The Church exists to bring the message of Jesus to all peoples. We look back on the rich history of St. Procopius Parish and see the parish as a community of faith–originally a Czech community and now a predominantly Mexican community. Let us study and relive the history of our parish so that we can grow in the future.
The First Years (1863-1883)
The following list describes important highlights of this period:
- Immigration of Czech Catholics
In 1863 the Czech Catholics who immigrated to Chicago formed their first parish, St. Wenceslaus, at 11th and De Koven Streets. In 1871 they organized themselves in the Bridgeport area at St. John Nepomucene.
- Growth of the Pilsen neighborhood
Pilsen experienced great growth after the Chicago Fire of 1871 because the new fire codes did not prohibit inexpensive frame construction this side of the river. Many of today’s neighborhood buildings go back to that period of construction and population growth. When Czechs moved from other neighborhoods into Pilsen, the need for a parish became clear.
- Fund raising for a school and parish
Fr. William Coka, pastor of St. John Nepomucene, helped to organize a committee of Pilsen residents to raise funds for a new school and parish. In the summer of 1875, the committee bought three lots at the corner of 18th and Allport Streets for $3,600. The Methodist Church at 19th and Halsted wanted to build a brick church and would sell their old frame church for $2,000. Consequently, this frame structure was purchased and moved to 18th and Allport–the upper part to be used for worship and the lower part for a school. St. Procopius, a tenth century Benedictine monk, was chosen as patron saint of the new parish.
- Establishment of St. Procopius Parish
St. Procopius was organized as a parish in 1875 with Fr. Coka as its first pastor. The first Mass was celebrated there on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1876, by Fr. Gerst, chaplain at nearby Alexian Brothers Hospital.
St. Procopius School began in 1876 with Mr. John Petru, a professional teacher and organist, as its first principal. School enrollment grew very rapidly. Two Franciscan sisters from Joliet joined the growing school. The sisters lived in a small house on the north side of 21st Street between Racine and May before they moved into the church building. Within a few years two more buildings and part of a third were acquired for the school. In the building at 1714 S. Racine, seven Franciscan sisters established their convent on the second floor with classrooms on the first floor.
- Construction of a new church
To keep up with the parish’s growth, Fr. Coka decided to build a new church. The old church was converted entirely to school use and relocated closer to the alley to make room for the new church. Mr. P. Huber was the principal architect of the Romanesque church. Ground-breaking took place September 28, 1881. Archbishop Patrick A. Feehan blessed the church on September 23, 1883. The celebration attracted many visitors, including Czech clergy from other American cities.
The Benedictine Years (1884-1986)
The following list highlights key points and accomplishments during this period:
- Frs. Nepomuk Jaeger, OSB, and Václav Kocárník, OSB, two Benedictine priests from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, preached a mission at St. Procopius during Lent, 1884. Both had previously been doing priestly ministry in Nebraska. Fr. Coka took this opportunity to ask Arch-abbot Wimmer, OSB, to found a Benedictine community at St. Procopius and to take over the parish ministry. On March 2, 1885, the archabbot established a Benedictine community at the parish. With the Benedictines established in the parish, Fr. Coka accepted a new ministry in Nebraska. The ministry of the Benedictine priests and brothers at St. Procopius lasted for over 100 years.
- Early Benedictine pastors
The Benedictine community consisted of Fr. Jaeger, Frs. Wenceslaus Kocárník, Xavier Traxler, and Sigismund Singer. Fr. Jaeger was St. Procopius’s first Benedictine pastor (1885-1894). He built the rectory in 1886 and the grade school in 1890. When the Benedictines established St. Procopius Abbey at St. Procopius Parish, Fr. Jaeger was chosen as its first abbot. The rectory served as the abbey until it was moved to Lisle, Illinois in 1914.With Fr. Jaeger as abbot, Fr. Valentine Kohlbeck, OSB, became pastor (1894-1897)
Fr. Neuzil, OSB, became the next pastor of St. Procopius (1897-1914).
In 1912 the empty lots on 16th and Racine were bought for $18,207 as a school playground.
- St. Procopius College
In 1887 St. Procopius College Academy (destined to become Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois) began classes in the building immediately to the east of the rectory.
Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes
Work to construct the chapel to Our Lady of Lourdes began in 1906. Archbishop James E. Quigley dedicated this chapel on October 3, 1908.
- The Bohemian Benedictine Press
Fr. Kohlbeck had organized the Bohemian Benedictine Press in 1889 in the buildings north of the present rectory. Under Fr. Method Vones, OSB, as pastor (1914-1916), the Bohemian Benedictine Press began three publications: a daily newspaper, Národ, (Nation) for the Chicago area; Katolík, for subscribers outside Chicago; and Psítel Dítek, (Children’s Friend) for youth. The Press had tremendous influence during its 86 years of operation.
- Golden Jubilee of St. Procopius
During Fr. Joseph Chvátal’s first term as pastor (1916-1927), the parish celebrated its Golden Jubilee. When Fr. Chvátal was appointed manager of the Press, Fr. Alphonse Biskup, OSB, became the next pastor (1927-1929). He resigned due to poor health. Fr. Alois Keclík, OSB, succeeded him as pastor but died very suddenly in 1930.
- Fr. Dominic Kotek’s Service from 1925 to 1974
Fr. Dominic Kotek, OSB, served as administrator in the months following Fr. Keclík’s death. During almost all the years between 1925 and his death in 1974, Fr. Dominic served in this parish. Every day, for years, he stood outside greeting people–especially the children who eagerly sought his kindly attention.
- Church Renovations and the Ladies Social Club
Fr. Cosmas Veselý, OSB, was named pastor (1930-1936). During Fr. Veselý’s tenure the church was redecorated and repainted, and the stained glass reset in the windows. He then left the parish to go to China as a missionary. Fr. Dominic Kotek again served as administrator. Fr. Raymond Koman, OSB, became pastor (1937-1941) and updated the church’s electrical system. He organized the Ladies Social Club which raised much of the money for the church floor. The women of the Social Club are still active in the parish to this day.
Fr. Chvátal, OSB, began his second term as pastor (1941-1950). He made improvements within the church and school while the parish high school gained State accreditation. Fr. Chvátal served St. Procopius for over twenty years–more years than any other pastor.
- Reconstruction of school and a new convent
Fr. Peter Mizera, OSB, the next pastor (1950-1966), found much work to be done. The convent was in poor repair and the City declared the school “unfit for further use.” In the spring of 1952, the school was torn down to its brick walls, completely renovated, and re-opened for classes by autumn, 1953–at a cost exceeding a quarter million dollars. The fundraising activities of the loyal and zealous parishioners paid off the entire debt by 1962. Then they raised funds for a new convent, completed in 1964.
- Cultural and language changes in the 1960’s
When the University of Illinois started construction of its campus north of Roosevelt Road, displacing the Spanish-speaking families, the parish began to experience cultural changes. Families from Mexico, the border states, and exiles from the Soviet subjection of Czechoslovakia began to move into the neighborhood in increasing numbers.
Fr. Matthew Herda, OSB, assisted in the parish and began weekly Masses in Spanish in the 1960’s. He also added Czech Masses at this time. The Mexican Social Club of St. Procopius also began in 1961. The following year, novenas to Our Lady of Guadalupe became a parish devotion.
Fr. Charles Kolek, OSB, the parish’s next pastor (1966-1983), brought the Cursillos de Cristiandad, or renewal retreats, to the parish in 1966. Fr. Tomás Riós, a diocesan priest from Mexico, helped with the Cursillos. The Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe was built in the garden next to the church and dedicated in 1966.
- “Living Way of the Cross”
Beginning in 1975, the Mexican parishioners raised money for the parish with outdoor street carnivals, or kermes.
Since 1977 the Catholic parishes of Pilsen conduct the Good Friday “Living Way of the Cross” involving between 8,000 and 10,000 people. The procession route is about two miles long and passes St. Procopius on the way to Harrison Park at 18th and Damen, where the crucifixion scene takes place. Cardinals Joseph Bernardin and Francis George have led the final prayer and homily on numerous occasions.
- Final Benedictine Pastor
Fr. Terence Fitzmaurice, OSB, came to the parish in 1967 and became its last Benedictine pastor (1983-1986). With his leadership, the church ran a summer-job program for 500 young people beginning in 1969; converted the Benedictine Press building into the Youth Center in 1975 (offering boxing, recreation, and social activities); and provided meals for the needy. Fr. Terence received the St. John Bosco Award for his ministry to troubled youth.
The Benedictines returned administration of the parish to the Archdiocese in 1986, ending a century of pastor al ministry in Pilsen. The parish was saddened when Fr. Terence, and thus the Benedictine presence, left St. Procopius.
- The pastoral ministry of the parish always included a strong commitment to the education and Christian formation of its youth. Beginning with fourteen students in 1876, combined enrollment in both the high school (closed in 1981) and elementary school at one time exceeded twelve hundred students. St. Procopius is deeply indebted to the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Joliet, Illinois, who served the parish between 1876 and 1986. During that time, 288 Franciscan sisters taught in this parish for a total of 1,444 teaching years. Thirteen School Sisters of Notre Dame of Milwaukee served the parish between 1973 and 1993 for a total of 76 years of educational and pastoral ministry. St. Procopius has been truly blessed by these religious women. They are remembered with gratitude for their tireless years of teaching.
St. Procopius an Archdiocesan Parish Again (1986-1992)
Fr. Ted O’Keefe became the first Archdiocesan priest since 1885 to serve as pastor (1986-1989) of St. Procopius. Fr. O’Keefe organized the Parish Council; he modernized the church interior; and, to promote Scriptural reflection on daily life, he began our parish’s Small Christian Communities (CEBs). The Charismatic Prayer Group was organized in 1987 and continues to the present day.
In 1986 the Missionaries of Charity opened a House of Formation between the school and the former youth center now occupied by Loyola Center. Mother Teresa visited us in 1986. They began Daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Lourdes Chapel in 1995.
Fr. Don Nevins became pastor (1989-1992) and increased the number of CEBs. In 1990 the parishes of Pilsen organized The Resurrection Project to provide social outreach and affordable housing. Fr. Manuel Myvett, SVD, (1991-1995) increased the evangelical outreach of St. Procopius and neighboring parishes through his celebration of the Eucharist, and by animating their pastoral programs and CEBs. Most recently, Esperanza Familiar, or Family Hope, was established as a family development initiative under The Resurrection Project.
The Chicago Province Jesuits as St. Procopius (1992-2016)
The Jesuits accepted the pastoral ministry at St. Procopius with the hope of developing educational ministries to the Pilsen area.
The following list gives highlights of this period:
- First Jesuit Pastor
Fr. James Schulz, SJ, was named the first Jesuit pastor (1992-1994). The staff included a Director of Religious Education and a Director of Youth Ministry.
The “Pilsen Project” brought about two new institutions and a revitalization of the parish school. Sr. Judy Murphy, OSB, became the first Director of the Loyola Center for adult education; Mr. Daniel Loftus is the present Director and it is now called Poder Learning Center.
- Study of Educational Needs
In 1993 Fr. Bradley Schaeffer, SJ, (then Provincial of the Chicago Province of the Jesuits) asked Fr. James Gartland, SJ, to do a year-long feasibility study regarding the educational needs of the Mexican-American communities in Pilsen and Little Village. His study led to the 1996 establishment of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, with Fr. John P. Foley, SJ, as its first president.
- Dual Language Elementary School
Fr. James Gartland, SJ, became pastor (1994-1999). Father Chuck Niehaus, SJ, became assistant pastor in 1995. Under Fr. Gartland’s leadership, and with Ms. Karen Beeman as the principal, St. Procopius Elementary School educates its 250 students to be academically proficient in both English and Spanish. The school seeks to preserve and develop the culture of the community and to encourage academic, social, and spiritual growth. St. Procopius is the only dual language elementary school in the Archdiocese.Spiritual developments of this period include the December novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the August novena to La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos have flourished as times of prayer and celebration.
- Fr. Timothy Howe
Fr. Timothy Howe, SJ, became the 19th pastor of St. Procopius on July 1, 1999. He served 10 years until July 2009. During that time, the parish took on pastoral responsibility for nearby Holy Trinity Church in 2004 and increased its workload to 7 Sunday masses. Fr. Tim was both pastor and full time School Principal in 2006-07. Fr. Tim is fondly remembered as an incredibly intelligent and hard working Jesuit who successfully managed an increasingly complex parish.Fr. Howe’s tenure brought into the new millennium both the parish’s rich history and its new pastoral and educational programs. St. Procopius was and is a spiritual home to people of many backgrounds–a sign of Christ’s presence in Pilsen.After Fr. Tim took a new position in Cincinnati, Fr. Mike Conley, SJ served as pastor for a brief period.
Fr. Sean O’Sullivan, SJ began as Pastor on July 6, 2010. He came from working 9 years at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. He was assisted by Fr. Jim Collins, SJ and Fr Dick Murphy, SJ.
Fr. Patrick Casey returned from Peru to work at St. Procopius in April of 2011. Fr. Chuck Niehaus returned to St. Procopius, as Associate Pastor in September of 2012. Fr. O’Sullivan is currently assisted in the parish by Fr. Chuck as Associate Pastor, Fr. Pat in pastoral ministry, and by Deacon Candelario Rodriguez.
Fr. Sean A. O’Sullivan, S.J. – Pastor
Father Sean A. O’Sullivan, S.J., is a native of Kenmare, Co. Kerry, Ireland. He entered the Society of Jesus in Berkeley, Michigan in September 1987, and was ordained a priest in June 1999 at St. Xavier Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Fr. O’Sullivan worked for nine years as Director of Counseling at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. He joined the St. Procopius staff in 2009 and served as pastor from July 2009 to June 2016.
St. Procopius an Archdiocesan Parish Again (2016-)
After 24 years of pastoral ministry by the Jesuits, St. Procopius is once again an Archdiocesan parish. Fr. Gary Graf has been assigned as pastor of our Parish since July 1, 2016. With the arrival of Fr. Graf, also came the merging of nearby Providence of God Church with St. Procopius. Providence of God becomes a worship site of St. Procopius, We are now one parish with two sites.
The parish priests have baptized 58,612 persons and married 7,481 couples at St. Procopius. Parish families have fostered over eighty vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Many thousands of first- and second-generation Czechs and Mexicans and others were nourished in their faith commitment and found God’s presence at St. Procopius.