Keeping Up With A Growing and Changing Community

The story of Saint Hilary Church and School, situated at the corner of California and Bryn Mawr Avenues,  begins in the early days of West Ridge. The parish land was originally part of the Budlong Brothers farm, a large grower known throughout the area as the purveyor of Budlong pickles.  As the city expanded in the post-World War I period, the farm was sold to developers and new homes sprang up to accommodate Chicago’s booming population.

A local couple, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Annen, moved into the in the new community in 1919 and found that attending Mass at the nearest church, St. Ita’s in Edgewater, required a three-transfer streetcar trip. Over the next few years, they and other new arrivals made repeated requests for a new parish, and finally, one was established incorporating the Arcadia Terrace, Peterson Woods, and Budlong Woods neighborhoods that had emerged from the Budlong property. 

Father James O’Brien became the founding pastor and a temporary structure on Lincoln Avenue between California and Fairfield Avenues was erected to serve the parish until a permanent church could be built. This outdoor “portable” church presented some problems, as it had to be set up each week from supplies kept at the rectory, but on the first Sunday of May 1926, Saint Hilary Church celebrated the first Mass of Chicago’s 245th parish.

Under the leadership of Father Thomas J. Burke, construction of a permanent parish soon began, and St. Hilary School at 5614 North Fairfield opened in 1928. The Benedictine Sisters of Saint Scholastica ran the school, which grew rapidly. Within six years the school building was too small to accommodate the growing student body, and a new convent and rectory were constructed to free up space for more classrooms in the school building. 

Throughout the decades following, the parish was challenged by the need to repay the church’s mortgage, a difficult task as the Great Depression swept through the United States, followed by the mobilization for World War Two. However, the church survived this difficult period and the parish expanded again in the 1950s.

A new building project was initiated under Monsignor John P. Halligan on the current site at Bryn Mawr and California. The first step was to build an auditorium for the school that could accommodate the whole parish community, which allowed services to be held there while a new church was built.  The church, with its entry at 5613 North California, was completed and dedicated in 1956 with His Eminence Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago and Monsignor Halligan officiating.

The school also began new initiatives in the 1950s. It is noted for being one of the first schools in the country to offer opportunities for blind students to learn alongside sighted peers. The programs for the blind were flexible enough that each student could progress at their own rate in an innovative program supported by the archdiocese and the community.

Photo by Stephanie Barto
St. Hilary Photo
St. Hilary Photo

Fine Art Creates A Serene Atmosphere for Worship

The new structure  is of Romanesque-style architecture using arches and wooden beams for structural support, and is filled with important works of art. The Stations of the Cross are one-of-a-kind stone relief tablets made up of carved pieces of colored stone of several varieties.  Most statuary is Travertine or Carrera marble. The Baldacchino canopy over the altar is spun bronze, and at the time of its installation was the largest spun bronze piece in the world.

The Munich-style stained-glass windows were designed by F.X. Zettler, whose work can be found in many churches in Chicago and elsewhere in America.  Sadly, three  windows at the entrance were stolen in the 1970s. Those currently in place, titled “Keys to the Kingdom” in the center, flanked by “St. Peter and the Church” and “St. Peter and the Holy Spirit,” are replacements.

The pipe organ in the loft was built and installed in 1956 by the Wicks Organ Company of Highland Illinois. It has 19 ranks (sets of pipes) with about 1,500 pipes. The largest  is 16 feet in length and a foot in diameter while the smallest is about the size of a pencil.