Immaculate Conception Church in Waukegan is one of the oldest parishes in northern Illinois. The church was founded by Irish immigrants to Lake County as St. Anne's parish in Shields Township in 1841, and then as St. Mary's in Little Fort in 1844.
In 1843, Michael Dulanty (1799-1886), originally of County Tipperary, Ireland, purchased two lots in Little Fort (now Waukegan) for the new church site. Dulanty was acting under the advice of Reverend J. Geurin who was ministering in Shields Township to Catholics in Lake County. Interestingly, Dulanty was the best-known early tavern and hotel owner in Lake County. His first establishment, a stage relay station and tavern, was located on Green Bay Road between Highland Park and Highwood and was known as the Centerville Inn. In 1844, Dulanty sold this inn and his family's 120-acre homestead and moved to Little Fort, no doubt to take advantage of the booming business in the new county seat and to be closer to his parish's new church.
Despite popular belief, Dulanty did not donate the two lots, but rather sold them to the Catholic bishop of Chicago for the establishment of a church on September 2, 1844. The land was located at the northwest corner of County and Water Streets. The land record of the transaction shows the name of the church as St. John's, however, all subsequent records list the church's name as St. Mary's.
The first clergyman sent from Chicago to minister to the new parish and to commence the construction of the church was Reverend B. McGorisk. The church was completed in 1847.
St. Mary's (Irish) Catholic Church was 62 feet in length by 36 feet wide, the walls 18 feet high and the steeple an additional 80 feet high. St. Mary's, the first Catholic Church in Waukegan, located at County and Water Streets, circa 1898. The rectory for the priest was built in 1849. LCDM photo.
Altar in the original St. Mary's Catholic Church constructed in 1847. LCDM photo, circa 1900.
The parish was renamed St. Bernard by 1854. In 1857 a school was established. The church and school were enlarged around 1859. In 1864, the parish was named Immaculate Conception.
Early pastors included Rev. Bernard McGarish, Rev. John Brady, Rev. Henry Coyle (started the first parish school), and Rev. Michael Donohue (enlarged the school). Rev. Edward A. Gavin was pastor for 55 years beginning in 1871. Rev. Francis Shea, pastor from 1926-1966, oversaw the construction of the parish's second church, which still stands at Grand Avenue and West Street. After Rev. Shea's retirement, Rev. Patrick Ronayne became pastor.
In 1927, plans were underway to build a new, larger church, closer to the center of Waukegan's growth. Reverend Shea undertook the monumental task of choosing a site, getting the land purchased, and helping the parish raise $250,000 for the new church.
Postcard of Immaculate Conception Church by the L.L. Cook Company, circa 1945. LCDM 184.108.40.206
Architect, Joe McCarthy, designed a Georgian Colonial structure, closely resembling the style of the first church. The design was significant in that it is considered very American, and not typical for a Roman Catholic Church. The church's spire stands 158 feet, and at the time, was the tallest structure in Waukegan. The bell from the first church was placed in the new church's spire.
Color postcard view of Immaculate Conception Church, rectory and school, circa 1974. Photo by Henry Brueckner for Color-View Inc. LCDM 97.23.12.
The first Mass in the new church was celebrated by Rev. Francis Shea, December 8, 1929, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The church was dedicated on May 11, 1930 by George Cardinal Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago. Cardinal Mundelein had taken a personal interest in Waukegan having one of the finest churches in the diocese.
Above the altar is a large mosaic reproduction of Bartolomé Murillo's (1617 – 1683) Baroque masterpiece, Immaculate Conception of the Venerable Ones (1678). The image at right is of Murillo's work and not the church's mosaic.
The school remained open at the original site until 1955, when a new school building was dedicated at Grand Avenue. View of the Grand Avenue school location (above), circa 1960.
Immaculate Conception, or I.C. as locals call it, was my parish and school growing up. I have very fond memories of my grade school years there, and going to Mass in what I considered the most beautiful church in the world.
In recent years, the church and school have been consolidated as the Most Blessed Trinity Catholic Churches of Immaculate Conception, Queen of Peace, and Holy Family, and the Academy of Our Lady School.