Chapel at former Oak Forest Hospital faces uncertain future
By Susan DeMar Lafferty email@example.com November 18, 2012 10:26PM
Father Wayne Wurst gives Communion during the 100th Anniversary Mass Sunday at the Sacred Heart Chapel, on the campus of Oak Forest Hospital. photo for Sun-Times Media by Jean Lachat
Updated: December 20, 2012 6:15AM
Tucked away on the grounds of the former Oak Forest Hospital, the Sacred Heart Chapel has provided peace to the poor and comfort to the sick and dying for generations.
About 150 former employees, loyal friends and family members gathered Sunday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its first mass — Nov. 1, 1912 — a bittersweet celebration because the future of the old chapel now is uncertain.
“There are no patients any more, so there is no need for a chapel,” the Rev. Wayne Wurtz said as he made his way down the hall to the anniversary dinner after celebrating the 3:20 p.m. Mass, possibly for the last time. “We leave it up to God to decide our future,” he said. “I thank God and the good people of Cook County who made this a holy place.”
The grounds on the southeast corner of 159th Street and Cicero Avenue were bought by Cook County to be a poor farm, said George O’Grady, a longtime volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent DePaul. And when the poor became sick, Cook County Infirmary and Tuberculosis Hospital was opened.
O’Grady has volunteered at Oak Forest for more than 30 years, with the Vincentians serving the needs of patients for 102 years, he said.
To build a chapel on government property was an issue that went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. Judges ruled that it could be built — but not with government money, O’Grady said. It was financed with donations from religious organizations.
As the numbers grew at Sacred Heart, new churches were formed, including St. Christopher Church in Midlothian and St. Damian in Oak Forest, and many of their members came to Sunday’s celebration.
During the Depression, the poor farm housed 4,300 people, and later the site became one of the largest hospitals for the chronically ill in the world, O’Grady said.
He even has seen patients get married there, he said.
Others remembered bringing patients to the chapel for services.
Pews were taken out to make room for hospital beds and wheelchairs, and the tiled floor made it easier to transport the nonambulatory.
Carol Rehm came from Frankfort with her young children. She used to live in Oak Forest, volunteer at the hospital and attend Mass every Sunday at Sacred Heart.
“It’s kind of sad,” she said, to think that the chapel’s future is so uncertain. Wurtz is leaving, and no one has been named to replace him, she said.
The chapel — with its 100-year old stained-glass windows, gleaming white altar and warm dark woodwork — is a “peaceful place,” said Bernadine Nagler, of Oak Forest.
She’s been coming since she was a child, with her mother who used to work at Sacred Heart.
“I think about my mom when I’m here,” she said.
Services always were held at 3:20 p.m. so nurses whose shift ended at 3 p.m. could attend Mass.
Until recently, there were two Sunday services, 9:30 a.m. and 3:20 p.m., and a Tuesday Novena.
Andrew Nevin came here with his grandparents for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and attended services “off and on” for 30 years.
“We used to go to the friary across the street and shoot pool with the priests,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories here.”
Now he brings his kids.
“It’s beautiful. It’s a great place,” he said.
Wurtz told the congregation that Sacred Heart was a place for everyone. It served the poor, the sick, the hungry and the homeless, and they all came to “find the truth,” he said. “The truth we have seen in this place can never be destroyed.”
As a final song, the people sang: “I am strength for all the despairing, healing for the ones who dwell in shame. All the blind will see, the lame will all run free, and all will know my name.”