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Inside Blessed Alojzije Stepinac, N. Side's Only Croatian Catholic Church

By Linze Rice | October 16, 2017 5:13am

WEST RIDGE — Across from two gas stations and a McDonald's at the corner of Ridge and Devon sits the stately home of the Blessed Alojzije Stepinac Croatian Catholic Mission.

But to many, it's still known as St. Henry — the neighborhood's very first church.

In 1851 during the area's early farming days, German immigrant Peter Schmitt opened his home to others who lived the Ridge Trail for Catholic Mass, as no physical churches had yet been established.

So that same year, Schmitt's friend and landowner Henry Fortmann built a single-frame structure next door and began to offer Mass to the area's largely German and Luxembourger population, according to the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. In May 1852, it was dedicated. 

After two decades, the log house was swapped out for a bigger building.

In 1891, four decades after informal mass was held in Schmitt's cabin, the Rev. Joseph Ruetershoff ordered an addition at the growing church, according to the historical society.

In 1905, the signature brick, limestone and bronze neo-Gothic church that remains today was finished.

Henry Schlack was the designer and architect, famous for his portfolio of ornate places of worship — including St. Ita in Edgewater.

"St. Henry’s could be considered the mother of all churches north of Irving Park Including those in Evanston," the historical society said. "It became a clearing house for new immigrants from Luxemburg, and to this day, many people of Luxembourg origin throughout the Midwest know about 'St. Henry’s on the Ridge.'"

Angel Guardian Orphanage built another addition onto the church, and in the 1920s the property's ownership was transferred to the orphanage. A new St. Henry's was built at 6335 N. Hoyne Ave.

Eventually, the children's home closed and in 1977 it became the new home to a local Croatian Catholic Parish: Angel Guardian Croatian Catholic Mission. 

The Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998, and the church was re-named to its current form. Today, the church is overseen by the Croatian Franciscan Holy Custody of North America, according to its website.  

Inside, its history comes alive in glistening stained glass, red marble, striking columns and lighting. Outside, its small cemetery rests Robert Rueckheim, the grandson of the inventor of Cracker Jack, and the "Sailor Jack" boy who famously appears on its box.

The property was open to the public as part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Open House Chicago 2017 tour for the first time Saturday, offering great views inside the historic building. 

Get a look inside below. 

All photos by DNAinfo/Linze Rice.