It is difficult for us in the beginning of the 21st century to believe that our beloved Saint Ignatius had its roots in what was then an upstart town on the prairie. In 1850, Chicago consisted of little more than nine square miles. Outbreaks of disease such as cholera, smallpox, and tuberculosis were common. Yet Chicago, on the doorstep to the rich soil of the Midwest, located on an inland port and connected to the Mississippi River by the Illinois and Michigan Canal, soon became the shipping point to the east for agricultural commodities. The new technology of the railroad further enhanced the city's stature as a transportation hub. Manufacturing and retail made household names of Field, Palmer, and McCormick.
Chicago had grown from a village of 3,000 in the 1830s to a population of 60,652 by 1854. An influx of immigrants, including considerable numbers of Catholics from Ireland and Germany, came to work on the railroads, in the mills, and in the slaughterhouses. The need for clergy to serve this influx was great.
The United States was a missionary country in the eyes of the Church, much as we view third- world countries today. The famous Jesuit missionary to the United States, Peter DeSmet, often made journeys to his native Belgium to recruit young men to become missionaries to take up the great task of serving the Church in the United States. One of these young recruits was Arnold Damen.
After he completed his theology studies, Fr. Damen was ordained in 1844. He served as associate pastor and pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Saint Louis. In 1857, at the request of Most Reverend Anthony O'Reagan, Bishop of Chicago, Fr. Damen was assigned by Rev. J.B. Druyts, superior of the vice province of Missouri, to establish the first permanent Jesuit house in Chicago.
The Bishop of Chicago first offered to turn over to the Jesuits Holy Name Church along with the nascent University of St. Mary of the Lake. Fr. Damen, however, wished to found his mission with his own parish in what was then a sparsely inhabited part of the city. Critics questioned Fr. Damen's sanity at establishing a parish on the prairie southwest of the central city. How, some were wondering, could anyone build and expect to support a parish where there are no parishioners? Nevertheless, land was inexpensive and Fr. Damen answered his critics by saying, "I shall not go to the people; I shall draw the people to me." Thus did Fr. Damen set up the present Holy Family parish.
The parish flourished so that within one year the church building had to be enlarged. More and more Irish immigrants were settling the prairie around the church as Fr. Damen had envisioned.
Soon there was a need to educate the children of the parish and thus began a series of grammar schools staffed both by the Religious of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By 1865, nine hundred boys and five hundred girls attended the parish schools.
As early as 1862, the Jesuit board of consultors to the Missouri vice province decided that there ought to be a Jesuit college in Chicago and it appears that a college was always in Fr. Damen's plans from the time he reached Chicago. The time, however, was not opportune. The country was engaged in the Civil War, and the cost of borrowing money was high. The new University of St. Mary of the Lake closed because of financial difficulties. Furthermore, Holy Family Parish consisted largely of newly arrived, mainly poor, Irish immigrants. It is a tribute to Fr. Damen's fund-raising ability that he could secure the funds for the Holy Family Church and the system of grammar schools.
Fr. Damen's tactics and financial management became legendary within the parish. Once, when invited to stay for dinner while visiting one of the families in the parish, Fr. Damen is said to have replied, "I'm in great trouble today and what would be better than a dinner to me would be a helping from the sugar bowl." The sugar bowl contained this family's loose cash, from which this parishioner invited Fr. Damen to help himself. It was also said about Fr. Damen that "whenever he wants a big collection, one-half of his sermon is about hellfire and the other half about St. Patrick." Another time, in an act smacking of showmanship, Fr. Damen auctioned his horse and buggy to raise funds for the parish.
Fr. Damen's management of funds also would raise a few eyebrows today for his audacity in using leverage to achieve his goals. The parish and its schools demanded a large amount of property, little of which during the early years was owned free and clear. It was Fr. Damen's practice to use whatever equity the parish held in its properties to borrow money to purchase more land immediately. The parish property was valued at $250,000 in 1865, according to a report written by Fr. Damen to his superior.
Such a far-flung enterprise, however, could not rely solely on the generosity of the early parishioners and Fr. Damen's aggressive style of fund-raising. Furthermore, the provincial insisted that no funds for the college be raised from Holy Family parish. Whence, then, would come the funds to start the college? Fr. Damen was well known throughout the country as a preacher and year after year he spent the months from September to June traveling the country giving parish missions. Not only did he employ his stipends toward the needs of his parish back home in Chicago, but he also would make a direct appeal to the congregations he was addressing on the mission circuit. It was especially through such appeals to people all over the United States, people who had never been to Chicago, that Fr. Damen raised the money to begin construction of Saint Ignatius in 1867. Still, Fr. Coosemans, the provincial, believed that the time still was not ripe. Fortunately, Fr. Coosemans was called to Rome on business and Fr. Damen, shrewd as a serpent, asked for and received permission to begin construction from Fr. Keller, the acting superior. When Fr. Coosemans returned from Rome, he discovered that the foundation of Saint Ignatius was completed and work on the first floor begun. There was no turning back.
Nevertheless, $100,000 was needed to complete construction, which required more borrowing. Fr. Coosemans, citing the debt Fr. Damen owed the province for the construction of Holy Family, refused any more credit for the construction of the college. Interest rates in a country just emerging from the Civil War were prohibitive at 10 to 12%. New sources had to be found and Fr. Damen turned to his native Holland.
One of Fr. Damen's companions on the missions was a fellow Hollander, Fr. Van Goch, whose brother was a wealthy businessman in Holland. Fr. Damen requested that Fr. Van Goch contact his brother to ascertain whether he could lend the money. Fr. Van Goch's brother agreed and, having obtained permission from both the provincial and the father general, Fr. Damen set out for Holland to close the deal. In a report to Fr. General Becks, written in the winter of 1868, Fr. Damen gives a glimpse of his business acumen:
Now, to borrow money in this country I shall be obliged to pay ten per cent and perhaps more. This interest is too much and I am not in favor of paying so much. Therefore we have written to Holland to Mr. Van Goch, a very rich man, the brother of Father Van Goch, my companion on the missions. He has replied that if we come to Holland and give him the necessary security, he will give us all the money we need to finish the college, at four percent. That will save us six thousand dollars a year, and this saving, put out at interest here, will in ten years, with added interest, enable us to save more than a hundred thousand dollars. Thus in ten years we shall have paid all the debt of the college. This we can undertake without any difficulty or danger. The revenues of our Chicago house are at least thirty thousand dollars a year, of which we can save fifteen thousand dollars surely. Our other Fathers say twenty thousand, but I shall put it at fifteen thousand. Consequently in six or seven years we shall be able to pay all the debt, even without counting any revenue from the college.
These funds were enough to complete the part of the original building running north-south, plus the east wing on the front of the building facing Roosevelt Road. This L-shaped structure was ready to begin instruction with thirty-seven students and a faculty of three plus a president, prefect of studies (principal), and a prefect of discipline. It is worthwhile to pause here to emphasize that the construction of Saint Ignatius College was funded almost exclusively by persons with no connection to Holy Family parish and no connection to Chicago. The college's early donors most certainly never saw the results of their generosity. All looked promising for the new institution as it began its second year of operation with sixty-one boys enrolled. Then on 8 October, the Chicago fire began at Jefferson and DeKoven Streets, just five blocks from Saint Ignatius. Much legend has sprung up in the Saint Ignatius community about how the flames were headed toward the school, how Fr. Damen stood on the porch and prayed that his beloved church and college be saved. God heard his prayer. With flames about to reach the new college, the wind suddenly shifted and destroyed the central part of the city. Like all myths, there is a gram of truth to this one, which over time through exaggeration and confusion of facts became a wonderful story. In fact, Fr. Damen was in Brooklyn at the time, giving a parish mission. When he had heard of the great fire, he spent that night in a vigil praying that the college, the church, and his parishioners be spared. He made a vow that if his prayers were answered, he would keep in Holy Family seven lights burning in front of the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He then took the next available train to Chicago and arrived to find most of the city in ashes, but his parish and college spared. He kept his vow; to this day, seven lights burn in front of the picture of Our Lady in Holy Family Church. It is true that during the fire, the wind shifted, but not on the very doorstep of the school as the popular legend has it. Rather, the fire never came west of Jefferson Street where it had begun, well away from Saint Ignatius. As one of the few buildings left intact, Saint Ignatius immediately became a relief center and shelter. Among those who moved into the college were the Benedictines and the orphans of the Sisters of St. Joseph who occupied the classrooms in the main part of the original building, and the Bishop of Chicago, John Foley, who set up his residence and office on the first floor of the west wing where now is the Deans' Office. It is amazing that, with the demands put upon Saint Ignatius as a shelter and relief station, classes resumed a mere two weeks after the fire.
The term "college" as we conceive it does not adequately describe the institution or its course of studies. The concept of a high school was still in its infancy and the curriculum offered at Saint Ignatius ran the spectrum from junior high school to the bachelor's degree. A course was offered in basic grammar and arithmetic for those boys still needing to acquire or improve these skills. The next higher course of studies was a three-year program called Humanities, which concentrated on Latin, Greek, literature, and rhetoric. The final year leading up to the bachelor degree was called Philosophy. In addition, Saint Ignatius offered a commercial course, which concentrated on bookkeeping, business mathematics, and office skills for those not working toward the bachelor's degree. Saint Ignatius was thus a more comprehensive institution than it is today.
Attendance rose steadily during the first decade from the original thirty-seven students in the first year to 215 by the end of the decade. It appears, though, that attendance was quite fluid and that very few students remained at Saint Ignatius for the full course leading to the bachelor's degree. In the academic year 1878-79, for example, there was no class higher than the second year of humanities and no degrees were awarded. This should not be surprising considering the period under discussion. One must remember that the regulations for attending school were not as strict as today and that there was no mandate that children attend school until the age of sixteen. Such decisions were left up to the family. Consider also the clientele of the school, made up of the sons of newly arrived immigrants. Those of us familiar with the stories of our own families know that the children were needed to go to work to help support the family. Education meant training for a better job than one's parents and so, many students went to school long enough to obtain job skills. Consider also that very few individuals, almost exclusively men, went to college and received degrees. Colleges and universities were the preserve of the well-off and offered a classical curriculum such as the one leading to the Saint Ignatius bachelor's degree and not geared to providing job skills. Furthermore, in an age when academic standards were really standards and little attention was paid to a student's self esteem, a survey of the student records from the early years shows that few received grades higher than "C," and many received lower grades. So it appears that the attrition rate due to inadequate performance was higher than today. Given these factors operating against higher education, it is amazing that the college division managed to survive. Yet it is a tribute to Fr. Damen and the Jesuits that they had the vision to offer the opportunity for advancement through higher education where there seemed to be a small market for it.
Attendance steadily increased through the '80s and '90s until, by 1894, 400 young men were attending Saint Ignatius. The school needed more space and it was decided that a new building was needed. Work began on the "Hoeffler Building," known today as the "1895 Building." Generations of students down through the 1970s have also tagged it the "New Wing." In addition to new classrooms, the new building housed "state of the art" chemistry and physics labs that remained in use until 1992. It also was the first part of the physical plant to be wired for electricity. The new building marked the end of the first twenty-five years of Saint Ignatius and signaled further expansion of the Jesuit education apostolate in Chicago in the new century. (excerpted from Saint Ignatius College Prep: 125 years of Jesuit education, a history prepared by Raymond J. Heisler '78. Copies available upon request.)
Throughout the campus of Saint Ignatius College Prep, the letters IHS are predominantly displayed. IHS are the first three letters of Jesus in Greek. Saint Ignatius of Loyola chose these letters as a symbol for the Society Jesus, or Jesuits, a religious order he founded in 1540.