“People here who entertain visitors by bringing them downtown often relate a tall tale about how Chicago’s famous Water Tower is the only building that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Sometimes, that’s accompanied by the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, the alleged perpetrator.
“Both stories are false, and a Morgan Park-based historian is helping to set the record straight this week in a new documentary on WTTW.
“But the actual story, Ellen Skerrett said, involves not just the surviving structures and a scapegoated immigrant woman, but the common threads that tie many of us to Chicago and its suburbs.
“The story as she tells it centers on Holy Family Church, built in the late 1850s on 12th Street in an effort spearheaded by the Jesuit priest Rev. Arnold Damen, a Dutch immigrant whose name lives on in Chicago’s Damen Avenue. It, along with neighboring St. Ignatius School, now St. Ignatius College Prep and a forerunner of Loyola University, were among the few buildings to survive the great conflagration that consumed nearly all of the city and killed 300 of its citizens.
“Also a survivor of a 1990 demolition threat, the church was home to generation after generation of people like Catherine O’Leary, one of the many Irish immigrants who were Holy Family parishioners, many who helped establish the church in 1857.
“People were working class, and they contributed their pennies and nickels,” Skerrett said, “to building places of great beauty that were theirs. This helped them create a place for themselves in Chicago and helped build up the city.” (Eisenburg, 10/4/20)