St. Sabina history: From Irish to black, closure list to thriving

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7743 S. Racine was the original site of St. Sabina Church established July 9, 1916, when the first mass was celebrated in this storefront. parish, be established in the storefront. | Provided photo

St. Sabina Catholic Church was born in a storefront at 7743 S. Racine.

Chicago Archbishop George Mundelein wrote in a July 3, 1916, letter to the Rev. Thomas F. Egan: “I hereby appoint you to organize the new parish of St. Sabina. The boundary lines are as follows: On the north — 75th Street; South — 63rd; East — Aberdeen St.; West — Ashland Ave.”

Egan, who would lead the then predominantly Irish Catholic parish for 26 years, said the first mass on July 9, 1916.

On Dec. 8 that year, ground was broken for a combination church and school at 1210 W. 78th Pl.

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GalleryEgan wrote to the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisc., of his desire to start a school, and the order sent four nuns. St. Sabina Academy opened on Sept. 10, 1917, and within a decade, had 19 nuns serving 848 students.

A convent was built in 1924. The burgeoning congregation worshipped in the combination church/school building until 1926, when the new “Lower Church” building was completed. They began construction of the “Upper Church” in 1931, amidst the Great Depression, and Mundelein dedicated the current English Gothic cathedral on June 18, 1933.

St. Sabina was the original host of Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The mayor would come out. Mass would be said. The parade would march down 79th Street.

With the Great Migration of blacks fleeing the Jim Crow South for northern cities, the 1940s to 1960s saw growth in Chicago’s black population. With the battle against segregation came racial turmoil. Blacks moving into the St. Sabina boundaries were welcomed by its pastor, Monsignor John A. McMahon, who hired noted organizer Saul Alinsky to promote integration efforts.

At the same time, a priest who taught at St. Rita High School to the west, the Rev. Francis X. Lawlor, was battling to keep blacks out of the school’s largely Irish, Polish and Lithuanian neighborhoods. Lawlor was relieved of his duties by the archdiocese and became an alderman in 1971.

Real-estate redlining and white flight took its toll. The neighborhood changed from white to black, quickly. St. Sabina graduated its first all-black class in 1966. It hired its first black principal in 1970.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger arrived in 1975 as assistant to then pastor Henry Pehler. The church was on the decline, in dire need of repairs, with diminishing revenues. It was slated for closure. Pehler died of a heart attack in 1980. Pfleger was named “permanent administrator.” In 1982, then-Archbishop Joseph Bernardin named Pfleger pastor.

The interior of the church was overhauled in the 1980s — to an African motif. St. Sabina’s altar is drum shaped, in black walnut; its huge mural of a black Jesus dedicated in 1984.

By 1990, St. Sabina was thriving, and had paid off its debt to the archdiocese. It’s internationally known today as a hotbed of social justice activism under Pfleger, its controversial pastor.

RELATED STORY: St. Sabina’s 100th year: Activist priest Michael Pfleger reflects

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