The Early Days
Our Catholic community is closely connected with the early history of this area. Just over 150 years ago, Indians roamed the land where we live. They hunted its prairies and fished the stream that wanders thru the village.
In 1854, John Happ sold the blacksmith shop he had opened in Winnetka after arriving from Trier, Germany in 1843, and moved with his nine sons and one daughter to a farm in Northfield. During the latter half of the century, the area was farmed for hay, grain, alfalfa, mushrooms and horseradish. John was a Catholic and attended St. Joseph Church in Wilmette. The Happ, Lever¬nier and Seul families were among the first settlers in the area.
In the early 1920’s, this little community was dramatically changed when the Skokie Valley Line of the North Shore Railway was built. The village got a name in 1926: it was called WauBun, an Indian word meaning dawn, which was also the name of a Potawatomi chief who had camped there in the 1700s. The name didn’t last very long. John Happ, the grandson of the original pioneer and first village president, presided over its change to Northfield in 1929—more euphonic it was thought. There were almost 280 residents at the time. The village had a burst of progress and growth, and then hibernated during the Great Depression. In 1930 the population was 320.
Formation of the Parish
At the end of the Second World War, America’s population exploded, as expected, but unlike other areas, Northfield didn’t experience amazing growth. By 1947, restrictions and price controls were ending. Soldiers and sailors were back in civilian life; families were reunited. The Yankees won the World Series; Notre Dame was undefeated; Ben Hogan was the golf champion; the Marshall Plan was begun to rehabilitate Europe, which experienced intolerable cold and hun-ger that year. President Truman was proving a surprising leader. People cried that prices were skyrocketing. Pope Pius XII was the leader of the Church. Here in the Chicago area, after a long moratorium on any new building, Samuel Cardinal Stritch finally lifted the ban and founded a number of new parishes.
The archbishop knew that the need for housing was bringing thousands of Catholics to the sub-urbs. In 1947, he and his advisers chose ten places that most needed a parish. Fr. Donald Temple was finishing eighteen years as a professor of Greek and English at Quigley Semi¬nary. He was asked to take charge of forming a parish in the little village of Northfield, twenty miles north of the Loop, three miles west of the shores of Lake Michigan.
The parishioners were grateful to Sacred Heart, St. Joseph, St. Norbert, SS. Faith, Hope and Charity Parishes, but they wanted their own spiritual home. The first Mass was offered on the last day of August 1947 by Father Temple in the basement of Sunset Ridge School. A house for Father Temple was later acquired at 2111 Old Willow Road, where the spiritual and temporal affairs of the parish were administered for sixteen years. Sunday Masses were offered on the porch during the spring, summer and fall, with the people on the lawn and with a tent to cover them from sudden rain and beating sun. Father Temple purchased a school bus so that Catholic chil-dren in Northfield could attend classes at Sacred Heart School in Hubbard Woods. Al Levernier, a pioneer in the Northfield area and trustee of St. Philip’s Church, purchased five acres of land from the Wagner family and donated it for the use of the new parish.
Because parish revenues for 1947 and 1948 were limited, the archdiocesan consultors turned down plans for a $152,000 combination church-school building, reasoning that it was unrealistic to think parishioners could carry such a large debt. However, permission was granted for a simple church structure, minus the classrooms. It was for lack of numbers, not of spirit. In September 1950, ground was broken at Old Willow and Happ Roads for St. Philip the Apostle Church. Mass was offered for the first time in the new temporary church (now the gymnasium) on Christmas 1950. To meet the interest payments on the mort¬gage, parishioners held card parties and social functions. Still, they dreamed of a parish school.
When the people heard there would be no school, they were dismayed and the pastor was dis¬couraged. Other parishes were growing and building, but St. Philip was not, at least not much, not enough. Father Temple had said, “Some day we’ll have a real church.” His final appearance as pastor took place on October 21, 1951. On that day, Auxiliary Bishop William E. Cousins dedicated St. Philip the Apostle Church, which had been completed according to the plans of Barry Byrne, a protégé of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The day also marked the 25th anniver-sary of Father Temple’s ordination. He died on December 23, 1960, at the age of 58.
Fr. John Henry, a former assistant at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Chicago, was named pastor of St. Philip’s on December 10, 1951. He was convinced that the parish would never grow with-out a school, so he pleaded with the archdiocesan consultors for permission to build a parish school. Although the weekly collection amounted to only $200 at the time, permission was granted after a successful fund drive in which $37,000 was pledged by the parish’s 109 families. An eight-room school with temporary convent quarters was built at 1980 Old Willow Road.
Three Sisters of St. Dominic from Sinsinawa, Wisconsin opened St. Philip the Apos¬tle School on September 10, 1953, with an enrollment of 87 students in grades one through six. When school reopened in the fall of 1954, 68 students were in attendance.
In 1954, four more adjoining acres were pur¬chased by the parish, confident that its membership would increase in the coming years. The story of Father Henry’s dedicated efforts has been told and retold. The Women’s Guild and the 500 Club put aside their personal plans and worked many days far into the night to see that the dream became a reality. On December 14, 1962, the sisters moved into the new convent, which had been built at 1976 Old Willow Road according to the plans of architect Larry Schwall. Before long, the present rectory at 1962 Old Willow Road, also designed by Schwall, was completed. The priests’ former residence at 2111 Old Willow Road was sold to the John P. Gallagher family. Of course, there was a sizable debt in the hun-dreds of thousands.
The Dedication of the Church
The temporary church had been built accord¬ing to the drawings of Barry Byrne. For the design of the new church, Father Henry turned to parishioner Alex H. Bacci of Schmidt, Garden & Erickson. They put their heads together and harmonized the new structure with the existing buildings, resulting in a striking unity with the apex at Happ Road. Beautiful panels of faceted and stained glass form the frontal fenestra¬tion. The Holy Trinity and our heavenly patron, St. Philip, are symbolically depicted. Note the triangle, symbol of the Trinity, and the color green representing the hope of sal¬vation in Christ. In the two lower panels, blue for heaven and brown for earth suggest God’s creation.
There is a beautiful baptistery, a circular stair¬case leading to the choir and, originally, a bell tower supporting a stainless steel cross. The interior of the Church makes a remarkable impres-sion with its simple, chaste beauty. It is unmistakably a church, with the tall, concrete arches supporting the roof beams and calling the people to lift their hearts and minds to God. The ser-pentine masonry walls of the side aisles faced with gold and white mosaic are striking. But it is the sanctuary that is eye-catching for its white and green-veined marble, with everything focus-ing on the beautiful marble altar, where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered. It is sur-mounted by a high oak cross with a lindenwood corpus carved in Florence, Italy by Rinaldo Senoner.
Mass in the new church was celebrated for the first time on Thanksgiv¬ing Day, November 22, 1963. On March 8, 1964, Albert Cardinal Meyer dedicated the new parish church, convent and rectory. At the time of the dedication, St. Philip’s Parish numbered 475 families, with an enroll-ment of 371 children in the parish school. On the first day of 1967, Father Henry’s great heart broke and God called him home. He had finished his work.
Fr. William Dorney, from St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Hyde Park, was appointed pastor by John Cardinal Cody. One of his first concerns was the parish school. The faculty was increased, and a new library was added at a cost of $25,000. Under Father Dorney’s leadership, the reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council were implemented at the parish.
The silver jubilee of the founding of St. Philip the Apostle Parish was celebrated on November 26, 1972. Following the retirement of Sister Joseph, O.P., Margaret McMahon became the first lay principal of St. Philip the Apostle school, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1973. The Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters left the school in 1975 and were followed by a community of Servite Sisters, who taught until 1987.
At the time Father Dorney began his work in Northfield, the parish debt stood at $304,200, with annual interest payments of $18,000. Although the parish numbered only 500 families, the Sun-day collections averaged $1,800 per week. Through the generosity of the parishioners, the parish debt was retired by the end of 1974.
Father Dorney retired in 1981 was succeeded for four years by Fr. Richard Saudis. In 1985, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin appointed Fr. Laurence Dunn, who had previously served here as an as-sociate pastor, as the new pastor of St. Philip’s. By 1987 it was clear that the parish facilities were in need of an overall refurbishing, so $300,000 was raised by the “No Frills Campaign” for this purpose. When the archdiocesan-wide Millennium Campaign began, St. Philip’s parishion-ers pledged over $1 million to upgrade all our facilities with new roofing, electrical wiring, tuck-pointing, landscaping and improvements to the heating and air conditioning system. However, due to declining enrollment and increasing costs, St. Philip’s School had to close in 2003 after providing excellent Catholic education for fifty years. That same year Francis Cardinal George appointed Msgr. Robert J. Dempsey as St. Philip’s sixth pastor.
Where We Are Today
Today, St. Philip’s is going strong. Our church is now part of Devine Mercy Parish and is as large as ever, with 582 families and still growing. Our Religious Education Program (PREP) educates over 170 children each year in the Catholic faith. With the recent closure of St. Philip’s School, the church enjoys good financial footing by leasing the school building to the Hyde Park Day School. Long-standing organizations, such as the Women’s Guild and the Men’s Club, continue to be strong, providing social and educational programs for the parish and our local community. Our church gives generously to our sharing parish, St. Benedict the African, which relies on our help to offer their parishioners faith formation and to support their everyday needs.
We are sixty years young and have come a long way. We pray that the Lord will continue to bless the success of our parish for many generations to come.