St. Agnes: Century-Old Heartbeat of the Heights
Rev. John Siemianowski talks about the church's history, its congregation and what makes it unique.
When he was 8 years old, John Siemianowski lost his best friend and mentor—his father.
In the months that followed, the family parish stepped in and helped John’s mother raise six children. The compassion of the priests, the nuns and the community helped mold John into the man he is today: The Rev. John Siemianowski, pastor of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Chicago Heights.
"The church became an extended family for my mother," Siemianowski said. "She had six kids, no income, lots of bills and worries. The church stepped in, they were there for us. They brought us through a tough time."
Siemianowski spoke with Patch about the church, the congregation and his willingness to serve others.
Patch: How long has St. Agnes been in Chicago Heights?
Siemianowski: St. Agnes has been in Chicago Heights for over 115 years, and in the same location. The buildings have changed but the site has remained the same.
On the walls are graduates from St. Agnes School, which has been opened 103 years. It's fun to walk down the hallways, look at the photos and see the changes. The people in those photos, I think about the difference they have made in this world.
When did you know you wanted to become a priest?
I grew up in a Catholic family, went to a Catholic grade school. To serve and make a difference was instilled to me in the grade school level.
After my father passed away when I was a young child, I saw how the church stepped in to help my mother. People began asking me in eighth grade, have I thought about becoming a priest. It wasn't until I got into college that I seriously thought about it.
For me, it's waking up every morning and it feels right. I've been called and I'm happy. When I started at the seminary it was peaceful and made sense. God has blessed me and hopefully through me I'm bringing some blessings to other people. This is an extended family. It's bigger than the parish—it's the city, it's the Heights!
What has been the most important contribution?
I think welcoming anyone who would like to come. Also stability. I think the parish does that for those who live here. St. Agnes is one of the founding parishes in the area. A number of Catholic churches around here broke off from St. Agnes. This church has been an anchor in the community. It's a place where you bring new children into the world. It's also a place to say goodbye to parents and grandparents. It's a place to celebrate good things in life and where we walk together in the sadness of life.
Who are some notable members of your congregation?
I'd give you the parish list and say they're all notable. For me, we have people in their mid 90s who continue to come and take part. Then you have at least three generations, sometimes four, that all come here. To me, that's notable.
Tell us a story about the congregation or church.
I'll give you one example out of many. One of our parishioners, Helen Mikos, visits Riviera (Manor) nursing home every month. She does mass there. She is at the point of her life where she has trouble walking. She is in her 80s. It's a ministry she began in the early 1990s and still goes.
Helen has led that group monthly. She tells everyone we need to be there. We need to serve a population that has been forgotten. I see her as a model for many people at St. Agnes. Retirement for Helen is not an option. She continues to push herself and others in a good way.
What is your hope for the future of the church?
We're in the process of building our organ. St. James Hospital is donating the organ to us from a hospital that was closed in Evanston. The new instrument should be up and running in about a year and a half. We're redesigning the upstairs with wind boxes and pipes that will be split.
I also see great things for our school. We continue to be stable and strong. We have good friends to make it affordable not only for our parishioners but other children in the community. St. Agnes will continue to be an anchor in Chicago Heights. As an anchor it will move us into the future.
What makes St. Agnes unique?
At one time there were seven parishes in Chicago Heights, now there are three: St. Kieran's, St. Paul's and us. When the other churches closed, what we wanted to do was bring everyone together in some way.
We brought statues from the closed churches such as St. Casmir, which was on Route 30. We also brought statues from St. Ann's, which was on Chicago Road, and San Rocco, which was on the Hill. It was a way for people to still see a piece of their church and tradition, which is here.
We have a lot of history here. The crucifix, the picture of St. Agnes, the Sacred Heart and Mary are originals from the early church.
What have been some of your best memories here?
I have served on leadership councils at city hall. I also do things with Marian High School. I have enjoyed serving on the board of Union Street Gallery. I've gotten to know people beyond the Catholic Church.
Chicago Heights has a great heart. St. Agnes is part of that heart, where people use it for good.