Simone Rehak and Gladys Burt sat behind a table in the shadow of the United Center, ready to tell Saint Malachy’s story to shoppers at a farmers’ market on West Madison. When workmen laid the church’s cornerstone in 1882, Chester A. Arthur was president and Leo XIII was pope. Since then, Saint Malachy’s has seen every conceivable change the inner-city has experienced in the last century.

Three Michigan farmers had already set up booths in the parking lot of Argo Federal Savings Bank to sell tomatoes, lettuce, blueberries, cucumbers, green beans, cut flowers, and plants. Saint Malachy’s table stood out because it was selling the Catholic church in a neighborhood of mostly African-American Southern Baptists, Methodists, and members of Pentecostal churches.

“I’m not Catholic–I’m a Baptist,” snapped an elderly woman when Rehak tried to hand her a brochure. Others took the pamphlets, smiled, and walked away without a word.

Saint Malachy’s may not be the passerby’s first, second, or third choice of a church, but it has nevertheless played an important role in improving the lives of residents in this west side community.

In a neighborhood where most have to rely on corner stores for their groceries, Terry Zawacki, a lay minister at Saint Malachy’s and the executive director of the Madison-Western Chamber of Commerce, is leading an effort to construct a 10,000- to 20,000-square-foot supermarket modeled on the Hyde Park Co-op. The proposed supermarket, which is winding its way through the city’s planning department, would also have a children’s day care center for store employees.

Zawacki, a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management who lives in Libertyville, has used his connections to bring the co-op supermarket closer to reality. Before joining Saint Malachy’s staff, he was the regulatory officer for Hamilton Investments, formerly a division of Household Finance Corp. He persuaded Mary Smith, owner of the old Savway Foods in Highland Park, to donate new freezers, shelves, slicers, shopping carts, and tables. Smith closed her store after her husband, Gene, died five years ago. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas Gene Smith donated 50 turkeys to parishioners of Saint Malachy’s. “I’m sure my husband would have liked what I’m doing,” says Mary Smith, who, like Zawacki, is a member of Saint Mary’s Church in Lake Forest.

Saint Malachy’s first embraced the African-American community nearly 60 years ago. In the early 1940s, when the parish was still largely Irish, Father John F. Brown took the unusual step of welcoming blacks. That wasn’t always the case at other white parishes, remembers Josephine McCord, who joined Saint Malachy’s in 1949.

McCord, now the church’s secretary, learned this difficult lesson when she and her mother visited the priest at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on West Wabansia. McCord’s brother, Kenneth Brigham, was entering the seminary at Quigley. “The priest had to sign my brother’s report card along with my mother to say that my brother attended mass regularly,” says McCord, whose family lived near Annunciation on the north side.

Her mother, Marie, knocked on the rectory door. Two women sitting inside the office stared out the window, but neither one moved. After a few minutes, the priest came to the door. “‘Get the hell the way from here,'” McCord recalls the priest’s order. “‘We have done without blacks for 25 years. We can do without them for 25 more. Now get your nigger kids off my steps.’

“I said to myself, I can’t believe this is happening…my brother is becoming a priest.”

McCord told me this story outside Lambert Place, Saint Malachy’s parish center on West Washington named after Reverend Rollins E. Lambert. In 1949 Lambert became the first black priest ordained by the Chicago archdiocese. (McCord’s brother was ordained as the archdiocese’s third black priest in 1961.) McCord’s mother had told Father Brown what happened at Annunciation, and he welcomed them to Saint Malachy’s.

By the late 1940s Saint Malachy’s school was entirely black. Across the street, Saint Patrick’s Academy accepted only whites, most of whom came from parishes on the far west side and from Oak Park and River Forest. “We could stand across the street and look at Saint Patrick’s,” McCord says, “but we weren’t allowed to cross the street or enter the building.”

Saint Patrick’s closed in 1963, and now it’s a vacant lot. Saint Malachy’s continued to grow, even taking the unusual step of having a Sunday mass at 3:30 AM. The mass proved popular with men and women working late evening or early morning shifts. The church also offered three daily masses.

Then in 1957 the Chicago Housing Authority opened the Henry Horner Homes, and the black middle class began to move out. “No one wanted to be in earshot of the Horner Homes,” says Earnest Gates, who grew up in the area and is currently a CHA board member. “Building the projects was really a bad idea.”

In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., angry blacks destroyed many of the businesses on Madison. “I stood on the back porch with my parents watching the shops along Madison Street burn to the ground,” says Marshall Cheatham, whose family has lived across the street from Saint Malachy’s since 1940. “Before the riots, this was a thriving community. There were movie theaters, a Walgreens, shoe stores, and a Big Bear supermarket.” Most of the remaining residents and businesses left after banks refused to make loans and insurance companies wouldn’t cover the area. “Any one of those things would have had a devastating effect on a neighborhood,” says Gates. “All three happened here.”

From 1992 to 1994, Saint Malachy’s didn’t have a regularly assigned priest because no one wanted to work there, says Father Ralph Starus, who applied for the job of pastor in 1994 without ever setting foot in the parish. He drove through the neighborhood the night before taking over. “There wasn’t heat or bedding in the rectory,” he says. “It was cold as anything. My first day on the job, the janitor warned me not to go into the rectory’s basement because of the rats.”

Starus, who was ordained in 1969, grew up in Melrose Park and worked at a parish in Cicero. He turned out to be the right guy for a tough job. He put together a comprehensive plan that even included small things of symbolic importance. He wears kente cloth vestments during Sunday mass. Inside the church there are baskets from Nigeria. He once considered changing the old stained glass windows to reflect Saint Malachy’s African-American membership.

In Lambert Place, the first-floor fireplace mantle has a photograph of a smiling Mother Teresa next to paintings of a black Jesus and a black Madonna. “We don’t have the California-surfer Jesus here,” says Starus, referring to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that adorns the sanctuaries of most churches, including many black ones. “I have told people that it’s OK to be black in the Catholic church.”

Saint Malachy’s has reorganized the neighborhood’s once-dormant block club; it’s also taken an active interest in Crane High School–the only Catholic church in the archdiocese to adopt a public school. Under Starus’s direction, Zawacki succeeded in landing a $600,000 empowerment-zone grant for arts programs at Saint Malachy’s School and two other Catholic elementary schools in the area.

The church also has solicited funds to pay tuition for students to attend Catholic high schools. Starus’s recruitment drives include knocking on doors in the Henry Horner Homes and Rockwell Gardens. The Horner Homes have been overwhelmingly responsible for the neighborhood’s high crime rate. Leafing through a thick packet of police reports from the 13th District, Gates says all 297 arrests made between March and October of last year involved people living in the public-housing complex.

Lafayette Haywood, 14, is a former Rockwell Gardens resident recruited by Starus. “Father came to my parents’ house and talked them into letting me attend Hales Franciscan High School,” he says. Haywood isn’t above kidding his benefactor. He refers to Father Starus, who is balding and admittedly overweight, as “fatty.” And he adds he could never become a priest: “I thought about being a priest, but I like sex too much. So I’m going into law enforcement.”

Several years ago, a fire in an adjacent building heavily damaged the home of parishioner Odessa James. She continued to live in the burned-out building, without electricity, heat, and water, until Father Starus’s staff helped her apply to a state-funded program to construct a new house. EnergyWise Homes, a McHenry-based not-for-profit funded by the Illinois Department of Commerce & Community Affairs, is now building a 900-square-foot ranch-style home for James, who is in her 80s. “We’re constructing a house that’s designed for her,” says William Fritzsche, EnergyWise’s executive director. “She likes to work in her garden, so the home will have a workroom for her plants.” The house, which is expected to cost about $80,000, will be built mostly with donated materials, Fritzsche says.

There are a lot of stories about how Saint Malachy’s has helped residents in this community–bounded by Ashland, California, Lake, and the Eisenhower–but these stories haven’t helped to fill the pews with young people at the only Sunday morning mass. Except for two altar boys and an altar girl, everyone has gray hair, or no hair at all. Many of the seats are empty. And when the congregation sings from Lead Me Guide Me, an orange-and-black African-American Catholic hymnal, their voices are frail.

“We’re an old church,” says Evalina Jones, who was baptized at Saint Malachy’s in 1945. “The majority of our parishioners are 50 or older. We need more children coming to mass.”

It’s also among the poorest churches in the archdiocese based on Sunday offerings–ushers collected only $295 during two masses last summer. As a result, Saint Malachy’s receives financial aid from seven other churches, including Holy Guardian Angel in Las Vegas. Attendance at mass is a problem that weighs heavily on Father Starus, who will soon leave for another assignment. “I’m not sure what else I can do to get more people to attend mass.” He thinks he knows one reason they aren’t coming: “The Catholic Church has a lot to overcome. We’re the ones that have closed churches and schools in black neighborhoods.”

He’s been outspoken on matters of race in the church. When Rollins Lambert returned to Saint Malachy’s in September 1998 to celebrate 50 years in the priesthood, Starus said, “In a better church, Lambert would have been a bishop.” The audience stood and cheered.

Even so, Starus knows the neighborhood keeps many away. The nuns at Saint Malachy’s are members of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Every morning they walk in a group to a soup kitchen where they feed breakfast to the poor. Then they return to their apartment building, which is next door to the church. An eight-foot Cyclone fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the convent.

But the commonplace conceptions of this area may soon become history. Saint Malachy’s push for a supermarket coincides with surrounding development. The neighborhood, close to downtown, is now considered prime real estate. A large sign at Madison and Western announces the return of Walgreens, which will open a new drugstore there later this year. Gates predicts that in three years the area around Madison between Ashland and Western will be a thriving retail, commercial, and residential district. His nonprofit West Side Community Development Corporation plans to build 25 homes–15 single-family houses and 10 two-flats–on vacant land the city plans to buy from private owners.

The city is helping in other ways. The area has recently been declared a tax-increment financing district, and the Chicago Housing Authority has demolished the Horner Homes. The high-rises are being replaced with two-story brick apartments. The future looks bright. Many of these apartments have bumper stickers on their front doors that read, “Thank you God.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.