Shnay: St. Irenaeus Parish to mark 65th anniversary in Park Forest
By Jerry Shnay Citizen Journalistfirstname.lastname@example.org September 5, 2013 2:22PM
Updated: October 9, 2013 6:12AM
In the summer of 1948, a young Chicago priest, the Rev. Elmer Coogan, was dispatched by the Chancery Office of the Chicago Archdiocese to the fictitious area of “West Chicago Heights” and charged with the difficult task of establishing a new parish.
“They called it West Chicago Heights, but that was just a substitute name because there was no one out here,” Coogan recalled in 1981 as part of his recorded interview for the Park Forest Oral History Project.
At the time, St. Ann’s Mission Church, which was affiliated with St. Liborius Church in Steger, was located on Sauk Trail, then a narrow two-lane road in a distant and sparsely inhabited corner of South Cook County.
Although it served worshippers, the St. Ann building was in a dilapidated state. Heated by a potbelly stove, it was a nesting ground for mice.
“It was a pretty little church,” Coogan recalled, “but it was getting to be a hazard.”
There were no other buildings on the church property so Coogan found lodging in an unheated room at St. John’s Catholic Church in Glenwood during the summer and a warm basement room in St. Agnes Church in Chicago Heights during the winter months.
The hopes of the pastor for a new church and American Community Builders’ planned community of Park Forest quickly crossed paths.
The developer offered Coogan three sites for a new church — across the street from what is now the Park Forest Aqua Center; on Western Avenue near the current site of Hallelujah Temple and Trinity Lutheran Church and a 7½-acre site that was selected by Coogan after looking at a crude map of Park Forest and noting that the site “seemed to be in the middle of the village.”
Plans were drawn for the new church at Orchard Drive and Indianwood Boulevard. In 1949, shortly after Park Forest was legally incorporated, construction began on what was to become St. Irenaeus Catholic Church, a rectory and a school.
For three years during the construction, and before he could move into his new church quarters, the archdiocese paid Coogan’s rent for one of the newly built apartments on Western Avenue.
On Christmas Eve 1951, the first Mass was said in the new church.
In many ways “St. I’s” mirrored the progress of Park Forest. The booming village meant a fast-growing parish, and after a decade or so the church was bulging at the seams.
Plans were made and work began on a larger church across Indianwood Boulevard. On Christmas Eve 1964, the new church held its first Mass, and the former church building became the parish school’s gymnasium.
Because of escalating costs and decreased enrollment, St. Irenaeus School closed in 1969, but at its peak the school had more than 850 students attending classes taught by 10 nuns and six lay teachers.
After 20 years as the leader of the congregation, Coogan retired in 1968. His successors included the Revs. Francis Garrity, Richard Grimmel and Dan O’Sullivan and the current pastor, the Rev. Terry Johnson.
On Sept. 15, St. Irenaeus Parish will celebrate its 65th anniversary. It’s a point of pride to its loyal parishioners that St. I’s is older than the village where it has persevered, long an integral part of Park Forest’s religious landscape.
The commemoration will be simple. A 10:30 a.m. service will be followed by the blessing of the O’Sullivan Memorial Garden and a reception in which photo albums detailing in large measure the role of St. I’s in the life of the community will be on display — including the 1,414 weddings that took place in the church during the last 65 years.