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Parish History


St. Francis Xavier Parish arose from the vision of 15 English-speaking Catholic families living in the predominately German township of New Trier. Attending English language services in Evanston was a hardship for these Wilmette residents because the elevated train line terminated at Central Street, and the automobile was still in its infancy. They needed a neighborhood parish that would attract more Catholics to the area.

The group met with Bishop Muldoon, who granted their request.

Fr. Edmund Byrnes was appointed to organize the new parish, and his first official act was to dedicate the parish to St. Francis Xavier, placing it under the patronage of the famous Jesuit missionary to India and Japan.

Ground was broken for the church on Oct. 3, 1904, with the provision that this was to meet the immediate needs of the parish: no tower was erected and the roof was temporary. The first Mass in the new church was celebrated on Christmas Day, 1904.

In 1909 a frame school and convent were built. The Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods in Indiana sent four sisters to take charge of the new school. Early in 1910 the school opened with 37 students; within a month, enrollment increased to 57. The Sisters of Providence served the parish for 80 years.

Our second pastor, Msgr. Thomas V. Shannon, was appointed in October 1913. He helped organize the Woman’s Catholic Club of Wilmette. Msgr. Shannon’s strong interest in missionary work was exemplified by his invitation to a number of Mexican priests and bishops seeking asylum during the Mexican Revolution to stay in our parish rectory.

In July 1919, Msgr. Francis C. Kelley became pastor. He was the founder and president of the Catholic Extension Society, which supplied priests and funds for the American missions. Through a donation of $25,000 from the estate of Agnes Seng, a separate school was built for St. Francis in 1922. It was designed by Barry Byrne, an architect who trained with Frank Lloyd Wright. The building, which stands on the corner of 9th and Linden, is a historic example of the Prairie style of architecture.

On Oct. 17, 1924, Fr. Bernard Brady was named pastor. Fr. Brady was pastor during the Great Depression. Through sound financial management, he created a fund to replace the 25 year old "temporary" church structure.

In March 1937, Msgr. Martin McNamara was appointed pastor and led our parish during the construction of the new church. Construction took ten months to complete, at a cost of $140,000. Mass was held at the Wilmette Women’s Club during construction. On May 14, 1939, Cardinal Mundelein dedicated our current church building.

There are many interesting architectural features in this building. The stained glass windows were designed by parishioner Henry Schmidt and created by the Zettler Co. of Munich, Germany. The side windows have three panels each, 24 in all. Two panels in each window represent mysteries of the Rosary. In this way, the Rosary circles the church.

The center panels include Sts. Peter, Paul, Patrick and Boniface. The panel of the Blessed Mother was inspired by a window in France’s Chartres Cathedral. The windows above the sanctuary and the front entrance represent the Trinity, and the design is echoed in stone in the outdoor assembly plaza.

The statues were made in Italy of five different kinds of marble. The Blessed Mother stands on the right of the altar, which is not traditional. Some say that it is because of the special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the left, which was an important devotion at the time of the building. St. Joseph is located in the rear of the church, and St. Francis Xavier greets people as they enter the lobby.

The baptismal font is the only item remaining from the old 1904 church. On the back altar there is a marble mosaic of a pelican feeding its young. This is a symbol of the Eucharist, our Lord feeding us from his own body. Fourteen different kinds of marble were used to create this work of art.

Fr. Philip J. Hayes was appointed pastor in March 1949. He built a new convent, which now houses our parish offices. In 1956 a new school and gymnasium were built to the east of the original school. It houses the Xavier Room, our largest gathering space. The statue of the Holy Family, which stands in the courtyard, was carved in Italy from Botticino marble.

With Vatican II came many changes. The Catholic Church began to be defined by its people, not its buildings. In order for people to become more actively involved in the Mass, a new altar was installed that faced the congregation.

Fr. Leo A. Devitt began his pastorate in October 1969. He initiated a school board and a board for Religious Education. A strong Woman’s Club evolved from the old Mother’s Club. Catholic Family Movement was strong and became a starting point for our current adult education programs.

Fr. Edmund F. Burke was appointed pastor on February 1, 1972. He started the Parish Twinning Program. He also oversaw the development of a Montessori preschool, a pastoral council and ACTION, our high school youth group.

Fr. Edward Harnett arrived in 1984 and helped develop many more lay ministries. The Ministry of Care, the group that visits the sick and homebound, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society came into being. A Respect Life committee was formed, and an active liturgical ministry utilized our lectors, Eucharistic ministers, and newly trained permanent deacons and pastoral associates. The church building, now 50 years old, was renovated and a magnificent organ was installed in 1995, built by the renowned Casavant Freres Company of Canada.

Fr. William J. Sheridan, our 10th and current pastor, keeps alive our string of Irish pastors. He was appointed pastor in August 2001.

Upon arrival in 2001 he started work on the restoration and upkeep of several parish buildings. A Peace and Justice committee was formed, and a focus on spiritual direction for the laity is emphasized as we continue to encourage active involvement in parish life and the community. He has maintained and expanded many of the fine programs at St. Francis.

In 2004, a Centennial Committee was created to oversee the parish’s 100th anniversary celebrations. The 100th year celebrations were begun with an Opening Mass in June 2004 with Cardinal Francis George as the main celebrant. The parallel Centennial Campaign raised significant funds, allowing Fr. Sheridan to fund the restoration work and the reconstruction of the church’s front plaza. He has also overseen the updating of the parish Web page.

Learn more about the life of our parish's namesake, St. Francis Xavier.

"That all may be one."
-One motto of our patron saint, St. Francis Xavier.

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