How Jesuits opened their doors to homeless immigrants after the Great Chicago Fire

In 1871, the city’s official Relief Society decided which Chicagoans were “worthy” of aid, leaving thousands of immigrants to fend for themselves.

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The Rev. Arnold Damen

Sun-Times files

Sun-Times reporter Mitch Dudek is right about seven lights still glowing in the Church of the Holy Family, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, but there’s more to the story of Rev. Arnold Damen, S.J. and his vow in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871. 

Fr. Damen and Jesuit priests and brothers opened the doors of the Gothic church and their new college next door to provide relief for homeless victims. One of the rare documents I’ve found in the course of my research on the history of Saint Ignatius College Prep was a New York Irish World illustration pasted in a scrapbook in the school’s archives. Dated Nov. 4, 1871, it is a vivid etching of Chicago’s Jesuits offering assistance “without distinction of race or creed.” 

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Why is this significant? In 1871, the city’s official Relief Society decided which Chicaogans were “worthy” of aid, leaving thousands of immigrants to fend for themselves. Then, as now, immigrants were regarded with suspicion as threats to urban life. Arnold Damen, born in Leur, Holland in 1815, was a city-builder who understood that the Jesuit church and its schools represented hope for working-class people and Chicago itself. 

Journals in the archives of Saint Ignatius College Prep corroborate this extraordinary outreach, noting that orphans were housed in the school, now located at 1076 W. Roosevelt Road, and that its basement was used as “a depot for distribution of provisions & clothing.” 

While Catherine O’Leary has finally been absolved of blame for starting the Great Fire of 1871, isn’t it time, after 150 years, to set the record straight about Fr. Damen and Jesuit outreach?

Ellen Skerrett, Morgan Park

The price of neglect and deprivation

The richest person in Illinois, Ken Griffin, has threatened to move out of Chicago because the crime here has finally become visible to him. Never mind that this should come as no surprise to anybody, given how our economy has been manipulated over many years to favor the haves and disfavor the have-nots — in Chicago and elsewhere.

Without excusing criminality, which must be squelched, chronic disinvestment in certain groups of people and neighborhoods cannot go on forever without there being a backlash. We reap what our city fathers have sown with respect to how resources have been deployed. Neglect and deprivation don’t stay bottled up by arbitrary boundaries. They spill over into rage and, sometimes, criminality.

People play the hand they are dealt. Why act surprised?

Ted Z, Manuel, Hyde Park

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