Pompeii shrine celebrates 100 years of culture

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, July 17, 2011

As ethnics of all types flooded Chicago throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th century, many arrived eager to establish a place of worship to practice and perpetuate their Catholic faith, values and customs.

Many Germans took to the near North Side, Irish filled neighborhoods west and north, both ethnic groups building churches to serve as the center of community life. The Italians who began blanketing the near West Side were no different.

With crowds of Italian-American Catholics overwhelming the services and programs at nearby Holy Guardian Angel Parish, 717 W. Arthington St., the archdiocese and Archbishop James Quigley drafted plans for a new parish to serve the area’s growing Italian-American demographic.

Such begins the tale of Our Lady of Pompeii.

In 1911, Our Lady of Pompeii was officially established as a parish. Archbishop Quigley placed the Scalabrini Fathers in charge of the parish, while the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception directed the school. A dozen years later, workers broke ground for the church building that now stands at 1224 W. Lexington St.

Throughout its opening decades, Our Lady of Pompeii served as a center of Italian- style hospitality, life, culture and spirituality. Each year, Chicago’s Columbus Day celebration began with a Mass at Our Lady of Pompeii, while active parishioners formed faith-based clubs and spiritual committees, and the church emerged a beacon of stability in the close-knit neighborhood.

The parish’s future seemed bright and stable.

Turning points

In the 1950s, nearly two-thirds of the housing in the Our Lady of Pompeii Parish was razed to accommodate two major construction projects: the current Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Desired or not, the construction forced many residents to leave their homes and, subsequently, the parish.

“There were a lot of hurt feelings,” said Marcia Piemonte, a community resident and Our Lady of Pompeii’s director of development and special events.

As the city faced monumental ethnic shifts throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Our Lady of Pompeii’s parishioner count further dropped. The school closed and the Scalabrini Fathers, so nurturing throughout the parish’s history, could no longer staff the parish. The historic structure built by Italian hands appeared destined for closure if not the wrecking ball.

“There was a bitterness among residents and they took to the streets,” Piemonte said.

Somewhat unexpectedly, a grassroots movement to save the parish began to swell among neighborhood residents. Current and former parishioners as well as school alumni created a “Save Pompeii” campaign. The group’s passionate efforts caught the eye of Cardinal Bernardin.

On Oct. 10, 1994, Cardinal Bernardin proclaimed Our Lady of Pompeii church a shrine, one dedicated to honoring Mary, the Mother of God and Queen of the Holy Rosary.

“I’m not sure if anyone knew what a shrine was, but it was a way to keep the doors open,” Piemonte said.

Life as a shrine

Though the parish never reached its 100th birthday, the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii has survived throughout the last 17 years as a home of Italian culture and worship and a gift of Italian-American hospitality to the entire Archdiocese of Chicago.

“The faith of those in the past allows today’s faithful community to continue rejoicing in the hope and love that faith gives,” Father Richard Fragomeni, the shrine’s rector, said.

The shrine hosts annual events, such as: Festa di Tutti I Santi, the Festival of All the Saints, every August; the Feast of St. Joseph in March; the festival celebration of Santa Lucia each December; and the Italian celebration of children, La Befana, in January. In addition to two Sunday Masses, the shrine also hosts regular pilgrimages for those who have lost children or spouses.

“We have people returning regularly to visit the church because it was the church where their parents were baptized or their grandparents married,” Piemonte said. “There’s a real presence of tradition that brings something back to people and creates a connection rooted in faith and family.”

Fragomeni hopes Our Lady of Pompeii continues to develop a ministry of service and healing rooted in the Catholic faith and Italian-American hospitality.

“The hope is that the shrine can continue as a center for devotion to Mary, spiritual counseling and comfort for all, and even a portal back into parish life for others,” Fragomeni said.