Homily – October 8, 2021 (150 anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire)
Church of the Holy Family ∙ Chicago. As you enter this church, you can see that we have new floor mats which bear the motto: go set the world on fire. Purportedly the call from St. Ignatius to his Jesuits that they must Go and care for the poor and needy with Scriptures and the sacraments. Go and set the world on fire.
Just to keep the record straight, the Jesuits arrived in Chicago in order to set a spiritual fire, not a literal fire. and they continue to do so ever since the summer of 1856.
It was in that summer the Chicago Bishop invited Father Arnold Damen from St. Louis to preach a series of missions or spiritual revivals. The bishop was so delighted with the spiritual harvest that he sought to hire Father Damen permanently. With the permission of the Jesuits in Saint Louis father Damen came to Chicago. His first idea was to find a site on which to build a new church and gather a congregation. He built a small wooden church at the corner of May and 11th St for $1600 under the title Holy Family. In 1870 Saint Ignatius College opened its doors for the first time.
Before the end of the second year the great Chicago Fire broke out east of the College on this date 150 years ago. It left the college untouched. Father Damen made a promise to Our Lady of Perpetual help and lit candles on her altar. He made a promise to “keep light burning” uninterruptedly if his school and church were spared. A sudden seemingly miraculous shift in the wind saved them. But the fire that swept through the city had rendered homeless both the Bishop and the orphans at the cathedral orphanage. Saint Ignatius College and the Jesuits offered hospitality to the Bishop and to the orphans, among many others who were sick, homeless, and destitute.
The Church of the Holy Family and Saint Ignatius College Prep remain as a vivid reminder not of the literal fire, but of the spiritual fire brought by the Jesuits and so many helpful workers. They are a reminder of the outreach after the great fire of 1871. And generations have continued to honor Father Damen’s promise to keep lights constantly burning. Originally located directly beneath the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, seven lights now glow on the side altar in the east transept of our gothic church.
These lights will continue to burn, and so too we will continue to set spiritual fires upon the world. Nourished now by Scriptures and Sacrament, we move on as best we can to set the world on fire.