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Our Lady Of Angels Campus, Known For Tragic 1958 Fire, Sees New Life

By Mina Bloom | September 7, 2017 6:02am | Updated on September 10, 2017 11:02am
 Sister Stephanie Baliga (pictured) stands in front of the mission's renovated two-flat.
Sister Stephanie Baliga (pictured) stands in front of the mission's renovated two-flat.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

WEST HUMBOLDT PARK — This year the Mission of Our Lady of Angels' annual Christmas party is expected to draw about 1,500 neighbors and 600 volunteers, according to Sister Stephanie Baliga.

That's significantly more than Baliga's first year in 2010, when about 400 neighbors and 200 volunteers participated.

"Right now, the need in Chicago is extremely great," Baliga said.

To accommodate the growing number of needy people in West Humboldt Park, Mission of Our Lady of Angels, 3808 W. Iowa St., is expanding its footprint thanks to local architecture firm OKW, construction company Ryan Companies and other benefactors.

Last year, the mission renovated a run down two-flat next to the campus to serve as housing for more than 20 volunteers, most of them college students or recent graduates. The project was executed by OKW and Ryan Companies for free.

The partnership will continue, as the team is planning to renovate another much bigger building on the mission's campus to house donations, a retreat center with nearly 70 bedrooms and additional classrooms, Baliga said.

Since the mission has yet to formally acquire the property, Baliga was reluctant to share too many details on the new renovation project aside from the fact that it should begin in November. But she said both projects represent "exponential growth."

"We've outgrown all of our space," Baliga said, explaining that all of the mission's donations are currently being "stuffed like junk" into the basement. "We're going to be able to continue what we're doing, plus more."

Baliga said there's a definite correlation between the mission's growth and the increase in gun violence and poverty across the city.

"The amount of people who need assistance is definitely growing. We're seeing lots of new people all the time and lots of transient people. A lot of people we've served for a long time ... their government resources have diminished so we're helping them in more capacities," she said.

The mission opened in 2005 in the former buildings of Our Lady of Angels, considered one of the city's largest Catholic parishes when neighborhood demographics were Irish, Italian and Polish in the 1950s.

The grade school affiliated with the parish, an ancillary building on the campus, will always be remembered for a devastating 1958 fire that claimed the lives of 92 children and three nuns. The blaze not only sent shock waves throughout the entire city, but also prompted fire code updates across the country. It is still regarded as one of the country's deadliest school fires.

Though parishioners were quick to rebuild the school just two years later, changing demographics and declining enrollment led to the school's closure in 1999. Up until last year, the building was being leased by Galapagos Charter School. Today, it's vacant.

Baliga said the victims, survivors and the families of survivors are still very much in the minds of the Our Lady of Angels community.

"We pray for the souls who died in the fire and pray for those who are still suffering with the after effects. It's still continuing to affect people today," she said.

But she said the mission is a separate entity that provides shelter, food, toys and spiritual guidance to needy families in West Humboldt Park — not daily Mass like the original parish did.

"We don't try to pretend like we're a reincarnated parish. We're extremely blessed with the rich history, but we've been sent here to do the mission outreach work," Baliga said.