Fr. Arnold Damen founded my high school, St. Ignatius College Prep. I learned the story of Fr. Damen’s life at a presentation at the school. His story of coming from Europe to minister to Americans has parallels with today’s Catholic Church. 

The speaker at the presentation was a Dutch historian named Simone Vermeeren. She is a young woman with an engaging personality who makes the story of Fr. Damen (dah-men) come alive. Simone is from the same province of Etten-Leur, where Damen grew up, but the situation there was much different during his time.

Back then, the Calvinist majority had virtually outlawed Catholicism. Catholics were not allowed to celebrate the sacraments in public. Catholic churches were closed, destroyed, or taken over by Protestant congregations. Catholics were forced to go underground to attend Mass in secret churches.

Fr. Damen was baptized in 1815 in a “barn church.” It may have looked like a barn but it contained an altar and space for celebrating Mass. Damen and his family lived down the street. They were well-to-do and employed servants.

Catholic schools were scarce and there were no seminaries. Damen studied at an institution in Belgium where he trained to become a missionary to America. There was a great need for missionaries because the American Catholic Church was desperately understaffed. 

Damen was only 20 when he and his companions made the hazardous journey to America. After he arrived, Damen was ordained at St. Stanislaus Novitiate in Missouri. He became “Chicago’s Jesuit Apostle,” arriving here in 1856.

Damen purchased property on the Near West Side. He planned to build a church, primary and secondary schools and a college. He raised the necessary money and built the Church of the Holy Family at 1080 W. Roosevelt Road. It became the largest parish in the Midwest. 

Most of its members were poor Irish immigrants, so Fr. Damen wisely preached about St. Patrick. By the time of the Great Chicago Fire, in October 1871, the parish had 16 buildings. This included St. Ignatius College, which later became Loyola University. Damen was away in New York when the great conflagration threatened his parish.

He prayed for the church and schools to be spared from the flames. The fire was only a few blocks from Holy Family when the wind shifted and the fire turned north. Afterward, St. Ignatius fed and housed victims of the fire, regardless of their race or creed.

Damen never lost his desire to evangelize America — 12,000 were converted to Catholicism at Holy Family. The parish also produced 235 priests and over 400 nuns. Damen also preached to Native American communities and ordained the first Native American priest.

Fr. Damen died from a stroke in 1890 but his considerable legacy lives on with the institutions he founded. In 1927, the city changed the name of Robey Street to Damen Avenue. An alderman said the name change was needed because, “People are losing sight of the spiritual things.” There is also a street named for him in Etten-Leur, Pater Arnold Damenstraat. 

As I learned about Fr. Damen, it struck me that we again need priests from other countries to minister to Americans. Priests are coming from Europe, Africa and Asia to ease our shortage of clergy. In fact, one in six priests are from other countries.

Rev. Stanislaw Kuca, is the pastor of St. Luke and St. Bernardine Parish. He came from Poland to minister to Americans. Parishioners have welcomed Fr. Stan the same way Americans once welcomed Fr. Damen. 

Is it a coincidence that Fr. Damen was ordained at St. Stanislaw?

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.