Serving Where It Matters Most

The priest and the people of Our Lady of the Angels

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

Over a Monday lunch in early spring, the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago were joking about the end of days.

“This would be the perfect place to ride out the apocalypse,” said Sister Jaime Mitchell, looking around the gathering hall of her order’s home. Under the leadership of Father Bob Lombardo ’79, the Franciscans run the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, a place dedicated to feeding the poor of the city’s West Side. Their storage rooms and kitchens house thousands of canned goods, nonperishables and toiletries to stock a weekly food pantry.

From across the table, Sister Stephanie Baliga chuckled in agreement: The toilet paper alone, she said, could last for months.

Fifteen days later, the sisters were on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. With the advent of COVID-19, the apocalypse had seemingly come to Chicago — and the Franciscans were helping to get people through it.

The mission moved its pantry outdoors to avoid dense crowds, and local police swung by to help the nuns and brothers deliver food to those who were too old or infirm to risk leaving their homes.

“You never know when something is going to crop up of this nature,” Lombardo told the newspaper, “but when it does, you just spring into action and you adapt as you need to adapt.”

At Our Lady of the Angels, adaptation is part of the DNA. Before the site housed a thriving new religious order, it was just a mission run by a single priest. A few years before that, the complex was a disused plot of diocesan property falling into ruin in one of Chicago’s most challenging neighborhoods. And a half-century before that, it was a thriving immigrant parish and school — until a historic fire changed the landscape of the neighborhood forever.

Our Lady of the Angels is no stranger to renewal after times of struggle. Father Bob Lombardo is simply the latest person to make it happen. 

“Chicago and fires,” Lombardo says, “are like soup and sandwich.” They just go together.

Most people know about the great fire of 1871 — the one that razed much of the young city and, in more recent years, provided the name for the Chicago Fire soccer team. But there have been others.

In 1903, a blaze at a theater downtown killed more than 600 people. Seven years later, a conflagration at the city stockyards caused the deadliest building collapse in American history, a record that would stand until the 9/11 attacks. And in 1958, there was Our Lady of the Angels.

At the time, the Humboldt Park neighborhood that surrounded the parish was heavily Catholic. Churches serving immigrants from Italy and Poland dotted the streets, and children flooded by the thousands into the community’s parochial schools.

On December 1 of that fateful year, 1,635 students from kindergarten through eighth grade had arrived for class at Our Lady of the Angels School. Classrooms were filled beyond capacity, and heavy winter coats on hooks lined the halls. For reasons still unknown, a wastebin in the basement caught fire just after 2 p.m. — and within minutes the flames and smoke had spread through the school.

Children and teachers fled through the building’s single fire escape and out of windows, but in the north wing the flames outpaced evacuation efforts. The woolen jackets added fuel to the fire, and, on the second floor, glass ventilation panels above each classroom door burst from the heat, sending black smoke into the spaces where children and teachers huddled, waiting for firemen or the gathering neighbors to help them escape.

In five classrooms, help arrived too late, dooming 92 students and three nuns to their deaths.

The tragedy spurred lawmakers nationwide to update fire codes, and donors from around the world sent funds to rebuild the school. Classes resumed at Our Lady of the Angels two years later, but in Humboldt Park, there would be no return to normal.

Driven by national trends toward suburbanization and perhaps by the ghosts of the fire, the people of the inner-city neighborhood had begun to move west and north. As pews and schools emptied out, the archdiocese closed many West Side parishes, including, eventually, Our Lady of the Angels.

Decades later, a stone memorial remained where the children and teachers perished, but the school and the church where they’d learned and worshipped lay dormant.

Drained of its Catholics and plagued by violence and poverty, Humboldt Park could no longer support an active parish at Our Lady of the Angels — but in the early 2000s, Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, wanted some Catholic presence on the site of his archdiocese’s greatest loss.

In his monastery in New York City, Father Lombardo received a letter.

“Put it this way,” says the Connecticut native. “It wasn’t on the bucket list to be out here in Chicago.”

During his undergraduate days, joining the priesthood wasn’t either.

The oldest of three children from a middle-class family, Bob Lombardo studied accounting with the intention to go into business.

“We were getting ready to graduate,” he says of his senior-year friends, “and take the world by the tail and spin it around a few times. I realize that doesn’t happen, but we all thought like that.”

In Lombardo’s case, spinning the world around was going to happen from Manhattan. He took a job after graduation at the firm then known as Price Waterhouse and worked there as an analyst for one year — but he couldn’t shake a feeling that had sprouted back on campus.

“When I was a senior, Andy Sowder was in my class — he was in my dorm — and he died of meningitis,” he recalls. “That shook the campus. You know? He was in the band, played dorm football. And it started a whole thing of, ‘Gee, what’s life about?’”

Eventually, Lombardo says, he realized that his life could never be simply about debits and credits. Moved by the loss of his friend and by the homelessness he’d seen on the streets of New York, he joined the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

As a Franciscan, Lombardo traded the Financial District for the South Bronx, where he lived in community with other priests and worked with the homeless, the disenfranchised and the mentally ill. He racked up two decades of this sort of foreign-mission-at-home experience — enough for Cardinal George to take note of what his community was doing. Yet when the prelate contacted the men to ask for help establishing a mission in Humboldt Park, Lombardo’s name emerged as a leader for the project less for reasons of experience than of geography. 

“The leadership of the community, they were all from the East Coast,” Lombardo recalls. “Like, really east. Like, east of the Hudson River. So when the letter came from Cardinal George, they all looked at me and said, ‘Well, you went to Notre Dame. It’s right near!’”

The order sent him to visit the Our Lady of the Angels site, and he realized that, though the ZIP code was different from his home in the Bronx, the needs of the neighborhood were the same.

Cahalan Sister Jaime Packs Food For Srs
Sister Jaime Mitchell distributes food bags outside Our Lady of the Angels. Photo by Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

According to prepandemic City of Chicago data, 17 percent of Humboldt Park residents are unemployed. More than one in three lives in poverty, and the median household income sits just above $38,000 a year. Violent crime and gang activity crop up regularly in conversations about the neighborhood. One long-ranging Chicago Tribune study revealed that the area had seen 4 percent of the city’s homicides between 2006 and 2015 despite housing only 2 percent of its population.

Given the cardinal’s dream of bringing Catholicism back to the area and the locals’ evident need, the West Side seemed as good a place as any for a missionary priest.

“I thought, ‘Well, there’s green light, green light, green light, so go and give it a shot,’” Lombardo says.

And in 2005, he did. The Franciscan left New York and moved to Chicago, launching the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in 2006. Things were good — but there was one problem.

When Lombardo had left the rat race for the priesthood those years before, he had two conditions in mind. First, he wanted to serve and live with the poor — a box that both the Bronx and Humboldt Park checked. But, in exchange for losing out on a family of his own, he also wanted companionship of a different sort by living, always, in community. 

“I knew that, if God was calling me,” he says, “I did not want to be a diocesan priest and live alone in a rectory.”

In the not-quite-refurbished rectory at Our Lady of the Angels, Lombardo was still not a parish priest — but he was very much alone.

To get anything done in his new home, Lombardo realized that he at least needed volunteers.

Lifelong Illinoisan Jim Sherry ’82 hadn’t talked to Lombardo, his Cavanaugh Hall RA, since graduation; he’d simply heard through the grapevine that that nice guy had become a priest. And yet: “When he came to town, I got a phone call.”

Mary Ellen Woods ’80, then the president of the local Notre Dame Club, got one, too — she and the newly arrived cleric had been friends as undergraduates. Woods paid the mission a visit and soon looped in Liz Trantowski ’96, the club’s service commissioner, who spread the word throughout the city’s alumni pool.

“Father Bob can talk to anybody,” Trantowski says — and she believes that’s part of how he garnered so much support so quickly. “People are drawn to this work no matter your politics or your belief in Catholicism. More traditional, more liberal, whatever, people appreciate what he’s doing.”

She added sessions in Humboldt Park to the alumni club’s monthly service calendar and helped establish links to undergrads through initiatives like the Summer Service Learning Program. But she also became a regular volunteer herself — and her photos from the early years show a diverse crew at work. In one image, former leprechaun Mike Brown ’01 grins for the camera alongside a silver-haired senior alum. In others, twentysomethings in basketball shorts take breaks from painting the rectory or serving brownies at the mission’s first food pantry alongside “Father Bob” himself, a smiling figure in gray robes and the same Fighting Irish beanie that appeared in the Tribune photo earlier this year.

Lombardo says the Notre Dame family was key to the mission’s success, but alumni connections weren’t the only ones he made in those critical early years. The “master networker,” as Sherry calls him, made inroads with local unions to earn assistance with refurbishing the rectory and the former Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary convent that stood across the street. He brought in donations through speaking engagements at wealthy suburban parishes and drew young people to his cause by working at diocesan retreats.

A Birkenstock-wearing white priest from New England may seem like an unusual minister to a Chicago neighborhood where the demographics skew overwhelmingly nonwhite and  non-Catholic. 

As the scope of the mission expanded, so did the number and fervor of its volunteers. The expanding team served nearly every need of its neighbors, creating everything from food pantries to clothing giveaways to kids’ summer camps and retirees’ bingo nights. Most of the beneficiaries weren’t Catholic — they still aren’t — but, as Lombardo preaches, the mission exists not because the neighbors are Catholic, but because the missionaries are.

The Mission of Our Lady ingratiated itself into its neighborhood not through a traditional parish or by aggressive evangelization. It simply served, in a “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” kind of way. In time, some volunteers realized that they’d like to do that kind of work for the rest of their lives.

Within a few years of the mission’s founding, three of Lombardo’s regulars had told him they wanted to explore religious life. They asked his advice in replicating the discernment process he’d gone through in his youth, and he obliged.

“He had encouraged us to go to other communities,” says Sister Kate O’Leary, a Xavier University graduate. “But as we kept going around the Midwest to different communities but not really feeling called or at home there, he said, ‘Well, maybe something’s stirring here.’”

O’Leary and Sisters Alicia Torres and Stephanie Baliga were convinced their calls were to be servants to the people of Humboldt Park. The soon-to-be novices worked with Lombardo to establish an official, shared charism — they would live in community at Our Lady of the Angels and work with locals there, and they would follow St. Francis. In 2010, the group was granted a charter as the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.

Father Bob had found his community.

Founding a new order is less unusual than it sounds, according to Sister Joan McGlinchey, the archdiocese’s vicar for religious. But founding one that lasts is a challenge. Ten years in, the Franciscans of the Eucharist have grown from three members to 11 — nine women and two men, everyone but Lombardo under the age of 45 — and their expansion shows no sign of slowing.

“Going back to the ’90s, it was a big trend to have these splinter groups,”     McGlinchey says. “But a lot of those groups failed miserably. They didn’t have a really strong identity, and they didn’t have the means to survive. But his group did. It had a real purpose, a real identity.”

Focusing so strongly on direct service to the community has helped the Franciscans of the Eucharist, she adds, but so has having a strong leader. “Bob has a unique gift,” she says. “He has a founding-type personality.”

Joining an order with little established history, some of the members admit, had its risks. Yet thanks to Lombardo’s steady hand, they always felt that Our Lady of the Angels would succeed.

“Looking back, I think now, ‘Wow, that was very brave,’” says Sister Mitchell, who became the fourth Franciscan of the Eucharist when she entered the community in 2013. “But it didn’t even dawn on me.”

As she remembers it, she walked through the door of the rectory, met Lombardo and knew. “I was home.”

A Birkenstock-wearing white priest from New England may seem like an unusual minister to a Chicago neighborhood where the demographics skew overwhelmingly nonwhite and non-Catholic. But Lombardo insists the relationship has been good.

Though the residents of Humboldt Park differ today from those who called it home in the 1950s, he says, they know the area’s history. From textbooks and local lore, they learned about the tragic fire — and, by their own witness, many remember the days when the church and school thrived and the days when, at first slowly and then suddenly, they no longer did. Locals may worship differently from the Franciscans (if they worship at all), but they welcome their habit-wearing neighbors nonetheless.

“They’re like angels for everyone around here,” says Ana Lopez, who lives near the mission and uses its services.

Outside the rectory where Lombardo — still a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal — and his young order live, a stone placard engraved with angels memorializes the students and teachers lost in the historic fire. “Pray for those who perished here,” it reads, “and those who tried to save lives.”

Six decades later, that’s still, essentially, what Our Lady of the Angels is about.

The church no longer operates as a standard Catholic parish, and the rebuilt school no longer has students running through its halls. But the Franciscans pray daily for the lives that were lost in the place they call home, and, in their work, they try their best to save lives — or at least improve them — in the hardscrabble neighborhood where they serve.

“I gave this a shot not knowing how it would all turn out,” Lombardo says. “And even to my surprise, it’s turned out better than I could have imagined.”

A decade and a half in, Chicago has been home for the priest nearly as long as the Bronx was, and his work is ever-expanding. A retreat center is scheduled to open in the former school building this fall, and, in the midst of the pandemic, Lombardo’s mission was one of few in the city both allowed to and prepared to serve the needy in a time of unprecedented, global crisis.

Once the crisis has passed, it’s hard to say what the next chapter will be for Our Lady of the Angels. But when it arrives, Father Bob Lombardo will be there, ready to adapt.

Sarah Cahalan, a former associate editor of this magazine, earned her master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is now working on the COVID-19 tracking team for The New York Times. In September Father Lombardo was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago.