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The founder of the Holy Family Catholic Church vowed...

CHICAGO -- The founder of the Holy Family Catholic Church vowed in 1871 while the Chicago Fire was raging around him that the lights burning before the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help would never go out.

That promise is soon to be broken.

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The Rev. Robert Thesing announced last month the Chicago Province of Jesuits had decided to tear down the 121-year old church. In its place, Thesing said 'a more modest structure' would be erected that would both be safer and less costly to maintain.

The huge 'cathedral on the prairie,' one of the largest church buildings in the country, was completed and dedicated in 1860 on Chicago's lower west side.

During the Chicago Fire, the Rev. Arnold Damen vowed the seven lights burning before the Our Lady of Perpetual Help shrine would never be extinguished if the church was spared from the flames engulfing most of the city.

His wish was granted and the church's congregation grew and prospered.

Mrs. O'Leary, whose cow took the blame for kicking off the Chicago Fire, was a member of the parish. St. Francis Xavier Cabrini also celebrated mass at the church.

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Over the last six years, though, the Chicago Jesuit community spent $140,000 on building maintenance and repairs. The Archdiocese of Chicago kicked in substantial annual subsidies.

Some repairs cannot be postponed. Jesuit officials think the tall tower added in 1874 to make the church the city's first skyscraper should be taken down before the coming winter.

The parish needs roughly $500,000 to make urgently needed repairs - money that will be hard to cough up from a low-income congregation. Only between $200 and $300 is collected weekly. One priest said, 'The people give generously in proportion to what they have, but they just don't have very much.'

The Jesuits, faced with increasing maintenance costs, have decided to demolish the building -- much to the dismay of some parishioners.

Parishioner Paige Jones said the church makes many people forget their poverty-stricken neighborhood.

'In our neighborhood, Holy Family is the one place we can look without seeing poverty all around us. There is no way the beauty of the old building could be put into a new one.'

Thesing disputed that notion and said his order will blend the old and the new into the building to be put up, incorporating many of the present church's features.

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