Listen and you will hear…..
“A stranger on horseback coming into the struggling prairie village of Babcock Grove, as Lombard was known prior to its incorporation in 1869,would see the imposing spire of the tall white frame church. Without talking to anyone, the thinking traveler would have realized that this was a place where men who loved God were building their homes. The steeple pointing Heavenward was a symbol of intent. The large cast-iron bell indicated that this was a congregation which wanted to be heard.” So wrote a member of this congregation, Ardyce Mans, in her history of the First Church of Lombard, Through Years of Grace.
Suppose you knew someone who lived in this community for well over a hundred years, that this someone was viewed as an important resource and a vital part of the life of the community. How many stories this someone could tell! How many memories! How many people, faces, and events this someone would have touched!
The Maple Street Chapel is such a “someone”, even though a building is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to communicating those stories and memories and people and events stored in its memory. For over a hundred years, the Chapel has stood on the corner of Main and Maple Streets - It was originally dedicated as a house of worship on May 29, 1870. Built by a bridge builder, on a lot donated by a member of the congregation, the free-standing rectangular frame building was the fourth building used by the young congregation, and was the regular meeting place for worship services from 1870 until 1958 when the newer building just south of the Chapel was completed and dedicated. The only interruption in services during that entire time came during World War I, when because of the coal shortage, it was decided, in order to conserve the scarce resource, to temporarily move services to another building that had a fireplace. The Maple Street Chapel is still a setting for special worship services, as well as a popular choice of couples wishing to be married. Frequent concerts, lectures, and meetings are held within its vertical board-and-batten walls.
The first thing one notices about the someone born in 1870 and called The Maple Street Chapel is the design of the building itself. Included in the Gothic building under its gabled roof are three one-bay entrance porches located at the northeast, northwest, and southwest corners. There are eleven delicate "grisaille" windows, five on each the east and west sides, and one in the center of the north side. The windows are set in a Gothic sash capped by a hood mould. On the north side is a soaring tower with an open belfry and mini-spires to the east and the west. Atop the soaring spire is a Celtic cross which it may surprise you to know is over six feet high.
Through its life, alterations to the exterior of the Chapel have been few. In 1915, Maple Street was paved and sidewalks were added, so the original entrances on the north side of the building had to be removed, and the present-day entry porches at the northeast and northwest corners were built. The parapet of cement, ornamented with shrubbery, was added.
In 1870, the floor was made entirely wide-plank pine boards. Though there is now carpeting in the narthex, aisles, and altar, the original flooring under the pews has been lovingly cared for and has remained unchanged. The beaded boards of the pew backs are alternating walnut and hickory boards. The wainscoting up to a height of 3' was stained in alternating colors to give the same effect. Prior to 1900, the walls and ceiling were of rough plaster. The beaded boards were then installed, giving accent to the pointed arch throughout the Chapel.
Two of the original gas fixtures hang from the Reade Room ceiling, and one kerosene lamp is mounted on its south all - all wired to serve as electrical lights. The Reade Room had been the meeting room for thee elders of the church. Picture them.......warmed by a wood burning stove, seated in the two rows of long cushioned benches with reversible backs.......usually facing west toward a small table, with a plain chair serving as the leader's seat.
Pew rental was established during these early years. There really was no ideal place to sit. Those nearest the potbellied stove were apt to feel "cooked" on one side, and sometimes an ill-fastened pipe would release sooty vapors or smoke. And the kerosene lamps suspended from a large ring hanging from the ceiling occasionally dripped down onto the ladies' bonnets, which were quite spectacular during this time. Still, some pews seemed more desirable than others, and members vied for these at the "pew rental auctions."
What kind of people were these who became such a huge part of this chapel's memories? At least at the beginning, we get this picture from an old newspaper article: "Upon the town of Lombard the great Chicago fire of 1871 brought calamity indeed - a new suburb, dating its incorporation but from 1869, peopled largely by ambitious and energetic, rather than established, young merchants, manufacturers, and professional men, most of them saw flames sweep away their possessions - their insurance inadequately collectable on account of the mortality among companies following the catastrophe, served usually but to tempt them on towards the continuance of a basis where money counted for but very little - since no one had any, and there were no "Joneses" with whom it was necessary to keep even in step. Life in every form centered entirely and absolutely around the church and its activities - for in a most literal sense, among the English-speaking people, there was really nothing else."
And what about the children during those very early days? Of course, they had those country pleasures which cost so little and mean so much: skating, sleigh riding (usually by hitching on bobs as the farmers came to town), games at school and during vacation, expeditions for hickory nuts in the fall, that which was termed swimming but hardly ever got beyond wading, and such chase-ball as could be improvised. One big event for the young boys was vying for the honor of pumping the pipe organ then in use in the Chapel. It was a time of plain living for adults and children alike. And then, at least there was no worry about a loss of gas electricity, water, or telephone service, for none of these services existed.
As the years unfolded, more and more people were touched by the Chapel and all that happened. The large bell served as the fire alarm for the community, and summoned the "bucket brigades" in times of need (One wonders what happened if there was a fire while First Church folks were being summoned to worship by the tolling bell!) The town's first free library, spearheaded by a collection of books from Lombardian Josiah Reade, was housed in what is now fittingly called the Reade Room (Then it had been called the "Lecture Room".) at the south end of the Chapel.
This library not only antedated the Chicago Public Library, but it was also the first free public library anywhere in the pioneered region of northern Illinois. The minutes of First Church remember gladly how the library grew from a small collection that Mr. Reade could carry to Sunday School in a peach basket, to 271 by 1879, and to over 6,000 (with a circulation of 4,100 annually) that were consolidated with Helen Plum's and moved to the Plum residence in 1928. Colonel and Mrs. Plum had been active members of the church.....When he died, he willed his house and the beginning of Lilacia Park to the Village. Those first lilacs the Plums had collected during their travels in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe, and Lombardians will always be grateful for the sweet aroma that heralds springtime.
In 1907, a coal furnace was installed in the Chapel (replacing the pot-bellied stoves) and by 1915 used 40 to 50 tons of coal per year. Later, this was converted to oil, and then to gas. The original steam heat was converted to hot water, and then a forced-air heating system was installed in the Reade Room. The library in the Reade Room was the first to receive the new Edison invention, in 1910. By 1912 the congregation could afford lighting for the sanctuary. The beautiful cathedral lights were installed, a gift from a member of the church, and a beautiful new organ (from funds bequeathed by Reade's daughter), both in 1945. During the organ installation, defects in the electrical wiring were discovered, and all gas outlets were removed because they represented a serious safety hazard. Also, 1945 saw the new pulpit and altar remodeling in the front of the sanctuary by the late Fred D. Kay, then a young local architect. Much of the wood carving was left unchanged, having been carved in Oberammergau, Germany., So, modern times had come!
So many lives wrapped up in this Chapel.....too numerous to mention all of them, but that is why the Maple Street Chapel of Lombard is of such importance to so many. People have filtered through through all the year - people who have made a difference, people who have cared, people who helped make this community a good place to live. That is what, as the Chapel continues to celebrate birthdays, so many folk remember and visit and look and enjoy and try to help keep this special someone alive.
National recognition was given to this special someone; the Chapel was placed in the Nation Register of Historic Places on August 10, 1978 because of its purity of architectural design and its place in history.
The following is a warm tribute to Josiah Torrey Reade by Katherine Reynolds, now deceased, a writer, Lombard resident, and friend of the Maple Street Chapel.
"I remember him best sitting at this lighted desk in the book-lined room his heart fashioned. I like to think of Josiah Reade always in that room, but especially on stormy nights, for it was a black and stormy night that I first saw him there. I was young, with a dream to build a home and a garden - to write a book, and I, too, had great faith. I was new to the village - my books packed, my friends far away - I was lonely, and life was hard at times. Then one day a friend told me about the lighted door of the book-lined room, and I hurried through rain and a blustering wind to that door and forever after I was at peace and at home in Lombard. Josiah Reade made me welcome and gave me his treasures and we became friends. Up flared those bushy eyebrows, the blue eyes twinkled 'You're not the only one. This town is full of authors and culture.' After that lighted door on a black storm-torn night, a door that opens on a treasure room wherein is peace and kindly joy; beauty and courage and great faith; and the fine face and the warm hand of a great friend."