At 49 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a warm Christmas Eve in 1955. Excitement and curiosity likely made it feel even warmer for Saint Mary Mokena parishioners as they set off for Midnight Mass. For the first time ever, they would not be making their way to the small, white wooden church on Wolf Road that had been their place of worship for the past 90 years.
Instead, they embarked for a brand-new building located between 114th and 115th Avenues (along 195th Street) in Mokena. As they entered the sanctuary, they would have heard the spirited voices of the St. Mary Children’s Choir singing traditional Christmas Carols. The High Mass began with a grand procession as the pastor, Father Cecil Koop OF.M. (1918-2002), who had spearheaded the move to the new church, ascended the altar.
The new church was of simple design and color. There was a main altar, two side altars and rows of pews meant to accommodate 500 worshippers, all made of blond oak. A large crucifix hung above the sanctuary. One of the distinguished guests in attendance that night was Bishop Martin D. McNamara, first bishop of the Joliet Diocese
Roughly a month earlier, St. Mary had opened its new school, which was connected to the church via a corridor (that building is still part of the school today, and the school library is what was once the church). Prior to this, students had attended a schoolhouse on Wolf Road near the old church.
The new school was originally planned to accommodate 400 students and had eight rooms, four of which were complete for the grand opening. The other four were partitioned in later years. Sister M. Therese Clare was the principal and Sister M. Dennis, Sister M. Roseanne and Sister M. Rosemary were teachers.
In 1962, the parish built a garage for the school. Nicknamed the “Cow Palace,” it initially housed the school buses before becoming a gymnasium and event hall. Also during this time, the parish built a convent to house the sisters. Finally, 1964 saw the construction of an additional, two-story wing for the school, which doubled the number of classrooms and allowed hundreds of new students to enroll.
The young Father Koop had launched this massive building project to keep up with the growing parish. Over his fruitful 16-year pastorate, St. Mary had grown from 50 families to 500, cementing him as one of the most-accomplished leaders in the parish’s history. Parishioners fondly remembered him as an energetic, friendly, youthful-looking priest who would come over for dinner, drive the school bus and be spotted in his brown Franciscan robes walking his dog, Caddy. He left the parish in 1970 and is today considered one of the parish’s “builder priests.”
The Restorative 1970s
Father Patrick Curtis succeeded Father Koop as pastor for a short, two-year tenure. He was the last Franciscan pastor of St. Mary and was followed by Father Vytas Memenas.
Father Memenas inherited the difficult task of remodeling the aging church and school building, as well as paying off the parish debt. His fierce determination and powerful personality motivated parishioners to organize fundraisers to raise money and volunteer to remodel and repair the buildings.
During this time, the old St. Mary Church building on Wolf Road was also in a sorry state, and there was talk of tearing it down. A team of dedicated parishioners, led by Ethel Cooper, were thankfully able to raise the funds necessary to paint and repair the old church, saving it from demolition.
The decade of the 1970s was an era of repair and maintenance, but also of continued growth. In 1976, the parish constructed a new rectory and administration building, which stood until the current rectory was built in 2014. Despite these various projects, under Father Memenas’ leadership, the parish debt was fully paid off in 1978.
By the end of the decade, the parish was approaching 900 families and jumped to 1,400 by the early 1980s. At this growth rate, the parish was poised for another expansion. It had been nearly 30 years since the second St. Mary Church had opened on that warm Christmas Eve night. Now, the parish was on the heels of one of its largest projects ever.
-To be Continued
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