Foundations of faith set in stone

Sandy Vasko

    When we talked last, the rectory of St. Rose had burned. But that problem was not the worst that faced the parishioners.
    It was the church building itself. St. Rose had been built of local brick, probably from the brickyard at Fulton and Water streets.  
    And as most people who own old buildings in Wilmington know, local brick was not the best. Its high sand content made it “soft.”
    Another possible contributing factor was the fact that it was built on the quick. Because the brick church was built on the same site as the former church, and the congregation was meeting at Empire Hall, they were in a hurry to get into their new home.
    Whether it was these reasons or another, 10 years after the brick church was built a local architect determined it to be unsafe.
    But of course, first things first. The rectory fire had burned everything to the ground, and the new rectory, the same one that is in use today, had cost more than the parishioners thought.
    To pay off the debt, in February 1878, a four-day church bazaar was held.  The pastor, then Rev. McShane, a nephew of old father O'Gara, disapproved of gambling and raffles and such, but finally agreed.
    It was a great success. The cane contest alone brought in $700. A cane contest is one in which two men compete as to who is most popular.
    Everyone attending the bazaar could vote for a fee and the winner was awarded a gold topped cane inscribed with his name on it.
    With the debt on the rectory taken care of, the parish turned to the issue of making the church safe. Some wanted to repair the old church which was estimated to cost up to $8,000 (about 202,000 today).
    Others argued that it would be putting good money after bad, and a whole new church was needed.  
    It is not known how it was decided but in April of 1880 Rev. McShane gave a sermon that put it all down in black and white. He said, “When the walls and roof fall in and slaughter all before them, perhaps some stingy people will acknowledge that the architects were right. There is just one thing to do, and that is to face the music until $15,000 ($378,500) is subscribed.”
    Three months later they were going out for bids on a new church.
    At first it was thought to build the new church of brick, but somehow smarter heads prevailed and local limestone was used. The stone was quarried about two miles east of Wilmington on the property of Henry Smith and the Barr brothers.
    The derricks that lifted the precisely chiseled stone blocks had to be cranked by hand and moved the same way. It was a tremendous undertaking that cost $20,000 ($504,600).
    In April of 1881 Archbishop Feehan of Chicago came to bless the foundation, altar place and cornerstone of the new church. That cornerstone is now buried, as it lies below the grade on Kankakee Street.  
    Work was halted for a few months for lack of funds, but the resolute parishioners did not give in. All in all, it took 20 months to erect the walls and put on a roof.
    Very little work was done on the church between 1882 and 1886. We can assume that the old debt had to be paid off, and new funds acquired before the interior could be finished. And it was known that the parishioners were unwilling or unable to give more, as it became evident that cost overruns made the new structure twice as costly as first thought.  
    Father McShane boasted in April of 1886 that the church was completely out of debt and “not one cent of the money has been gotten through questionable means, such as bowery dances, or balls, picnics, fairs, beer-selling or the like.”
    But there was no money to continue the work. A week later McShane was sent to a new larger parish in Chicago and his successor, the Rev. Thomas O'Gara, better known as young Father O'Gara, went to work immediately.
    He immediately applied and got a $6,000 loan and set himself the task of completing the church before winter. Dozens of workmen were kept busy and it was announced that Christmas Day of 1886 would be the opening day of the new edifice.
    The last mass in the brick church was said on Christmas Eve of 1886 and many tears were shed at the memories that were being left behind.
    The next day, Christmas morning, the doors of the present St. Rose were thrown open and mass was celebrated for the first time.
    It took until June of 1887 to complete the finishing touches to the interior and finish the belfry. Archbishop Feehan was again called on had consecrate the now totally finished church, along with McShane and 10 other priests, some who had served at St. Rose in earlier years.
    At high mass in the morning the Archbishop gave credit and praise to those instrumental in rearing such a beautiful house of worship.