(Chicago Tribune file photo)
Working to bring a community together for more than 150 years, Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago's West Loop is gearing up for the 28th Annual World's Largest Block Party and aiming to bring the message of hospitality, service and faith to thousands.
"It's a place of really great positive energy," said Tom Hurley, 45, pastor of Old St. Patrick's Church. "At a time when people scratch their head when they look at the institution of church, we stand as a light in the darkness."
With an average Sunday attendance of approximately 3,000 people from more than 200 zip codes, Old St. Pat's has staked itself as a Chicago institution. This Roman Catholic establishment advertises itself as being open to people of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientation or religious affiliation, with 22 different outreach programs designed for a diverse population.
The annual World's Largest Block Party is the most popular event for the church and serves as it's biggest fundraiser. Hurley anticipates a crowd of more than 20,000 for the two-day party this year, June 29 and 30.
"It helps us continue our great mission," he said. A Beverly native, Hurley has been with Old St. Patrick's for nine years and became pastor in 2007. "We just never left the community: despite the twists and turns and ups and downs in history, (Old St. Pat's) is just a place of great energy you can depend on, and I think we're kind of an anchor in the neighborhood."
Founded on Easter Sunday in 1846 by Irish immigrants, Old St. Patrick's was the first English-speaking parish in Chicago and, having survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, is the oldest public building in the city.
"This church was started by immigrants who gave back to the community, and the mission to give back is still maintaining," said Oak Park's Beth Marek, 57, director of outreach for Old St. Patrick's Church. "We do everything from rocking small infants at the University of Illinois Health Center, to working with senior citizens, and everything in between."
In 2009, Marek helped organize a 333 volunteer event that worked for eight hours to clean, repair and rehabilitate Su Casa Catholic Worker Community, a transition shelter in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood for displaced Hispanic families.
"The one thing that we try to build up every Sunday is the idea of hospitality," Hurley said. "We try to create the spirit of hospitality with welcoming spirits--we begin each mass by setting the tone of hospitality and inviting people to stand and greet others, find new friends and introduce themselves."
Each month, Old St. Patrick's hosts a dinner in the rectory for new members, which usually amounts to approximately 25 to 40 people.
A member of the church for eight years, Mary Kay Slowikowski, 68, of Darion attends mass every Sunday with her children and grandchildren, one of which just completed their first holy communion.
"I've never been to a bad homily," Slowikowski said. "Hospitality resonates through everything they do at Old St. Pat's, it's not just a church, it's a fun outlet."
Slowikowski is director for Encore, an outreach program for persons over 50 years of age, with weekly outings, guest speakers and brunches that have hosted more than 200 people.
Members of Encore will be amongst the thousands of volunteers at this year's Block Party, running the ticket booths.
"I don't think I would've met my husband if it hadn't been for (the World's Largest Block Party)," said Erika Gartner, 32. a licensed psychotherapist from Wicker Park.
Although she's not a member of the church's congregation, she said she looks forward to the festival every year. Eight years ago Erika met her husband Dan at the event--they're now anticipating the birth of their first child.
"It's different than the other street festivals because it's a bigger event, it always seems to be a younger crowd and it's a very fun environment," she said.