie land. The church quickly attracted a large parish, however, and newly arrived Irish immigrants especially began to settle in the area.

In 1870, Father Damen also opened Saint Ignatius College. Schooling at the college, located next to Holy Family Church, originally consisted of 3 years of secondary school followed by 4 years of college studies. Around 1909, the 4-year college was separated from the school and reestablished itself as Loyola University Chicago on land newly purchased on the city's far North Side. The high school, however, remained on Roosevelt Road and continues today as St. Ignatius College Prep.

Holy Family Church is the second oldest church in Chicago, and its history and features could easily fill a separate column. At the time of its construction, Holy Family Church was the third largest church in the United States. The interior of the church was designed by Chicago's first architect, John Van Osdel, and the building features the city's oldest Tiffany stained glass windows.

The church has also weathered its share of disasters. In 1871, Holy Family Church survived the Great Chicago Fire, which began just a few blocks away. Father Damen was in New York at the time of the fire, but when he learned of the fire, legend says he spent the night in vigil, praying that the church be spared from the fire. In addition, Damen promised if the church was spared, he would keep 7 candles burning forever in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary in the church. The winds complied, blowing the fire towards the lake and Chicago's business district but away from Holy Family Church. The event was dubbed the "Miracle on Roosevelt Road," and Damen and his successors have kept his promise. Seven lights continue to burn today in front of the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Then, in the early 1990s, the church was narrowly saved from being torn down by a group of parishioners who organized the Holy Family Preservation Society and raised millions of dollars to help restore the building. Finally, just last July, the church was in the news again when a fire in the basement caused extensive damage throughout the structure.

Father Arnold Damen died in 1890, but local legend believes his ghost continues to haunt Holy Family Church and nearby St. Ignatius school. Numerous people over the years have reported seeing a man dressed in clerical garb wandering the halls of the school at night or passing through the church.

Damen Avenue, formerly Robey Street, was officially renamed for Father Arnold Damen in 1927.


Bielski, Ursula. Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.

Haynor, Don and Tom McNamee. Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988.

St. Ignatius College Prep. Jesuit History.

Chicago Authors: First Lines

"When I got through telling the sergeant at Central Homicide about it, he said to sit tight and not touch anything, that somebody would be right over. I told him I wouldn't even breathe any more than was absolutely necessary and put back the receiver and went into the reception room to take another look at the body.

"He was at the far end of the couch, slumped in a sitting position, with his chin on his chest and an arm hanging down. A wick of iron-gray hair made a curve against the waxen skin of a high forehead, his half-open eyes showed far too much white, and a trickle of dark blood had traced a crooked line below one corner of a slack-lipped mouth. His coat hung open, letting me see a circular red stain under the pocket of a soiled white shirt. From the center of the stain protruded the brown bone handle of a switchblade knife."
-- Howard Browne, from "So Dark for April"

Howard Browne was born in Nebraska in 1908, but he moved to Chicago as a teenager. He began his writing career in Chicago selling his stories to pulp magazines. The success of his stories led to an editorial position with the publisher, and Browne was later promoted to manager of the entire division of pulp magazines, which included Amazing Stories and Mammoth Detective. Browne also wrote a series of novels featuring detective Paul Pine, the protagonist of the short story excerpted above.

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