By Mark J. Valentino
Admirers of the Rev. Arnold Damen, SJ, who built Holy Family Church and Saint Ignatius College on West Roosevelt Road on the Near West Side, gathered on August 4 at Saint Ignatius College Prep for a lecture by Dutch historian Simone Vermeeren, “Uncovering the Odyssey of 19th Century Jesuit Immigrant Arnold Damen, SJ: From the Low Countries to Chicago (1815-1837).”
Vermeeren’s presentation shed light on the pressures and promises that drew the young Dutch seminarian to become a nationally recognized U.S. Jesuit preacher, builder, and educator. Fr. Damen (1815-1890) founded Saint Ignatius College, the forerunner of Loyola University and Saint Ignatius College Prep.
John Chandler, president of Saint Ignatius College Prep, welcomed the attendees, many of them alumni, as well as current faculty and students and parishioners of the former Holy Family Parish.
“We are honored to have Simone Vermeeren with us today to tell the story of the pilgrimage of an exceptional man—a Jesuit priest who answered God’s call and became a bold, bold advocate for Catholicism, faith, and Jesuit values,” noted Chandler. “Fr. Arnold Damen is much more than the bronze statue that stands outside [at 1076 W. Roosevelt Road]. He was a real life, passionate Jesuit whose legacy of faith first, education, and commitment to others stands for more than 185 years.”
Vermeeren noted 22-year-old Arnold began his three-month, 7,000-mile journey from the low country of the Netherlands to New York City by boat in fall 1837. She recalled that in a letter to his parents he wrote, “we were to remain silent all day and set aside one hour for meditation.”
Before arriving in America, Damen and his fellow travelers spent seven days in France. “Young Arnold was not impressed with Paris,” Vermeeren said. “He described it as a seat of wickedness but enjoyed a day trip to Versailles and was captured by its enchanting beauty, paintings, and statues and was taken by the palace of King Louis XIV.”
Once in New York, the poverty he saw affected Damen. He then traveled southwest to Philadelphia, which he considered one of the cleanest cities in America, and eventually arrived in Florissant, MO. At the Jesuit seminary outside St. Louis, the local bishop ordained him a Jesuit priest in 1843. Fr. Damen would never return home to his Dutch roots.
Vermeeren said Damen’s experience growing up in Etten-Leur, the Netherlands, eventually led him to the United States because there “it was illegal to be openly Catholic,” Vermeeren explained. “Many churches were closed, destroyed, or taken over by Protestants.”
Clandestine Catholic churches
“There were clandestine Catholic churches that had to go underground in secret places such as hidden rooms behind saloons or shops,” Vermeeren continued. “Sometimes you would enter through a garden door. There was even one built in the attic of a three-story building.”
She speculated whether growing up Catholic in such instability may have drawn young Arnold to explore his life and faith in America. “Damen was born into a province that was struggling to be restored for Catholics in the low country,” she explained. “They were no longer being persecuted but could not worship publicly.”
Damen was one of nine or ten children—records remain unclear how many siblings he had. He made his First Communion with 36 other children at the “Barn Church” of St. Peter’s in Etten-Leur. His family home was designated a National Heritage Site in 1967.
Damen’s family was comfortable financially. His father, a carpenter and merchant, inherited money from an uncle. The family hired two helpers and one, also a carpenter, lived with them all his life.
Vermeeren referenced Joseph D. Conroy’s book, Arnold Damen, SJ, A Chapter in the Making of Chicago, which mentions a pilgrimage Damen took as an adolescent to St. John’s Cathedral in S-Hertogenbosch that may have influenced his early faith.
Damen attended the Académie de Bruxelles Collège D’ooosterhout, a day’s walk from his home in Leur. Rules were strict, according to Vermeeren: the school’s 100 students could not carry knives, enter saloons, swim, or ice skate.
The Rev. Peter-Jan De Smet, deeply committed to Jesuit education, greatly influenced Damen. De Smet crossed the Atlantic more than 20 times to recruit missionaries. Damen studied under Father De Smet from 1836 to 1837, when he left for the U.S.
Fluent in four languages
English was Damen’s fourth language as he spoke French, Dutch, and Latin. He initially aspired to become a missionary like many of his Jesuit predecessors and work with native people in the West. Fr. Damen’s talent as a dynamic preacher and teacher, however, resulted in his assignment as pastor of St. Xavier Parish in St. Louis. He became an untiring, energetic leader who ministered to the poor, established a “soup house” and, at the other end of the economic spectrum, organized a Young Men’s Sodality that grew to more than 300 lawyers, doctors, bankers, merchants, agents, and engineers.
Fr. Damen’s energy led to his preaching a mission in Chicago in 1856 that attracted some 12,000 Catholics and Protestants.
The following year, Fr. Damen sought out one of Chicago’s poorest areas, on the prairie south and west of downtown and populated by poor Irish-Americans, such as Patrick and Catherine O’Leary of Great Chicago Fire fame, as well as some German-American families.
Undaunted by the financial panic of 1857, Fr. Damen forged ahead and laid the cornerstone of the gothic-style Holy Family Church on August 23 of that year. Three years later, he dedicated what became one of the most famous churches in America.
An indefatigable worker, Fr. Damen believed education held the key to assist immigrants in moving upward. In 1867, he contracted with German architect Hermann von Langen to design a college building based on what he had seen in Versailles. Two years later, he opened Saint Ignatius College at 413 W. 12th Street, now 1076 W. Roosevelt Rd. Its student body included future Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and other young men seeking a classical education on the European model.
Fr. Damen also established a network of elementary schools that spread to the city limits at Austin Boulevard. By the late 1880s, upward of 20,000 men, women, and children worshiped every week in the Jesuit Church of the Holy Family, and its schools enrolled some 5,000. Fr. Damen preached more than 200 missions in the U.S., traveling an average of 6,000 miles per year. Seventy years after he arrived in Chicago, the City Council voted on June 15, 1927, to change the name of Robey Street to Damen Avenue (2000 west) in his honor.
Ellen Skerrett, a Chicago author and historian, is researching and writing a definitive history of Saint Ignatius College Prep.
“The book project is an in-depth study of Saint Ignatius College Prep, placing its foundation in 1869 in the context of Chicago’s history and Arnold Damen’s innovative ideas about Jesuit education,” explained Skerrett. “My focus has been on Father Damen as a city builder whose Church of the Holy Family and system of schools challenged stereotypes about Catholics and immigrants in American life.
“The book began as part of the school’s 150th anniversary in 2019-2020. The closing of libraries during covid has made research more difficult, but I expect to complete the manuscript in 2023. Among my significant discoveries to date have been identifying Hermann von Langen as architect of SICP and setting the record straight about the Jesuit response to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871,” she noted.
“Saint Ignatius College Prep and Church of the Holy Family have been survivors in Chicago, defying conventional wisdom from the 19th century to the 21st. Understanding the origins and challenges facing these Jesuit landmarks over time will contribute to deeper appreciation of their important role in Chicago’s story,” added Skerrett.
For more information on the Jesuit Catholic Saint Ignatius College Prep, log on to the website www.ignatius.org, or call (312) 421-5900.