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Norman B. Barr Papers

Identifier: spe-nbb

Scope and Contents

These materials document the tandem career of Barr and of Olivet Institute. There is no clear-cut delineation in the collection between Barr’s private life and his work with Olivet, and this is doubtless reflective of how Barr lived his life. Photographs reflect the topics and series of the documents and should be consulted as well.

The collection was supplemented in 1988 by the transfer of a duplicate theater program from the Goodman Theatre Archive. The program is for When Chicago Was Young, produced in November 1932 at the Goodman Theatre. This production was a benefit for Olivet Institute, which received ten percent of the proceeds. The twenty-page program includes a history of the Institute and various advertisements in support of Olivet. It documents an interesting cooperation between church and theatre in an era when many churches held the professional stage in contempt.


  • 1896 - 1987
  • Majority of material found within 1900 - 1940


Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

Norman Burton Barr was born in Mount Palatine, IL, on January 27, 1868, the son of Lawrence Clay and Harriet Amanda (Ferry) Barr. He attended local public schools and was awarded a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska in 1893. He then enrolled at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary (now McCormick) in Chicago, from which he graduated in 1897. That same year he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, and on May 20 began his duties as pastor of the Olivet Presbyterian Church, then at 665 Vedder Street on Chicago’s near north side.

Under Barr’s forty-year pastorate, Olivet Church undertook mammoth local missionary work, eventually operating a settlement house, library, medical dispensary, camp, supervised playground facilities, language classes and even music lessons. See below, "Olivet Institute," for a more complete sketch of that work. Barr is best described as a pastor of the "social gospel" stripe, and yet theologically his preaching emphasized the church’s responsibility to spiritual salvation as well as to physical need. Barr categorized himself as a "first-century fundamentalist." Politically he referred to himself as "a member of no party, but active in propagating the ideas of ‘The Kingdom of God’ set forth by Jesus Christ."

Norman Barr’s beliefs, and his habit of stating them clearly and concisely, frequently raised the ire of his listeners. Two such episodes are recorded in newspaper clippings in this collection: an anti-Catholic speech in 1917, which was seen as fanning the fires of domestic strife when all America needed to unite in common anti-German sentiment, and a 1920s address to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union which found greater evil in American clubs trying to "run" America by abrogating freedom of dissent than in the liquor traffic. The newspaper reported, respecting this latter speech, that the "ladies of the audience were gasping. The clergymen glowered at the speaker. But he went on."

Barr authored several pamphlets, including "A Catechism of the Church" (1912), "Plain Talk to Young Folk," and "The Gospel for an Age of Anarchy." Articles by him appeared in The Continent such as "Wanted—A New Respect for the Foreign Born" in 1921.

As the work of Olivet expanded, Barr became not only pastor of the congregation but Superintendent of Olivet Institute and its wide array of social programs. He retired in 1937 but remained active in the Olivet work in an emeritus capacity, performing his last marriage seven weeks before his death and conducting his last funeral only ten days before he died. Barr was twice married, first to Minnie Dearstyne Goodman of Lincoln, Nebraska, on December 20, 1894. To them were born five children: Dorothy (born 1896, later Mrs. Royal Agne and the mother of three daughters); Barbara (1898-1900) Norman B., Jr. (who married but remained childless); Marjorie (1907-1986, unmarried); and Edward Lawrence (born 1909, married with one daughter). Minnie Goodman Barr died April 14, 1909, in complications of childbirth. Her infant son, Edward, was reared by his grandparents and did not live with his father until a teenager.

In 1914, Norman Barr remarried to Sarah Holbrook Humphrey, who took charge of Olivet’s Relief Department. Rev. Barr died April 1, 1943, and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery. Sarah Burr died June 15, 1957, and was buried beside him.

The origin of Olivet Institute was as a Sunday School Mission established in 1888 by students at McCormick Theological Seminary. The neighborhood, on the near north side, was comprised of a heavily immigrant population (originally German, Irish and Swedish, but after 1900 increasingly Italian, Hungarian and Romanian). Two years after its founding Olivet was organized as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church and in 1892 united with another local mission work operated by Central Presbyterian Church. In 1893 the ministry was enlarged as the Olivet Social Institute and the following year moved to 665 Vedder Street, the property a gift of the Misses Williams of Fourth Presbyterian Church.

Under the pastorate of Rev. Norman Barr, installed in 1897, the work mushroomed. The Olivet Institute Residence opened in 1902, establishing Olivet as one of the earlier settlement houses in the city (the famed Hull House on South Halsted was then in its fourteenth year). When Olivet incorporated as a non-profit institution under Illinois law in 1909, its declaration of purpose included operation of a gymnasium, athletic fields and playgrounds, together with all departments, parts and apparatus pertaining thereto; to furnish instructions in cooking, sewing, and all other branches of domestic science or training, in music in all its branches, and instruction in the arts and sciences in general, and provide facilities for any educational instruction, training or purpose whatever for the dissemination and diffusion of general or specific knowledge or information; a hospital and medical dispensary to furnish medical and surgical services and attendance; to conduct religious services, Sunday school classes and services, and religious or social functions and entertainments of various kinds; an old people’s home; living quarters for people connected with or employed by said Olivet Institute and general offices for said Olivet Institute; a restaurant or eating house; camping and recreation grounds. . .a general relief department to help needy and distressed persons; and any organizations, departments or activities suitable and proper to minister to the physical, social, mental, moral and spiritual needs of the community in which said Olivet Institute is now or shall be located in Chicago, Illinois. . . .

In 1914, philanthropist Nettie Fowler McCormick, widow of Cyrus, donated $140,000 for the purchase of a new 25-lot site, a mile and a half north-east of the original one, in the 1400 block of North Cleveland Avenue. In 1917, Mrs. McCormick followed up this gift with an additional $100,000 earmarked for costs of erecting a new structure. The prohibitive prices which plagued the domestic front in World-War-I America intervened, and it was a decade before the building project reached fruition. The resultant physical plant, begun in 1925 and dedicated the following year, cost $425,000.

By the time of incorporation, Olivet had outgrown its original governmental status under the home mission committee of the Chicago Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church. Other religious and secular social-service support was sought and with incorporation in 1909, the Institute became controlled by an independent board of directors, although it maintained cordial and financial ties with Presbytery for the next half-century. In 1912, Olivet joined a group of Chicago social agencies undertaking financial planning in tandem.

Property was acquired in 1909 at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which served as a summer campground for neighborhood children as well as for wealthier, paying guests. Olivet’s statistic sheet for 1924 recorded 201,000 "transactions" including 8,000 garments given out, 1,600 counseling sessions, 5,000 visits to the medical dispensary, 53,000 classes, and 21,000 music lessons. The Depression reduced the annual budget by over half; not until the late 1950s did the budget equal that of thirty years earlier. By 1961—the last information available in the collection—Olivet had altered its name to the Olivet Community Center. Its clientele had again changed with a shifting population and Puerto Ricans, Blacks, and Southern Whites made up the neighborhood. In 1960 two auxiliary service centers—Northside and North Suburban—were opened. One-third of the budget came from the Community Fund. Religious instruction and spiritual guidance had ceased to be part of Olivet’s program. Today (1988) Olivet still operates out of the 1926 building at 1441 North Cleveland, putting its emphasis on adult education, a day-care center, and a legal aid department.


7 Linear Feet (in 12 boxes, plus 5 oversize folders)

Language of Materials



Norman B. Barr was minister of the Olivet Presbyterian Church in Chicago which undertook local missionary work, eventually operating a settlement house, library, medical dispensary, camp, supervised playground facilities, language classes, and even music lessons. The collection documents the tandem career of Barr and the fortunes of Olivet Institute.


This collection is arranged in six series:

  • Series 1: Correspondence, 1902-1944
  • Series 2: Writings, 1896-1943
  • Series 3: Olivet Institute, 1913-1965
  • Series 4: Statistical Records, 1896-1943
  • Series 5: Biographical Files, 1897-1987
  • Series 6: Photographs, 1907-1938

Custodial History

After Rev. Barr’s death in 1943, his papers eventually passed into the possession of his daughter Marjorie. Upon her death in 1986, the papers came into ownership of her niece and executrix, Priscilla Whippo of Palatine, Illinois.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Priscilla Whippo, Barr’s granddaughter, donated the collection in 1987 and 1988. Item in Box 9, folder 17, was transferred to the Barr Papers as a duplicate from the Goodman Theatre Archive in October 1988.

Related Materials

  • John J. Finlay Papers
  • Juvenile Welfare Association Records
  • Louis A. Bowman Papers
  • Marion C. Young Hull House Collection
  • Norman B. Barr Camp, 1909-2009, BV1585.N67 2009

Guide to the Norman B. Barr Papers
Original author unknown. Processed August 1988. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Johanna Russ, 2021.
1988 August
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository

Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States
(312) 747-4875