It’s the ultimate long shot–three women and one priest trying to revive interest in a church in a high-crime, gang-riddled neighborhood that was written off long ago, a church whose dead haunt its living. The interest in their mission is so weak that they haven’t been able to sell enough raffle tickets to break even on their upcoming December 3 fund-raiser, which is intended to help erase the $90,000 debt the church’s school is carrying.

Yet they keep plugging away, insisting that salvation lies around the corner for their neighborhood, West Humboldt Park, and for their church, Our Lady of the Angels. These four–Sue and Sandy Lenzen, Therese Radek, and Father Nick Desmond–are a tenacious bunch. “We want to revive this area,” says Sandy Lenzen. “And I don’t want to hear that I can’t.”

In the 1950s Our Lady of the Angels was one of the city’s most vibrant churches; its parish boundaries stretched roughly from Potomac to Lake and from Kedzie to Cicero. The parish had 2,500 families, representing at least 7,000 people. The school had 1,600 enrolled. On Sundays the parishioners lined the walls; every seat was taken for every service.

In those days the neighborhood was an amalgam of Czechs, Italians, and Poles. Its busiest intersection was Chicago and Pulaski, a bustling business strip filled with the aromas of bakeries, butcher shops, and candy stores. There were shoe stores, drugstores, dress shops, and ma-and-pa restaurants–all of them family owned.

“It’s hard to describe what it was like around here 40 years ago to someone who never saw it,” says Radek, who’s lived in the area for almost 50 years. “The streets were clean. People kept up their property. My kids used to walk to Humboldt Park and play ball there, or go fishing in the fish pond at Garfield Park. It was a different world back then in almost every way. You got married because you loved someone and to propagate. I had six children, and my sister, she had five. Back then women might have jobs, but you didn’t have careers. My husband managed a warehouse. I was a crossing guard at Hamlin and Iowa. My daughter is a landscape architect, and I’m very proud of her. And I think that, yes, women are better off having careers. But with all the changes something’s lost.”

On December 1, 1958, the Holy Angel school erupted in flames. According to Don Hayner and Tom McNamee’s almanac of Chicago history, “The fire, of unknown origins, started in a pile of paper stored illegally at the bottom of a rear stairway in the two-story school. The teachers smelled the smoke, but told their students to remain in their seats. By the time they realized the severity of the situation, it was too late. Children on the first floor were able to escape when the alarm finally sounded, but many on the second floor were trapped by the smoke and heat.”

Ninety-two children and three nuns died in that blaze. “That fire stigmatized our church, and in a way I’d like to forget all about it,” says Sandy Lenzen, who wasn’t born at the time of the fire. “A disaster like that changes your life. It makes you think about who you are and where you are and how different your life could be.”

Lenzen’s brothers might have been in that fire, but their mother had moved them to a different school a month before. “My older brother was a little troublemaker, I guess, and the school was always calling to complain,” she says. “My mom said, ‘My kid can’t be the only troublemaker at that school.’ So she took the boys out of Angels and put them at Saints Cyril and Methodius over on West Walton. It was a miracle that they weren’t there when the fire happened. But we knew a lot of kids who were. My mom was a Scout den mother, and her whole troop got wiped out.”

In 1973 Saint Cyril’s closed, a victim of falling enrollment as the children of local Catholic families either grew older or their families moved out of the neighborhood. Sandy and Sue, who were 12, transferred to Angels. “I guess all was forgiven–over my brothers I mean,” says Sandy. “Actually, I’m sure no one remembered.”

By then West Humboldt Park was changing rapidly. Nearby factories moved or went out of business. Jobs were harder to come by. The local alderman, Tom Keane, a tough old bird who ran his ward like a fiefdom, went to federal prison on corruption charges, and city services declined. The neighborhood itself was chopped into different wards during various redistrictings. Almost all the whites moved out as Latinos and blacks moved in. And the merchants on Chicago Avenue closed up shop. Sometimes they were replaced, most times not. The street is now lined with vacant stores and vacant lots, a shell of its former self.

“The neighborhood really started changing after the ’68 riots,” says Sandy Lenzen. “It was very violent and scary. Most of our white friends moved out–practically all of them did. They moved northwest–to the Harlem and North Avenue area–or to the suburbs.”

The Lenzen sisters did all right for themselves. They founded S and S Systems, a cleaning business, and made enough money to move. But they stayed, living with their mom in the house they grew up in. “We were never hassled,” says Sue. “We get along with our neighbors–race doesn’t mean anything to me. I love this house–this is my neighborhood. It’s in my blood.”

Radek says she feels the same way. “People are always asking me why I won’t leave. People who moved out say, ‘Are you still there?’ My children say, ‘Mom, why don’t you move?’ But this is my neighborhood–why should I move?”

So far she hasn’t been harassed by the drug dealers who congregate on her block. “I have no qualms about walking to the rectory,” says Radek. “I make that walk several times a week. I pass the guys selling drugs. I’m not happy with them being there. I’d like to see them leave, but they never say anything derogatory to me. The other morning I was carrying a cake and one of them said, ‘Can I have a piece?’ And I said, ‘No, this is not for you.’ We were all laughing. Another time I saw a kid who had his money out to buy some drugs standing on the sidewalk blocking my way. The other guys told him to move over and let me by. A friend of mine, a black woman who lives on the block, says, ‘Don’t worry, they don’t want to do harm to you, because that would call attention to themselves.'”

It was Radek who recruited the Lenzen sisters in the effort to revive the church. The Lenzens have long been active in neighborhood groups and local politics. “For three years we fought the city to knock down an abandoned bowling alley on Chicago and Pulaski,” says Sue. “One day the roof caved in–and we still couldn’t get them to tear it down. We were bringing that building up at meetings with city officials all the time. Finally the city tore it down. That was in 1992. Now it’s a vacant lot with a For Sale sign on it. I guess that’s progress.”

Yet through it all, the school and church buildings have been well kept up, their traditions continued. Just last week two giggling girls in green plaid skirts and white blouses–one black, one Latino–took down and folded the American flag that flies in front of the main office, though down the street three or four young men offered crack to passing motorists.

A few years ago the church consolidated with Saint Francis of Assisi, a few blocks away. Sunday services are now held there, but the Lenzens hope that an increase in church membership will enable them to reopen Our Lady of the Angels on Sundays, something they believe will help revitalize the neighborhood.

But to accomplish all their goals they’ll need more outside support. So far they’ve sold only about 100 tickets for their December 3 raffle. “That raffle could be a nightmare if we don’t sell the tickets,” says Sandy Lenzen. “We’re pushing hard. We’re going after alumni–a lot of people went to this school and did all right with themselves.

“Another thing we’re doing to raise attendance is some evangelizing. Father Nick has gone door-to-door to say ‘Hi, we’re here, and we have a good Catholic education to offer.’ He also tells them that if they don’t want to go to a Catholic church there are other churches in the neighborhood.”

Despite the uncertainties, the women try to be optimistic. “There are good people in this neighborhood,” says Sue. “There are some neighbors I wouldn’t trade for a million bucks. And there are some undesirables. It’s like anything else–you make what you want to make of your life.”

“I don’t know what the future of my neighborhood is,” adds Radek. “But I’ll tell you this–I’m not leaving.”

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