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Former friary to ‘revert to its natural state’ under Cook County Forest Preserve District

Thursday, November 21, 2019
Daily Southtown
by Mike Nolan

The former St. Roch Friary near Oak Forest is being demolished, with the property being used by the Cook County Forest Preserve District to expand the adjacent Midlothian Meadows preserve.

 

On 159th Street just east of Cicero Avenue, a chain-link fence surrounds a semi-demolished building, a mound of bricks piled on its steps.

What had for more than a century been St. Roch Friary will eventually become part of the sprawling Midlothian Meadows preserve abutting Midlothian and Oak Forest.

For decades, the friary’s priests ministered to the sick at Oak Forest Hospital and performed simple funeral rites at the gravesides of indigent Catholics who died at the hospital and were buried at a nearby cemetery the Franciscan priests oversaw.

For the first half-century of the church’s existence, priests from St. Roch served parishioners at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Midlothian, according to the church.

Cook County commissioners last December agreed to buy the site for $260,000, with the Archdiocese of Chicago responsible for taking down the friary, according to the forest preserve district.

The property, in the district’s hands, will “act as a buffer” to the 455-acre Midlothian Meadows, which surrounds the friary site on three sides, and be allowed to “revert to its natural state” without the possibility of redevelopment, according to the district.

Franciscan priests from the friary, which was established in 1913, ministered to the sick at what was then the newly built Oak Forest Infirmary, and held worship services at Sacred Heart Chapel on the grounds of the hospital. The chapel closed in October of last year.

At one point, more than a half-dozen priests from St. Roch tended to hospital patients.

Sacred Heart, which had been part of the hospital for more than a century, was closed due in part to redevelopment plans for the property and to reduce operating costs, the county said at the time.

Toward the end, the friary, which was later condemned by the state, was home to one priest and a caretaker.

At St. Gabriel Catholic Cemetery, directly east of Cicero Avenue and just south of what is now the county’s Oak Forest Health Center, the priests performed rites for four decades until the early 1950s for more than 7,300 Catholics who were destitute or declared mentally ill and had died at the hospital, according to Chicago Tribune articles.

 

Other than a sign off busy Cicero and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, there are no visible gravestones at St. Gabriel, which was taken over by the archdiocese when the Franciscan order would no longer maintain it.

In early 1922, the priests at St. Roch were approached by a group of Midlothian residents interested in establishing a parish in their community.

The St. Christopher parish was created by then Archbishop George Mundelein and placed in the hands of the Franciscans, with the church initially holding services in rented space above a store, according to a history of St. Christopher. Priest sometimes hitchhiked or rode the Rock Island rail line for mass or other functions, according to the church. In August 1972, the Franciscan order was relieved of its duties at the church.

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