IN MEMORIAM: Rev. George A. Lane, SJ, Jesuit priest who helped save Church of the Holy Family from demolition during the 1990 “Miracle on Roosevelt Road”

The Rev. George Lane admires the artistry on one of the newly restored statues at the Church of the Holy Family on March 12, 1998. Photo credit: Jose More / Chicago Tribune
In this photo from 1998, Fr. George A. Lane SJ, a member of Holy Family Preservation Society watches new light fixtures, replicas of 1899 Victorian style lights, at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd. Photo credit: John H. White / Chicago Sun-Times
Fr. George Lane, SJ Memorial Service at The Church of the Holy Family on December 17, 2023. Photo credit: Ward Miller
Holy Family Catholic Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, Dillenburg & Zucher, 1857. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

“A Jesuit priest who saved Church of the Holy Family from demolition in 1990 and over the next decade restored Chicago’s second oldest church to full service passed away on Nov. 12, 2023 the age of 89.

“More than three decades ago, Rev. George A. Lane, SJ. sent out an urgent plea about the impending demise of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church. A modest, self-effacing Jesuit priest of nearly 70 years, Lane was also a Catholic book editor and publisher who, in response to the desperate pleas of parishioners to save the historic Victorian Gothic church from being demolished by its Jesuit owners, turned to the streets and local and national media.

“Holy Family Church was founded by Dutch immigrant Rev. Arnold Damen, a Jesuit, in 1857, and the Gothic edifice was completed according to the plans of John Mills Van Osdel, Chicago’s premiere architect at the time. Dedicated on Aug. 26, 1860, Church of the Holy Family was a symbol of faith and hope in the future of the city.

“It was one of five public buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which began on the property of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, parishioners of Holy Family.

“‘Holy Family was built with the nickels and dimes of the city’s working poor, a place of great beauty in their lives and their neighborhood long before Chicago had an Art Institute,’ Ellen Skerrett said. ‘German immigrants Anton and Sebastian Buscher created its magnificent altar, statues and confessionals, and Louis Wisner, a Lutheran, carved its communion railing.’

“‘It needed to be saved for future generations.’

“Holy Family thrived for decades on the Near West Side, but by 1984, with a dwindling congregation primarily consisting of Black residents of the area, the long-neglected structure was in serious disrepair, and the massive church was closed.

“Four years later, leaders of the Jesuit Province of Chicago reluctantly decided that the only practical solution was demolition and replacement with a modest structure. However, a small group of parishioners tenaciously resisted the demolition plan.

“They sought the help of Lane, who resided in the parish rectory as he handled his principal assignment as an editor at Loyola Press, the Jesuit-sponsored publishing house. Lane listened to the parishioners’ concerns, prayed over the alternatives and sought permission of his superiors to do what he could to save Holy Family. He became a founding member of the Holy Family Preservation Society (HFPS), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to saving and restoring the church to service.

“Lane and his team turned to friends, family and foundations, such as the Cuneo Foundation, Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Catholic Order of Foresters, Brach Foundation, the Corboy, Dolan, Opler and Sanfilippo families and many others, to help raise the estimated $4 million needed to restore Holy Family Church.

“However, a crisis arose in August 1990, when the Jesuit provincial advised Lane that the HFPS must have $1 million cash—with no pledges—by Dec. 31, 1990. Otherwise, the donations in hand would be returned, the church demolished and a modest, new structure built on the site.

“If the HFPS could meet the $1-million goal, the Chicago Jesuits pledged to contribute $750,000 to establish an endowment fund to help ensure its future.

“Fr. Lane’s phone call in mid-December 1990 to Richard Barry got straight to the point.

“‘Dick, I need your help,’ he said. ‘After plodding along for 18 months, we’ve raised $700,000; but unless we have $1 million by New Year’s Eve, all bets are off, and Holy Family will become a parking lot.’

“After thinking through the alternatives, our PCI team decided that his only option was to take Holy Family’s cause to the streets and do all we could to turn a national media spotlight on his challenge to raise $300,000 in just two weeks—and at Christmastime, no less.

“We built a pro bono national campaign on a memorable, straightforward pitch — ‘Say Prayers and Send Money.’

“Lane drew on Holy Family’s history by reprising the pledge that Damen made on the night of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871: to burn seven candles in the east transept of the church forever if the building and adjacent newly built St. Ignatius College were spared.

“The wind shifted as much of the city burned, and the church and school were saved. Holy Family once again became a place of refuge as hundreds of fire survivors were fed and sheltered in the church basement. The archbishop of Chicago’s home also burned to the ground, and he spent several months living with the Jesuits at St. Ignatius College.

“As Lane was organizing a five-night prayer vigil of parishioners and supporters, Skerrett’s timely Dec. 20, 1990, letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune, ‘Holy Family Church at a Crossroad,’ launched a virtual avalanche of local and national media coverage.

“Television cameras and newspapers captured the scene of parishioners and supporters standing on the steps of the locked and closed church. They held seven candles ablaze in Chicago’s bitter cold while singing Christmas carols and praying the rosary. Coverage of the prayer vigil motivated the Associated Press to publish a national piece that resulted in articles in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, CNN and scores of other media across the country.

“Chicago print and broadcast media clamored for the story, and new developments were covered daily—we were the good news story of Christmas 1990.

“As Lane recounted in ‘The Miracle on Roosevelt Road,’ a book published in 2008 to mark the 150th anniversary of Holy Family parish, thousands of people attended the final day of the prayer vigil on Sunday, Dec. 30, the Feast of the Holy Family.

“They left enough money in the donation basket so that, on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1991, Fr. George stood on the steps of the church to report to national media and supporters that the HFPS had secured more than $300,000 in the final weeks of December for a total of $1.11 million, meeting the demands of the church’s owners and staving off demolition.

“The Tribune’s Jan. 3, 1991, editorial, ‘Surely, St. Joseph will tip his derby,’ (a reference to the whimsy of the woodcarver Buscher to Holy Family’s thousands of Irish parishioners) mused how this impossible task was accomplished.

“‘Ah, all those practical-minded naysayers,’ editors wrote, ‘hadn’t counted on the Miracle of West Roosevelt Road.’

“Today, following its recent consolidation with nearby Notre Dame de Chicago, the Church of the Holy Family continues to be the site of baptisms, weddings, funerals, concerts, architectural tours and scores of liturgies and special events under the aegis of St. Ignatius College Prep, its neighbor.

“At his memorial Mass on Dec. 17, Ellen Skerrett and Richard Barry will give thanks to have been companions to one of Fr. George Lane’s extraordinary life accomplishments.” (Barry, The Beverly Review, 12/12/23)

“Architect Ward Miller, who is now Preservation Chicago’s executive director, joined with colleagues including architect John Vinci to prepare drawings and otherwise help with the renovation effort.

“‘Holy Family would not be standing today without the efforts of Father George Lane and the efforts of all the people who came together,’ Miller said.” (Goldsborough, Chicago Tribune, 12/14/23)

Read the full story at The Beverly Review

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