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When and why did Robey Street become Damen Avenue?
December 31, 2009

Dear Cecil:

When and why did Robey Street change to Damen Avenue? I did some some searching but have had no luck finding the answer.

— Daveg, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

You may think this is a dull question. Have a little patience. Things start off slow, but wait till you see where they wind up. Fact is, Damen Avenue was named after a man with a direct line to God.

To start with the dull part: the Chicago City Council changed the name of Robey Street (2000 west) to Damen Avenue in 1927. Who was Robey? Don't know, don't care, and Robey wasn't the street's original name anyway — if you look closely at this 1861 map, you see it was once called Fond du Lac Road. (Interestingly, Milwaukee Avenue is shown as "Milwaukie Blank Road," with what I assume is a typo for "plank.")

Damen is a different story. The street of that name was so called in honor of Father Arnold Damen (1815-1890), a Dutch Jesuit priest and Chicago legend. Father Damen founded Holy Family Church in 1860 and what was originally called Saint Ignatius College  next door in 1870. (The college half of the school eventually split off and became Loyola University, while the high school part remained on Roosevelt Road as Saint Ignatius College Prep.) 

The Holy Family/Saint Ignatius site had two drawbacks. First, when the church was founded, it was in the middle of nowhere. That didn't bother Father Damen, who correctly foresaw that the church would draw people from all over and become the center of a thriving neighborhood. The second drawback was that it was roughly three-quarters of a mile from 137 (now 558) DeKoven Street, known to posterity as the location of Mrs. O'Leary's barn. I won't say the fire that started there on the morning of October 8, 1871, didn't bother Father Damen, but he had it covered, and therein lies our tale.

When the Great Fire began, the wind was blowing out of the southeast. Holy Family and Saint Ignatius were directly west, and arguably would have escaped the flames had conditions remained unchanged, but Father Damen was taking no chances. In the version of the story I initially heard, he stood on the front porch of Saint Ignatius and prayed to the Almighty to spare his life's work. This was embroidery. In reality his prayer was offered up in Brooklyn, where he was preaching at the time. No matter; the Lord could hear him there just as well. Father Damen vowed that if his prayers were answered, he would keep seven vigil lights burning before an image of the Virgin.

The wind shifted. Formerly it had been driving the fire toward the outskirts of town; now it began to blow out of the southwest, pushing the fire northeast. You see the implications of this. The church and school were saved. Instead, the conflagration burned down the rest of Chicago.

This story was proudly told by Saint Ignatius supporters for many years as an illustration of divine providence and Father Damen's clout. Eventually some realized it also indicated a rather narrow sense of priorities, and I notice the Ignatius website, while confirming the essence of the tale, discusses the matter in restrained terms. The City Council, for its part, held no grudges and happily renamed the street after this formidable cleric, no doubt recognizing that you can't fault a man for putting his arms around the things closest to his heart. 

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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