WEST LOOP — The annual "World's Largest Block Party" at Old St. Patrick's Church is expected to bring thousands to the intersection of Madison and Des Plaines streets, as it has every year since its inception in 1984.
Chicagoans, suburbanites and even out-of-towners will flock to the downtown Catholic parish June 28 and 29 for live music, cheap beer — and the possibility of meeting a mate.
Former suburbanite Jenny Sponholtz was at her fifth Block Party in 2010 when she locked eyes with Travis Drury across the Barenaked Ladies crowd.
"It was his smile that caught my attention," Sponholtz said. "I was walking towards the stage, and he smiled and caught my eye, and stuck out his hand and said 'Hi, I'm Travis.' It's not even a pick-up line, but something about the way he said it just worked on me."
Finding his now-fiancée at the fest wasn't a huge shock for Drury, a teacher in downstate Bloomington, who was visiting with friends.
"I was the only single guy in my group, and didn't know what was going on that day," he said. "My friends say we're going to the World's Largest Block Party and said 'Travis, you're gonna have a great time, it's gonna be a lot of single girls there and it's known for matching people up. We'll find you someone tonight."
The two soon began dating, and eventually Sponholtz moved downstate to be with Drury. But each year, they made the trek up to Chicago, refusing to miss an incarnation of the street fest that brought them together.
Father Thomas Hurley, Old St. Pat's priest, says the future Drurys join the ranks of more than a hundred Chicago couples to marry after meeting at the fundraiser.
"There's just something in the air at that block party," Sponholtz said.
The annual fundraiser event, now in its 29th year, "has really become kind of a Chicago institution," Hurley said.
Preparation for each fest starts a year in advance, managed by two full-time special events staffers, a volunteer committee and a standing partnership with Jam Productions to book musical acts like Gretchen Wilson, Phil Vassar and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, this year's headliners.
Admission covers four drink tickets and beer will be flowing, but Hurley says the thousands of attendees each year are always well-behaved in the Catholic church's backyard.
Hurley said he doesn't think the boozy festival contradicts his church's principles.
"It's been a very deliberate part of our mission to have outreach to young adults," he said. "Sadly enough, I think there's a lot of young people who think church can be kind of dull and boring, and I think for a church to be throwing a party of this significance with some pretty cool music, and cool bands, I think that adds a lot to our identity.
"I think people will get a kick out of that, and I'm glad they do. I'm looking forward to it," he said.
While Hurley and thousands more are kicking back at the two-day event, Drury will be noticeably absent for the first time since 2010 — he's been banned by Sponholtz, since it's the backdrop of her bachelorette party this year.
Old St. Pat's will get several nods in the Sponholtz-Drury wedding in August: the couple shot their engagement photos at the church, and plan to set their first dance to a Plain White T's song to commemorate the band's presence at the last two fests.
"We're excited to incorporate memories from [the Block Party] into our wedding," Sponholtz said. "It's such a big part of our story."