Feature Article

Karen Fontaine with her dog, Chester, on the beach
Karen Fontaine with her dog, Chester, on the beach

Nursing professor enjoys history through volunteerism


While enjoying a tour of the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago two years ago, Karen Fontaine became impressed, not only with the architecture of the church, but the tour itself. The guide was very knowledgeable and was able to answer all questions presented to her.

Fontaine, a Purdue Calumet professor of nursing since 1982, felt leading tours could be very interesting, so she applied for volunteer training with ‘Friends of Historic Second Church.’ This organization assists in conducting building tours, as well as participates in fundraisers.

An opportunity to stretch. . .

“I went for a six-week training program at the Art Institute in Chicago; I was the only non-art person there,” the Gary resident laughed. “This was something I’ve never done, but it gave me the opportunity to stretch – and learn new things. I had to step out of my normal field of expertise and learn some new skills.”

That she did, absorbing known history and also becoming an investigator of sorts, as she shared new knowledge with other volunteers.

The large pipe organ and Tiffany stained glass windows found inside the church are among Fontaine’s favorite pieces. An almost two-centuries-old carpet leading to the balcony also is definitely an eye-catcher.

“There are more than 2,500 pipes in the organ—that’s amazing—and the organ has no ‘one’ name on it, since several people worked on building it,” she said. “There are nine unique Tiffany windows in the church, and the carpet to the balcony was donated by the Marshall Field family, who were church members. It’s a little threadbare, but what can you expect? It’s 170-years-old!”

Familiarizing with Chicago history

As she became knowledgeable about the rich history of the church, which sprouted its roots in 1842, Fontaine also became familiar with other aspects of Chicago history.

The Town of Chicago incorporated in 1833. Twenty Presbyterians organized at Fort Dearborn.

That number increased to 26 members when the church was officially organized in 1842.

Currently, the Second Presbyterian Church, located at 1936 S. Michigan Avenue, holds designation on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. The structure also ranks #8 on Chicago’s Register of Historical Places–American reformed and Presbyterian churches.

The present location is the church’s second. The first, a Gothic-style structure built on the Northeast corner of Washington and Wabash Streets, was completed in 1851, but burned down 20 years later in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.

Other outreach

Additionally, Fontaine also serves the Historical Society of Chicago and has just completed a unique training session with her 3-year-old Great Dane, Chester.

Chester is a former show dog in need of something to do, his owner joked.

The pair plans to work at various medical facilities that utilize animal-assisted therapy to aid in healing programs.