Father Arnold Damen, Chicago’s Jesuit Apostle

Enjoying a varied reputation as pioneering parish priest, educational trail-blazer, inspiring mission preacher, formidable religious controversialist, and, oh yes, a ghost that haunts historical buildings on Chicago’s Near West Side, Father Arnold Damen, S.J., is an important figure in American Catholic history. The Society of Jesus, to which the Dutch-born priest belonged, can boast an almost four-hundred-year history on our continent, a history consistent with the Jesuits’ Marine-like reputation as the first ones at the scene of a battle. They were builders, founders, religious frontiersmen — or, if you will, special forces sent in to take out the demonic first line of resistance in enemy territory.

In 1570, eight Spanish Jesuit missionaries were martyred on a spot now part of Virginia. This was well over thirty years before the founding of the Jamestown colony on that land. Midway through the next century, the French Jesuits would give us the North American Martyrs and their numerous companions working among the Indians of New France. Three of them (Jogues, Lalande, and Goupil) were martyred in New York State. Just over thirty years after the death of the last of these martyrs, Father Eusebio Kino, an Italian Jesuit, commenced his work among the natives of the American Southwest. In the eighteenth century — the century of their brutal suppression — the Jesuits provided many of the first clergy of the Republic, including John Carroll, our first Bishop, and Father Ferdinand Farmer, a missionary to German Catholic settlers in Pennsylvania. The Nineteenth Century was a time of territorial expansion and rapid population growth in the United States. After their restoration in 1814, the sons of the soldier, Saint Ignatius, returned to the American front to take up their positions in the vanguard. And one of their best men was the flying Dutchman, Father Damen.

Arnold Damen (1815-1890) was born in Holland the year following Pope Pius VII’s restoration of the Jesuits. The great Belgian Jesuit missionary to the Indians, Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, brought him to America on one of his many recruiting-and-fund-raising trips back to Europe. In the fall of 1837, after a month at sea, the young aspirant arrived at Saint Stanislaus Novitiate, near the Jesuit mission at Florissant, Missouri. In 1843, he was ordained by the Archbishop of Saint Louis, Francis Patrick Kenrick, along with the Belgian, Peter James Aernoudt. (The Belgian “Aernoudt” became “Arnold” in America, where this Jesuit would eventually become a renowned devotional writer.)

Parish Priest

Father Damen’s first assignment was as a parish priest in Saint Louis. He was for a time the pastor of that city’s Saint Francis Xavier parish, which was ministered to by the Society of Jesus. (At that time, Saint Louis, a city of French foundation, already had a long Jesuit history.) But it was Chicago that would be Damen’s major field of apostolate. The Jesuits were not yet established in Chicago, and the new bishop, Bishop Anthony O’Regan, wanted to bring them there.

In the summer of 1856, Father Damen, still a Saint-Louis pastor, led a band of five Jesuits to preach a series of missions in Chicago at Bishop O’Regan’s invitation. The pastor of Holy Name Church, Father Matthew Dillon, had this to say of the mission:

For the last three weeks the exercises have been conducted by five Jesuit Fathers under the guidance of Father Damen. The fruits of their holy and successful labors are already manifest. Many Protestants have embraced the Catholic religion, and the Catholics — to be counted by thousands — many, very many of whom had for years neglected their spiritual interests, crowded the churches and confessionals.

While he had the Jesuits in Chicago for the mission, Bishop O’Regan took the occasion to offer them a parish. Having already been given permission to explore such a possibility by his superiors, Father Damen began looking at properties. That Fall, the Bishop sent Father Damen a letter which shows the prelate’s very lofty intentions in bringing the Society of Jesus to his diocese:

I know I cannot do a better work for religion, for the diocese or for my own soul than by establishing here a house of your Society, and this is the reason I have been so very anxious to effect this. It was on this account, as also from my personal regard and affection for your Institute, as for many of your Fathers individually, that I so urgently and perseveringly tried to see this good work accomplished.

It did not take long for the necessary decisions to be made. The Jesuits were going to Chicago; Father Damen would bring them there. They would minister to a parish, just as Bishop O’Regan had requested.

Holy Family Parish

Father Damen thought big. He envisioned the erection of a large parish Church, primary and secondary schools, and a college as part of this new venture. This was a day when few parishes had schools, and Catholic colleges were a rarity. Shrewdly, but respectfully, resisting Archbishop O’Regan’s proposed location for the new parish, the Dutchman purchased property on what is now the “Near West Side” in Spring of 1857. The area was not well inhabited. In fact, his critics asked how he could build and support a parish without any parishioners. But Father Damen had judiciously forecast the demographics of the growing Midwestern metropolis, and replied, with a characteristic confidence, “I shall not go to the people; I shall draw the people to me.”

Events would prove him right. The open prairies around the growing church-school complex were eventually crowded by Chicago’s expansion, which brought many Irish immigrants to the area. A wooden structure was built in 1857, with plans to use it as a Church until the property was paid off, and then turn it into a school after a large brick structure was erected.

The enterprise was so large-scale that it merited the attention of the Daily Times, which reported that the new brick Church (begun later that same year) was to be “a temple of worship which will surpass in size any other in Chicago.” All the work to build the parish was begun during the “Panic of 1857,” and Father Damen’s associates marveled that he was able to raise any of the money required for the project ($30,000 of the requisite $100,000 was raised by the end of May, 1857!). The pastor earned for himself quite a reputation, not only for sanctity, but also as an aggressive fund raiser. It was said that if he really needed money for a project, he would preach half his sermon on hell and the other half on Saint Patrick. He couldn’t have done better even if he spoke Gaelic.

Styled by some “a European Cathedral on the Illinois prairie,” the Victorian-Gothic Holy Family Church was dedicated on August 26, 1860, in a ceremony that included thirteen bishops, with Boston’s Bishop Fitzpatrick offering the Mass and Archbishop Kenrick of Saint Louis delivering the sermon. Mozart’s Twelfth Mass was the music for the Pontifical Solemn Mass. This auspicious beginning was not a flash in the pan. Within twelve years, all the buildings Father Damen had envisioned came into being. Within twenty years, a complex of sixteen buildings made for a virtual industrial park of Catholicity in Chicago’s southwest. Included among the buildings was even the college Damen had dreamed of, Saint Ignatius College, which was rechartered in 1909 as Loyola University.

And the crown of it all, Holy Family, was the largest parish in the Midwest.

Rev. Arnold Damen, S.J. The Giant of the Pulpit in in middle life.

Even the Chicago Tribune took notice of Father Damen’s work in the Windy City, printing these words of praise in 1866: “The Reverend Arnold Damen is the Hercules who has in a few years wrought all this work. To his energy, his ability, his sanctity, his perseverance and his great practical intelligence is due not only the erection of this magnificent edifice but the great spiritual success which has crowed the labors of the Society [of Jesus].”

What was the success of Holy Family Parish? While statistics are not adequate measures of spiritual realities, they can give certain indications. Numbers of priestly and religious vocations from a parish would be one sign of its overall spiritual health. Bishop O’Regan’s current successor, Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., reports that “In 1923, a count was made of the number of priests and religious women who were graduates of Holy Family’s institutions: 235 priests and 414 sisters.”

In the same article just cited, Cardinal George lauded Father Damen’s zealous administration of Chicago’s mega-parish: “Fr. Damen ran Holy Family Parish like a continuous mission, with a clear intention to reach out to all people and convert them to Christ in the Church.” That last phrase of the Cardinal’s, which I italicized, reflects well on both the writer and his subject. It connects the idea of “mission” with conversion to Catholicism, or to “Christ in the Church,” as His Eminence put it. Along these same lines, Cardinal George also wrote that “Fr. Damen himself never abandoned his early desire to convert America.”

That desire was made clear in the Chicago apostolate, but the Jesuit Mission Band would present a vast field wherein the humble priest would both sow and reap indefatigably, preaching sermons that remind us that, as Saint Paul said, “charity rejoices with the truth”:

“This is plain speaking, my dear people; but there is no use in covering the truth. I want to speak the truth to you, as the Apostles preached it in their time — no salvation out of the Church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

But more on that in the future article.

By Father Damen on our web site:

The Church or the Bible

The One True Church