Ascension Parish was founded in July, 1907 by the Catholic families of South Oak Park led by Father Thomas McDevitt, our first pastor. The Masses were celebrated in our first church, a clubhouse on South Scoville Avenue. In 1912, ground was broken on the land that had been purchased at East and Van Buren and construction the school and the rectory was completed. The first rectory sat at the corner, facing Van Buren.
The church, school and convent were combined in the school building when the school opened in fall of 1912. Four Ursuline sisters came to Oak Park to open the school; 240 students registered for classes. The church was on the second floor of the building (where our current third grade classrooms are) and the convent was on the third floor, along with some classrooms.
In the 1920s, as the school population grew and required more classrooms, the convent moved to the original clubhouse. When that, too, did not suffice, two houses were purchased on the east side of East Avenue. The sisters lived in these two homes, with a bridge constructed between the second floors of the two buildings, until they were razed in 1939 for the construction of the convent. This work was completed under the direction of our second pastor, Msgr. William A. Cummings.
In the late 1920s the rectory was raised off its foundation, turned it 90 degrees clockwise, and replanted fifty yards south of its original location. The church was build in its place facing East Avenue.
The school basement was turned into the "Pine Room" in the 1940s during the pastorate of Father Francis "Packy" Ryan. The Pine Room soon became the center of parish life, and it has remained thus through several renovations.
The last of Ascension's buildings, the second school building was added to the south end of the existing school in the mid-1950s as the school population neared 1,000. Every available space was filled with students, with up to 50 students in a classroom.
Msgr. John D. Fitzgerald led Ascension through the 1950s and 1960s, a period of great growth and vibrancy at Ascension and a time of great change for the Catholic Church. With Vatican II, the laity was invited into greater participation in leading the church, and religious vocations declined. With the increased costs of running a parish school, tuition rose and enrollment fell.
The 1970s and 80s were a tumultuous time at Ascension. Pastor Bernard White led the parish as it experimented with different models of lay leadership and identity, and as the parish helped anchor the village as it weathered the changes of the Civil Rights era. Throughout the struggles, though, Ascension enjoyed its continued reputation as a strong community, and enjoyed the parish life rituals of shows, sports and social activities.
Years of deferred maintenance caught up with Ascension and it became clear that the buildings were in need of restoration. With Pastor Frank Jenks, the huge project of restoring church and school began. In 2003, under Pastor Larry McNally, the Pine Room was gutted and completely remodeled; three years later the interior of the church was painted in preparation for the year-long celebration of the parish centennial. For months, Mass was said in front of the scaffolding constructed to reach the interior of the dome. Parishioners sat on folding chairs while the pews were being refinished. The church was restored to a new, bright normal just in time for Christmas liturgies. In August 2006, Ascension purchased the small home at 821 S. East as a "parsonage" and moved all parish offices to the former convent. The lovely but no-longer-safe rectory was demolished. With that move, we truly entered our second century!
Ascension servers ca 1957, from the 50th Anniversary Booklet
This article was on file at the office of the Catholic New World. It was originally written when the church was dedicated in 1929.
The new Ascension Church in Oak Park recently dedicated by His Eminence, the Cardinal (Mundelein) is a remarkably congruous example of the Italian Romanesque style of architecture, every detail being in perfect keeping with the design of the structure. The exterior is of Indiana limestone, with mission tile roofs (replaced in 2000). A large dome surmounted by a statue of Christ ascending into Heaven is illuminated at night by indirect lighting. At either end of the (exterior) transept, mosaics have been set into the stone, a star above the end holding the nativity window (restored in 2000) and at the opposite end, a dove about the window showing Christ teaching in the temple.
There are also mosaics set between the arches of the pillars of the façade, the four mosaics forming the letters A. M. D. G. while with the portico, just above the main door are the Arms of His Eminence, the Cardinal. Ascension Church was designed by the firm of Meyer and Cook, architects, while the contractor was Patrick Warren of the Mutual Construction Company. The interior of the church has the classic nobility of line and proportion and the brilliant delicacy of coloring that one associates with the Italian Romanesque. The frescoes are painted in the manner that prevailed in Italy when this style was at its height. There is an archaic grace about the figures portrayed that is appealing, while the colors, especially a certain light blue, are those frequently found in the work of the old Tuscan and Sienese painters. These are done with a vegetable paint that does not peel, and can be washed.
The principal fresco, of course, is that of the Ascension, (replaced by a crucifixion scene in the 1950s) which occupies the upper part of the sanctuary. There are also pictures of the four evangelists on the pendants (repainted with symbols of the seven sacraments in the 1950s).* A symbolic figure of a dove, and the papal arms are portrayed on the sides of one transept while a figure symbolizing the Holy Trinity, and the arms of His Eminence, the Cardinal, are painted on the sides of the other transept. The Annunciation is portrayed above the Blessed Virgin's altar;* and the Holy Family above St. Joseph's altar. The figures of the four major prophets, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Daniel, with the figures of four angels are portrayed in the sanctuary, just below the great mural of the Ascension (now covered by red marble). The original decorations of the church is all the work of Conrad Smith. The altar is a semi-baldacchino altar of marble imported from Italy by the McBride Studios and mosaic. The communion rail and the pulpit are also of marble and mosaic. Panels of mosaic alternate with inset pillars in the communion rail, which has doors of wrought bronze. (The pillars from the communion rail now support the new altar and form the Paschal Candle holder.) A mosaic of Christ teaching is on the face of the pulpit, with the symbolic figures of the four evangelists set at each corner in marble relief work. The acoustics of the church are flawless, which is quite an achievement on account of the dome. The acoustic materials used in the walls were furnished by the Acoustic Engineering Company.
*The 2006 painting did not restore these features.
The walls are plaster and the floor is of terrazzo, that in the Sanctuary and in the aisles of the church being of pattern or inlaid terrazzo (whereas the sacristy is poured terrazzo) being used in a church in the United States for the first time. The pews and the confessionals are of five-ply oak, the ends of the pews being carved. There is a fine carving on the Confessionals as well as finely wrought bronze gratings. The Manitowac Church Furnishing company supplied the pews. There is a large organ (replaced in 2004) in the balcony as well as an echo organ, operated from the balcony but the sound of which comes through open grills in the Sanctuary. The windows were imported from Munich by Franz Mayer, the most important being the rose window of Christ the King (restored in 2004) over the organ. On either side of the church, the lower windows depict scenes from the life of Christ and His Mother. The upper windows on one side of the nave depict St. David, St. Edward, St. William, St. Anthony, St. Francis, St. Malachy, St. Stanislaus, St. Aloysius, St. Alphonsus, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Opposite are portrayed St. Elizabeth, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa, St. Anne, St. Rose, St. Agnes, St. Ursula, St. Angela, St. Cecelia, and St. Joan of Arc. The windows in the transepts represent the minor prophets and the Greek and Latin doctors of the Church.
The Stations of the Cross, imported for the church by Koenig, are of bronze relief work, and each has individual lighting. The vestibule is of Mankato stone, or Mankato marble as it is sometimes known. The doors are brass studded and very handsome. The baptistery, (now the courtyard entrance) the room for the ushers, and the Sacristies, are all spacious and convenient. The entire church has a classic spaciousness, with a typically Italian loveliness of color that is characteristic of the Italian Romanesque
The Ascension Parish was organized on July 3, 1907, and Father McDevitt was the first pastor. The first services were held in a club house, when the congregation numbered eighty families. In 1908, the old Phoenix Club was purchased and used until 1912, when a combination school and church building was built. Work on the new church was begun in November 1928, the altar was consecrated on June 4 of 1929, and the present church seating 1,100 was dedicated on June 15, 1930.
Ascension Parish in Oak Park is a Catholic community called to proclaim, reflect on, and live the Gospel. Our desire to follow Jesus inspires us to continue the rich traditions of our faith by supporting the spiritual growth of our members, celebrating the liturgical life of the community, and serving those in need within our Parish and beyond. Following the example of Jesus, we value the diversity of gifts in all people and all are welcome.
In 2003, the Oak Park Historic Commission presented Ascension with an Historic Preservation Award.
On November 15, 2004, The Village of Oak Park presented Ascension Parish with a Cavalcade of Pride Award for Outstanding Property Maintenance.
Ascension Church dedicated the new Berghaus Pipe Organ on Friday, May 20, 2005. The three manual, 40-rank organ was installed in the fall of 2004 following several years of fundraising. Several stops from the former 1929 Kilgen organ were used in the new instrument.