Naper Settlement – Half a Century Later

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Fifty years ago, a group of concerned citizens gathered to preserve an old church and keep Naperville’s history alive. Today, Naperville Heritage Society and Naper Settlement is celebrating it’s silver anniversary as a nationally accredited museum.

In 1969 St. John’s Episcopal Church had fallen into disrepair. The 140-year-old Grecian style structure at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Ellsworth was slated for demolition.

A local activist Jane Sindt would become the group’s first president, and she had a vision.

“She invited people that maybe had a similar interest to her in saving the church. And said ‘come on over let’s come and talk about this. Let’s decide if there’s something we can do and rally and save this church,’” said Louise Howard, chief curator of Naper Settlement.

That’s exactly what they did. The heritage society raised $30,000 with an antique show that became a signature event for the organization for years to come.

Finally in June of 1970, the St. Johns Episcopal Church was paraded through Downtown Naperville and placed on city grounds near the Martin Mitchell Mansion.

The land and mansion was donated by a woman who wanted to keep the history of the town alive.

“And that was Caroline Martin Mitchell who donated her home, its carriage house, and her acreage. So the immediate surrounding acreage was to be maintained as a museum. And then there were additional acreage that became everything that we know today,” said Donna Sack, vice president of community engagement and audience of Naper Settlement.

In 1979, Peggy Frank became the first professional staff member hired by The Naperville Heritage Society. Frank was the group’s first executive director and led the organization for 33 years.

During her tenure, the Pre-Emption House and visitor center were built, the brushstrokes exhibit opened, and the Martin Mitchell Mansion was fully renovated – turning Naper Settlement into a center of history, culture, and learning. 

In 2006, the museum changed its mission, which reflected the first 100 years of Naperville. Now it would expand to gather artifacts and stories from 1831 to present day.

“It gave us the opportunity to talk about Naperville’s 20th and 21st centuries. And there are some of us who would argue that Naperville’s 20th century on a national scale is far more significant even than its 19th century history,” said Sack.

Half a century later, the Naperville Heritage Society is embracing even more changes, by sharing other’s immigration stories through their new collections.

“We’re looking to deliver education. Were looking to deliver a strong sense of a community identity. For all the people that live here,” said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, president of The Heritage Society and CEO of Naper Settlement. “They should find themselves here in the museum.”

And to do so, the heritage society launched the “Never Settle” campaign, with a goal to bring in new exhibits and digital learning tools for a campus of life-long learning and fun suitable for all generations.

“It’s our way to be able to take out the more than 70,000 artifacts that we have put away that people don’t see and be able to tell their story. And help the thinkers, makers and doers of our time and the times that come understand so much about who they are and why they are,” said Tamayo-Calabrese.

It’s a way to honor the founders and remember the history, while representing Naperville through today.

“As we started looking at our story. You know, tiny little town. When we started looking at that, what we ended up realizing is that our story is a lot bigger than our town, said Tamayo-Calabrese. “Our story is truly, truly the microcosm of how America grew up.”

Preserving the past and embracing the future.

Naperville News 17’s Antonia Acuna reports.