Featured Parish: St. George Church + Cicero, Illinois
From the St. George Church web site:
Orthodox Christians from the Middle East began to arrive in Illinois in the early part of the 20th century. At first, they were served by itinerant priests from Michigan City, Indiana, and later from Spring Valley, Illinois. However, for decades, there were never enough families in Chicago to constitute their own parish. Many in the Chicago area worshipped in the local Greek Churches or belonged to the common Melkite/Maronite parish of St. John the Baptist.
In 1960, several families petitioned the late Metropolitan ANTONY (Bashir) to send them a priest to serve the Divine Liturgy. Services were held at the Syrian-Lebanese Club House on Washington Boulevard and Laramie Avenue on Chicago's West Side or in rented quarters. Among the first priests to serve on a weekend basis was the Rev. Fr. Philip Giffin, who commuted from Buffalo, New York. Later, priests from the Greek Diocese of Chicago served periodically at St. George. The Rev. Fr. John Newcombe served as the first resident priest for the parish from 1965 to 1966.
In the late fall of 1966, the newly-appointed Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba) sent the Rev. Fr. Antony Gabriel from St. Elias, Toledo, Ohio, to serve at St. George. Almost immediately, Fr. Antony set out to purchase a church building from the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, with the kind assistance of their bishop, the Rt. Rev. James Montgomery. St. George parish purchased the former Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in the northeast section of Oak Park; which became the first permanent home for the parish.
Fr. Antony soon initiated a SOYO organization, a Ladies Guild, a Brotherhood of Chanters and Altar Servers (known as the "Brotherhood of the Noble Joseph"), and a choir. In addition to the original members of St. George, Orthodox Christians from a variety of ethnic backgrounds joined the parish, including Greeks, Serbians, and Russians, and also a few American converts to Orthodoxy became part of the St. George family. Thus the parish became in reality the first "Pan-Orthodox" parish in the Chicago area. In 1970, the parish hosted the Archdiocesan Convention and developed the present format for these conventions. In September, 1975, Fr. Antony was transferred to the pastorate of St. George Church in Washington, D.C. He left behind an irreversible heritage of dedication, energy, and the pursuit of excellence. While waiting for the permanent replacement, the parishioners in Chicago were served for a few months by Father Paul Doyle, who is currently the Protosyngelos of the Archdiocese.
St. George then gave a warm welcome to its new pastor, the Rt. Rev. Fr. Athanasios Emmert, formerly of St. Mary's Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his pastorate, in the late 1970's, the parish membership changed and grew due to an influx of new immigrants, mostly from Palestine and Jordan. To accommodate the needs of these new parishioners and to involve them fully in the life of the parish, Fr. Athanasios worked extremely hard to nurture all the parish organizations. Under his leadership the Church won many Midwest Region awards, including Best SOYO Chapter and Bible Bowl Championships.
As the parish grew and flourished in the late 1970's, it soon became clear that the Oak Park church building could not serve future needs adequately. In 1979, a building committee was formed to seek a larger place for worship. This search ended in 1983 in the neighboring town of Cicero. After several months of fundraising, on May 1, 1984, the members of St. George purchased a former Korean Presbyterian Church. This complex included Sunday School classrooms, a parish hall, a rectory, and a parking lot. The interior of the Church required extensive renovation and modification to adapt it for Orthodox Christian worship. And a month later, in June of 1984, the parish hosted the 37th annual Midwest Region Parish Life Conference.
In December 1985, Fr. Athanasios requested a leave of absence. While the parish awaited the appointment of a permanent priest, its pastoral needs were met on an interim basis by the Rev. Frs. Vladimir Christi and Michael Tahan. In June, 1986, His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP appointed the Very Rev. Fr. Nicholas Dahdal to serve and lead the community. An energetic young man, Fr. Nicholas, with the support of his wife, Diane, and their three children, would provide the leadership and vision to guide the parish during the years to come. In the following years, the parish accomplished several major projects: the renovation of the Church hall, the installation of air conditioning throughout the Church and the purchase of an adjacent property to enlarge the parking area.
The history of St. George has been full of miracles: From overcoming obstacles in its early days, to recovering from a tragic fire. But on April 22nd of 1994, the parishioners of St. George witnessed God’s glory as He restored and strengthened our faith: The Icon of the Theotokos on the church’s iconostasis began to shed tears. His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP formally declared the weeping icon a miracle and named it "The Miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Cicero" (reproduced above). In the summer of that same ‘miraculous’ year of 1994, St. George also hosted the Midwest Region Parish Life Conference over which Bishop BASIL (Essey) presided.
In December of 1997, tragedy struck when an electrical problem resulted in a fire to the altar area of the church. For a year and a half after that, church services were held at a school gymnasium across the street, and later at a renovated warehouse, which had just been purchased by the Parish as part of its long term plans. Determined to overcome this major obstacle, the Parish put all its resources together and undertook a major church renovation and expansion project. The altar was replaced in its entirety, and a new iconostasis obtained from Greece was installed. The entire interior was modified, and exterior cleaned and restored, giving the church the beautiful and dignified look it deserved. The ‘Fellowship Hall’ below the Sanctuary was renovated, giving it a professional banquet appearance. St. George now makes this facility available, along with many catering options, to our community for all occasions.
In recent years St. George has also been served on and off by several assistant pastors, including Fr. Bill Caldaroni, Fr. Mark Haas, and Fr. Dale Autrey. Also in the late 90’s St. George was blessed with the presence of the elderly monk ‘Brother Symeon’ who served St. George for about four years before he was called home to his Heavenly Father.
In 1998, the parish completed an expansion to the Sunday School facility, increasing the number of class rooms to ten. In 1999 St. George, having just completed the basic restoration of the church after the fire, hosted the 44th biennial Antiochian Archdiocesan Convention. His Beatitude IGNATIUS IV presided over this historic event which was attended by over 3,500 people.
Due to the heavy influx of immigrants from the Middle East over the past 30 years, and the exponential increase in converts to the Holy Orthodox Church, it is estimated that there are at least 1,500 families that are being ministered to in one degree or another by St. George Church of Cicero. Furthermore, St. George and Father Nicholas Dahdal have also taken on the additional responsibility of overseeing our ‘sister’ churches: Holy Transfiguration in Wheaton, and All Saints on Chicago’s North Side. These two Antiochian parishes were established in the 1980’s as part of a movement that witnessed many converts seeking to return home to their Orthodox roots; and by the Grace of God, those two churches continue to flourish and prosper.
On October 14, 2001, the newly restored and expanded St. George Church was dedicated to the glory of God by His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP.