Primarily excerpted from
“The Faith Community of St. Raymond de Penafort:
All Are Welcome in This Place”
by Jean Powley Murphy
Sixty-one years ago the fledgling parish community of St. Raymond de Penafort celebrated its first Mass together, in the basement of Mount Prospect School District 57’s 1920s-era brick Central School, located on the site of the current Mount Prospect Public Library. Its pastor was Fr. Thomas J. O’Brien, former chaplain of St. Theresa Hospital in Waukegan and the date was July 17, 1949.
Those attending were jubilant because the new parish had been a long-time-coming. Prior to this, Mount Prospect’s handful of Catholics had been forced to travel to Des Plaines or Arlington Heights to attend Mass, even though a group of 12 women began hounding the Archdiocese for a church here almost 20 years earlier, in 1931.
Because Mount Prospect was still a predominantly German community, dominated by Lutherans, land for the church was purchased secretly a year earlier by a lay agent for the Archdiocese. Much of the property at the north end of the block had been donated to the community in the 1920s for a school. But the city fathers considered the location too close to the business district. So they sold eight lots at auction for $15,000. The Archdiocesan agent then proceeded to buy up other lots within the block before the announcement of the coming church was made.
You see, Catholics were often unwelcome in the Protestant-dominated suburbs, according to Ellen Skerrett, Edward R. Kantowicz and Steven M. Avella, authors of Catholicism, Chicago Style. “Whereas Catholics regarded the formation of parishes in the suburbs as a new beginning, a sign of progress and faith in the future, for some Protestants it represented a serious fissure in the fabric of suburban life” and they were, if not hostile, certainly reserved toward the Catholic newcomers.
Building up the parish (which had been named after St. Raymond de Pennafort – the patron saint of Barcelona, Spain) was a challenge, according to the original members. Everyone helped to raise funds through bazaars, spaghetti dinners, fish frys and other events. The goal was to build a church and in June, 1952 a tiny sanctuary with a choir loft was dedicated. The plan was that the structure would eventually become a parish auditorium when a larger church was built.
Later that year the Archdiocese gave permission for a school to be added to the parish and by March, 1953 they were already excavating for an eight-classroom building. The school opened its doors in September, 1954. One mother recalled that her second grade son was one of 72 students in his classroom that year, taught by a single Sisters of Mercy nun. By the time that same boy entered eighth grade in 1960, there were so many students that they could only go to school half days so everyone could be accommodated.
Other lots within the block were purchased as years went on. A convent for the nuns was built at the corner of Milburn and I-Oka Avenues in 1957. That building now serves as the Parish Ministry Center.
The parish had quickly outgrown its tiny church with overflow Masses being held down the street at Lincoln Junior High School. So a huge fund-raising campaign was initiated in 1959 and by 1960, well-known church architect Theodore Erbach had been hired to design a new church. Eight more classrooms were also added to the school.
While the new church was being built, the heavily-wooded parcel to the south of it and across Lincoln Avenue became embroiled in a controversy. A group of investors planned to build an apartment building on the eastern half of the block. But the neighbors protested. They didn’t want a city-style apartment building with an alley in Mount Prospect. That’s what they had left behind in the city. So the Village Board rejected the plan and the investors were forced to sell the property.
Fr. O’Brien realized that he needed that land for a parking lot, so using intermediaries once again, he purchased the 24 lots for $100,000 and built a parking lot with capacity for 500 cars. Around the same time, he purchased one of the two remaining private homes on the church’s block when the family living there chose to leave the state. He immediately moved in, leaving his two associates in the rectory a block away.
Unfortunately, Fr. O’Brien died soon thereafter – on the operating table, at the age of 61.
His replacement was Fr. Leo P. Coggins, who tried to make his mark on the parish by building a rectory on the southwest corner of the block (where the Parish Life Center now stands). But there was a moratorium on rectory construction and the Archdiocese would not allow it.
So he decided to consolidate the two remaining Tudor homes on the block and make them into offices, meeting rooms and living quarters for the priests. He would continue to live next door at 313 S. I-Oka, however.
But there was the matter of the Steinmiller family that still owned one of those houses he was eyeing. Fr. Coggins approached them with a formal proposal that they basically trade houses. The parish owned a five-bedroom house at 218 S. I-Oka. They sold that home to the Steinmillers, who had eight children, and the Steinmillers sold their three-bedroom Tudor home to the church.
Immediately after the trade, Fr. Coggins had the two Tudor homes connected and remodeled into priest apartments and a common kitchen and dining room. The pastor’s house was attached to the rectory some years later.
The Second Vatican Council in 1965 brought upheaval to St. Raymond’s, as well as to every Catholic church in the world. Rome wanted a new, more people-centered liturgy and that required physical changes to the church like a smaller altar which was turned to face the people.
About this same time the school’s enrollment peaked at 1358 students in grades one through eight, taught by 12 nuns and 13 lay teachers. By 1966 the school had added teachers for physical education, music, art and remedial education. There was even a band.
Those who chose to send their children to the public schools sent their children to the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes at night and on weekends for their religious training. Originally operated by lay volunteers, this program took care of the religious education of 1200 students. It wasn’t until 1969 that a parish staff member took over coordination of the CCD program.
Shortly thereafter, in 1970, Fr. Coggins retired to California because of health problems and Fr. William J. Buhrfeind became the parish’s third pastor.
While his predecessors dealt with all of the physical needs of the parish, Fr. Buhrfeind dealt with the profound social change and widespread unrest shaking the country at that time. Guidelines for involvement in the Church by the laity had been outlined years before in the Vatican II document, but not really implemented yet. So the American bishops began the implement the directed changes.
In 1972 Fr. Buhrfeind suggested the formation of a parish council. Its job was to coordinate the activities of parish committees which oversaw church finances, religious education and so forth. The representatives were elected by the church membership and 2,000 people cast votes in that first election.
It was also about this time that “Branches,” a social, education and support program for high school students, was organized. And guitar Masses were the new rage.
As population numbers dipped, so did enrollment in the school. So there was room to add a kindergarten in 1975 and a pre-school in 1979. But this was also a time of dipping religious vocations. So that last Sister of Mercy departed the St. Raymond’s convent in 1976, leaving the school to be run by lay teachers.
But although many good things came from Fr. Buhrfiend’s experiment with lay leadership of the church, he had given away too much authority, he later admitted. It became a power struggle for control between various boards and he knew he had to take back the power he had delegated.
But that was something someone else needed to do because Fr. Buhrfeind chose to retire instead, leaving his successor, Fr. Robert J. Loftus, to reshape the power structure of the parish.
After a year of attending meetings and listening to how things were working, Fr. Loftus began taking back power from the parish council because several members thought that the council, not the parish’s professional staff, should run St. Raymond’s.
He saw himself as a bridge between old and new. He had to be careful of the traditions of the older people, while acquiescing to some of the wishes of the younger people.
At the same time, Fr. Loftus had to repair and replace the parish’s crumbling physical plant which had been patched instead of repaired in order to save money. He transformed the empty convent into a parish ministry center filled with offices and meeting spaces; replaced windows and doors in the school; and carried out a $750,000 renovation of the church which included installation of the gorgeous Robert Harmon-designed stained glass windows.
Fr. Loftus’s first priority, however, was the spiritual life of the parish. So during his tenure he brought to St. Raymond’s such programs as CRHP (Christ Renews His Parish), RENEW, the substance abuse team, psychological counseling services, funeral luncheons and bereavement counseling. He also initiated the partnership and interaction with neighboring St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and allowed a retired colleague, Bishop William McManus, to start to parish’s alms program.
Fr. Loftus passed away from lung cancer in the rectory on April 27, 1996.
He was a hard act to follow and it took the Archdiocese several months to replace him. In fact, they now asked for input from parishioners before choosing a successor. Eventually, Fr. Bernard Pietrzak was chosen as St. Raymond’s fifth pastor.
Computerizing the parish, making the liturgy more inclusive of children and having his staff work more collaboratively were Fr. Pietrzak’s initial goals. In fact, he initiated the Office of the Pastor through which key members of the parish staff made decisions as a team.
He also put more emphasis on adult religious formation and revitalizing the Branches program for teens.
It wasn’t long, however, before requests from parishioners for a more modern school and better gathering spaces convinced Fr. Pietrzak to embark upon a Revitalization fund-raising campaign to bring the parish campus into the 21st Century. The campaign was run in a manner reminiscent of the early days of the parish when members were asked to help build a future for St. Raymond’s.
In the end $7.2 million was raised and the original church (which had been being used as a parish hall/school gym) was torn down and replaced with a new school library, computer lab, science lab, cafeteria and junior high school classrooms. At the south end of the block the Parish Life Center, a huge gymnasium with a stage, was built, as was a lovely parish gathering room immediately north of the church. The massive construction project was completed in 2001.
All of those state-of-the-art improvements certainly must have played a part when, in 2009, St. Raymond School earned the distinction of being designated a Blue Ribbon School, one of only 17 private elementary schools in Illinois to ever earn this honor from the U.S. Department of Education. It was a moment of immense pride for the parish.
In July of 2010, Fr. Steven Dombrowski was chosen as St. Raymond’s sixth pastor. Shortly after he arrived, we began our Upholding the Tradition Building Campaign. The main focus on the campaign was to modernize the original school building through new lighting, electrical, removal of carpeting, wireless technology within the school.
All of the new improvements on the campus certainly brought up completely into the 21st century.