St. Mary Magdalene Church

Project Name
St. Mary Magdalene Church

8426 S. Marquette Ave
Chicago, Illinois

Project Status
Church Closed, Now a Charter School

Project Date/s

Update: St. Mary Magdalene church closed in 2015 and was eventually sold to a charter school, Great Lakes Academy, which is in the process of remodeling it. There were some attempts to contact the owners and contractors to try to save the John Mallin mural to no avail.

Sadly, the mural was recently painted over as shown in the photos here taken by Nitram242.

St Mary Magdalene Church was founded in 1910 in the South Chicago neighborhood on the southeast side of Chicago close to Hammond, Indiana. The parish was founded to relieve overcrowding at the Polish parish of Immaculate Conception at 88th St and Commercial Ave. The Rev. E.A. Kowalewski was appointed to organize the new church. Plans were drawn up in for a three story combination church, school and hall. On July 17, 1911, the church was dedicated by Auxiliary Bishop Paul P. Rhode.

The South Chicago neighborhood was primarily dependent on the steel industry, where many parishioners of Polish origin worked. The 1929 depression and the closing of many steel mills created severe financial problems for the parish. Father Kowaleski was forced to resign his post. In 1931, demonstrations on Father Kowalewski’s behalf were held, which resulted in a police detail. However Cardinal Mundelein’s decision to remove Fr. Kowaleski was upheld in Rome.

In 1947, Rev. Peter Paul Witmanski was named pastor of the church. He was able to pay off the parish debt and plans were drawn up for larger parish facilities. According to John Mallin’s bank records, he was paid $3,683 for some unspecified work done at the church in 1947 and 1948.

In April, 1952, ground was broken for a new church on the corner of 84th and Marquette Ave. The church was built of Wisconsin Lannon stone, and the roof was made of Spanish tile. In either 1953 or 1954, John Mallin was hired to decorate the church. According to Mallin’s brochure, this is the 100th church that he decorated. In the 1954 Dedication book for St Mary Magdalene, it states, “Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the interior is the masterpiece painted by the pastor’s old friend, Mr. John Mallin, its title is “ITE MISSA EST” It is a meditation on the Holy Mass drawing the eye and mind from the worshipper to the sanctuary to the altar, to Christ. It greatly helps to bring the fact that “My house is a house of prayer.” The new church was blessed on May 2, 1954 by Samuel Cardinal Stritch. According to a Facebook post, the face of the apostle at the foot of Jesus on Mary’s left side is that of Fr. Peter Witmanski, who was pastor at the time when this mural was completed. This is not be surprising given the number of other priests’ faces that Mallin included in church paintings.

Mallin’s brochure for St. Mary Magdalene states “The above mural decoration was planned and designed by John A. Mallin personally from the ideas and suggestions given by the Reverend Father Peter P. Witmanski, Pastor of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, as he has planned and provided the means for this beautiful decoration, including the architectural construction of the church. This Work of Art can be appreciated only when the original work is seen in color, by a personal visit.”

Detail of Mallin Mural

“The entire surface has been very carefully prepared to receive this work of art, as follows: All the surfaces from the half-dome clear down to the floor base have been painted with three coats of the best Dutch Boy White-lead, before applying the canvas, then when dry, the canvas was applied and painted with three coats of the very best materials, before rendering the final finishing touches. The lower walls are laid in panel forms, then laid in with Genuine XX 23 carat Gold Leaf and worked into a brocade effect. This is the hundredth church interior done by John A. Mallin.”

The peak membership of St. Mary Magdalene church was in the years following World War II when 1,500 families were registered. From 1910 until the mid-1950s, the area surrounding the church was approximately 90% Polish and at least 95% Catholic. Approximately 95% of the Polish immigrants who helped to build St. Mary Magdalene could not speak English, and as a result earned below average incomes. In the late 1950s and 1960s, many of the Poles moved out of the neighborhood to be replaced by Mexican immigrants. The closing of the church in 2015 was probably due to financial considerations.

Booklet, Dedication of the new St. Mary Magdalene Church. Sunday May 2, 1954.

A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago Volume 1. Msgr. Harry C. Koenig, S.T.D., editor. The Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago, 1980.