St. Patrick's Church on Marion Street is the second location for the church, which was established in 1838. | Bob Okon~Sun-Times Media
ST. PATRICK’S 175th ANNIVERSARY
What: Mass celebrated by Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, followed by festivities that include Irish dancing, polkas and mariachi music.
When: 4:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: St. Patrick’s Church, 710 W. Marion St., Joliet.
Updated: October 4, 2013 6:14AM
St. Patrick’s Church in Joliet celebrates its 175th anniversary on Saturday, a reminder that it’s the oldest parish in the Joliet Diocese.
So old that parishioners such as Mary Maher can say that her “great-grandfather was married here at the old St. Pat’s in 1853.”
Old but changing, emphasizes St. Patrick’s pastor, the Rev. Peter Jankowski, pointing to higher numbers of baptisms and increased enrollment in religious education classes as the parish reaches out to the growing Hispanic population and others in the neighborhoods that surround the church, 710 W. Marion St.
Jankowski, Maher and other parishioners will celebrate their enduring parish with a Mass at 4:30 p.m. Saturday led by Bishop R. Daniel Conlon. Festivities afterward reflect the diverse ethnic heritage of the church — Irish dancers, mariachi music and polka dancers.
Former parishioners are coming, too, said Mike Harvey, president of the parish council.
“I know we’ve heard from a number of people from outside the Illinois area who are coming,” Harvey said. “We really are hoping to get a lot of St. Pat’s alumni to show up.”
Originally, the parish was Irish and German. The church served the many Irish workers who were new to Joliet and building the Illinois & Michigan Canal.
Maher’s great-grandfather was an Irishman named James Cahill, who was passing through Joliet while moving westward. But her family ended up in Joliet, and Maher and husband, Dan, a former Will County auditor, moved into St. Patrick’s Parish in 1958.
“We’ve centered our lives around St. Pat’s,” Maher said. “We’ve known so many great people over the years.”
The neighborhoods around St. Pat’s aren’t so much Irish and German anymore. They’re increasingly Hispanic, but Jankowski notes a striking similarity over the past 175 years.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” he said. “We’re ministering to immigrants. This parish started because there were a lot of Irish and German immigrants here and they needed someone to minister to their physical and spiritual needs. What are we doing now? We’re doing the same thing.”
One sad sign of the changing times was the closing of St. Patrick’s School in 2011. But the two school buildings are back in use. Joliet Junior College teaches English as a Second Language classes in one, and the Head Start program fills another building.
“This building is wonderful for our program,” said Betty Custer, senior site supervisor for Head Start. “We’re able to have six classrooms here.”
Jankowski points to Head Start as one of several signs of new life in the old parish. There are 150 pupils in the program, while the parish food pantry serves 300 families a month. The religious education program is expected to enroll 300 students.
“We celebrated 163 baptisms in 2011-2012,” Jankowski said. “The last time this parish had that many baptisms was in 1970-71.”
Hispanic parishioners have made it possible for the church to grow again, he said, adding that a Sunday Mass is said in Spanish, and many activities and programs at the church are in Spanish.
As enthusiastic as Jankowski is about the future, one might not expect him to be well versed in St. Patrick’s past. In his seventh year as pastor, however, it’s apparent that he has studied the history. He tells it with a chronology of the parish’s 18 pastors, a list that would be longer had not one of them, Monsignor Philip Kennedy, served for 43 years (1917-1961).
“Anybody who was married here before the 1960s would have been married by him,” Jankowski said of Kennedy, whom he described as “really loved and tough as nails.”
The first pastor at St. Patrick’s, Rev. John Francis Plunkett, was a prodigious worker of great influence in the area, Jankowski said, having started several other parishes, including St. Joseph’s in Lockport, St. Rose’s in Wilmington, St. Mary’s in Minooka and St. Patrick’s in Lemont.
St. Patrick’s was divided over the years to create other parishes, including St. Raymond’s, which became home to the diocese’s cathedral.
Another important piece of St. Patrick’s history is that the original church on Broadway Street eventually became the site of Joliet Catholic High School after the church moved to its present location in 1919.
The school moved when it became part of Joliet Catholic Academy, and the old school building is now the Victory Centre senior residence.
All that history can be felt in the parish today, said Harvey, a relative newcomer since coming to St. Patrick’s 18 years ago.
“One would normally think being here 18 years, you’ve been here awhile,” Harvey said. “But there are people who have been here generation after generation after generation. (Older parishioners make up) a very staunch group of people who always show up (for Mass). They’re always there no matter what.”
The newer parishioners are adding vitality to the parish, he said.
“We have adapted to being ministers to people who are in the neighborhood. People feel this is a place where they are welcome,” Harvey said. “... For me this place is home. The people are welcoming. Everyone in the neighborhood is welcome to come here to church. I never feel alone when I’m here. I always feel that I’m with people who love me.”