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NewsTribune photo/Scott Anderson Father Fredi Gomez-Torres (center) of Holy Cross Church in Mendota speaks with former parish members Mary Brunner and Jo Grabowski in the lounge area inside the former St. Roch’s church in La Salle.
They started smiling before they even made it to the door — just stopped on the sidewalk outside the former St. Roch’s Catholic church, looking up at the red brick and stone walls and the rippled stained glass windows. The familiar sight triggered happy memories: This is where they were married, more than 40 years ago. It’s where their children were baptized, where they received the sacraments, where they sang in their parents’ native language and where their community was centered.
Members of the Slovenian Union of America Branch 24 in La Salle were joined Thursday evening by their compatriots from Oglesby and beyond for a tour and meeting in the former church at Sixth and Crosat streets, now a private home. Services were last held in the church in the 1970s, when La Salle was home to five parishes divided along ethnic lines, instead of the single parish that now serves the city.
Loretta Story, now a Peru resident, remembers well the role St. Roch’s church played in her family. As a student, she’d take the bus from the west side of La Salle every morning.
“I’d get off just in time to run upstairs and sing with Sister,” she said. Most of the songs were in Latin, as the Mass was said in Latin at that time, but she also remembers hearing her father sing Slovenian hymns in the choir. Like many present, she had first seen the remodeled interior during a Christmas walk — but she still wanted to look around, one more time, and said she’d return to the former church “every chance I get.”
“My first desire was to go up that stairway and stand in the choir loft,” she said. “It warmed my heart to know that it’s still here, it’s still intact, it’s still beautiful.”
Story was pleased to see a thin metal ladder still hanging near the entrance to the loft. On Christmas, and for other special occasions, her father would climb that ladder to “ring” the bells with hammers. This unique Slovenian style was thought more beautiful than simply ringing the bells by rope, as was customarily done for most Sundays.
After the church ceased holding services, it served as office space for Catholic Charities. During that time, a drop ceiling was installed and the columns were modified to accommodate the organization’s needs. When John Fialko of San Diego, Calif., purchased the building in 2010, Migliorini Builders of Granville was contracted to remodel it.
The choir loft has been remade into a bedroom with attached bathroom. It overlooks the rest of the “house,” including two bedrooms that stand where confessionals once were and a large, undivided living area that includes a kitchen space where the altar once stood. The original ornate altar has been removed, revealing a roughly painted scene of the Last Supper. Jerry Massini, Fialko’s uncle, said the artist of that painting remains unknown.
La Salle resident Ken Krogulski, who attended St. Roch’s school nearby, laughed as he saw the bedrooms inside the church.
“The difference is, now you can sleep in church and it’s OK,” he joked.
Bonnie Prokup, president of the Slovenian Union of America, shared a list of some of the donors who contributed to the original construction of the church. Many of the names are notable in local history, with connections to other landmarks and large families throughout the area, such as Hegeler, Matthiessen, Duncan and Cerne, to name a few. Prokup was baptized and received her First Communion in the church.
“I think it’s beautiful,” she said of the restoration, adding she particularly enjoyed seeing “the way they kept a lot of the little pieces,” such as the decorative capitals atop the columns.
The La Salle branch of the organization has 100 members, though attendance for some meetings can be as low as 30 members, Prokup said. Having special events such as the tour boosts attendance, she said, and Thursday’s turnout impressed her.
“It’s kind of got a revival,” she said, referring to the Slovenian Union of America. “The organization was dying, and so many younger people are joining because they want to know about their culture.”
Story agreed that area residents still have a lot to learn from their immigrant ancestors.
“They left a country that was poor and they wanted a better life,” Story said, “And they were willing to work hard when they got here, and they did.”
“I think that’s an important part of an education for our young people today,” Story said.
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