The Redemptorist Fathers realized the importance of social and recreational activities and facilities. During his pastorate from 1907 to 1912, Fr. George Thomas decided to build a parish recreational center equal to any in Chicago. His project as planned and executed was deemed by many to be pretentious, if not fool-hardy. The passing of the years, however, proved its great value. He built the Athenaeum at Southport and Oakdale Avenues at a cost of $150,000. The formal opening of the center occurred on November 18, 1911.
At that time the Athenaeum was one of the finest of its kind in the country. When it was built the lower floor included an 80 x 100 foot gymnasium; four bowling alleys; and various meeting rooms for Boy and Girl Scouts and other clubs. The main floor included an elaborate suite of rooms â€“ library, assembly hall, kitchen and reception room. For many years, this section of the building was the meeting place for the young women of the parish, who raised most of the funds to furnish it. In later years, the space was taken over by the Young People’s Club and other parish groups. On the second floor were five meeting halls enabling various groups to meet simultaneously. In 1926, these rooms were converted into classrooms for 200 pupils enrolled in St. Alphonsus Commercial High School.
The theater proper has a seating capacity of 1000, one of the largest stages in the city, steel curtain and fireproof scenery. The stage was regarded as one of the best in the country when it was constructed. It remains one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in Chicago. On countless occasions, packed audiences were regaled by drama, comedy, music, tragedy, drills and skits by the school children, and graduation exercises. And, for two years after the destructive church fire of 1950, the Athenaeum was transformed into a temporary church and the stage became the altar and tabernacle.
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