The Sacré-Cœur of Chicago: Franco-American Devotion and Community, 1880-1920

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Window depictions of Margaret Mary Alacoque witnessing Jesus and the Sacred Heart. Top left: Notre Dame de Chicago, bottom left: Sacred Heart Church, Right: Our Lady of Fatima (formerly St. Joseph & St. Anne)

Chicago is not often associated with the French, save for references to Jacques Marquette and early fur traders. Yet during the latter 1800s, the city’s French immigrant population expanded far beyond what it had been during the French colonial era. Thousands of French-Canadians and French-nationals called Chicago’s industrial South Side their home, and from 1864 to 1892 founded five Catholic parishes, numerous ethnic associations, and ran a French language newspaper. This community lived in the shadows of Irish, Polish, and Italian communities, but its complex place within the “City of Big Shoulders” provides a useful look at the identity of a marginal Catholic group. Forming a “tri-national” outlook that blended elements of Quebec, France, and the United States, French-Americans defined their position in Chicago through the  Catholic Church. French-American immigrants connected to their homelands by bringing native personnel, devotions, and traditions into their parishes. Additionally, the community actively sought to replicate the sacred spaces it left behind through the construction of shrines to St. Anne and grottos to Our Lady of Lourdes, capturing the miraculous and healing spirit found both in southern France and on the St. Lawrence River at Beaupré.  French-American Chicago also defined itself through processionalism and community organization. Ethnic societies linked together French-Americans spread out over Chicago, and brought them together to experience linguistic and ethnic commonality, while celebrations offered a chance to march in force through the neighborhoods the French could not control at any other time. Although the French seem lost in Chicago’s past, their story highlights the utility of religion for the immigrant community and speaks to the minority experience in an urban environment.

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Un travail sans fin, and why that’s not bad

One of the biggest challenges I face in my daily life is knowing when to shut up. For the last three years, nearly every paper I’ve written has gone over the assigned page limit. I see a fifteen-page assignment as more of suggested minimum than a strict rule. This time around – unsurprisingly – I’ve managed to write over 30 pages. I told myself I’d stay under 35. As my new draft went on to its thirty-sixth page last night, I began to wonder if I had a problem.

After concluding that to be impossible, I thought back on what led me to page thirty-six. All unkind comparisons aside, I was thankful that Prof. Roberts had given my work so much attention. Undoubtedly, full implementation of his feedback would strengthen my paper significantly. To that end, I’ve been working hard on my paper for the last week, and have been trying to address lingering issues in my writing.

At the root of the problem is the French community’s place in Chicago. I – through prodding – have realized that it is foolish to view the immigrant community at the dawn of the twentieth century as a continuation of Chicago’s French citizens in the early 1800s, and now view the French story as a series of episodes. My paper deals with the urban immigrant story, one confined from 1880 to 1920. It is not the story of the early explorers and settlers, nor of those who built the city before and immediately after 1833.

A 1911 postcard showing Notre Dame (Image: Chuckman’s Chicago Nostalgia and Memorabilia)

Conceptualizing my paper more as an urban immigrant story led to the suggestion that other immigrant histories be included. I’ve tried to contextualize my paper better within the broad field of ethnic and immigrant studies. I’ve also heavily re-worked my introduction and conclusion, hoping to better control the flow of my argument. I’ve tried to think more about what French processionalism and celebration means within the context of ethnic community. I’ve been reading Robert Orsi’s Madonna of 115th Street during my revising process,  and his work has certainly found its way into my paper.

The paper is largely finished, in my opinion, and handed in now could stand as a competent, well-researched essay. I am determined, however, to make this one of my better papers, if not my best. I know that with more time and effort, I can hammer out any remaining issues. I have no doubt that I could resolve any standing qualms. But time is running out, and the paper is due soon. There’s also the unpleasant fact that I have other things do, and cannot really spend all my time sitting around thinking about a bunch of Frenchies in 1900.

I’ve done a lot of work on this paper. I’ve started with a topic that I knew nothing about, and my genuine interest in it has propelled me along this semester. At the end of it all, I’ll be happy with what I have written because to a large extent I feel like I wrote it for myself. Nonetheless, I suppose there’s always more work to do. I’m happy with that. This topic continues to surprise me, and I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve pulled from it. At times this paper seems like it is never going to end, but when it does, I’m sure it will be bittersweet.

C’est la vie.

Draft Day

Whelp, my draft is away. Free as I am right now of any feedback or criticism, I feel confident claiming unequivocal success. The process of writing the draft alternated between periods of high-stress and moments of clarity. I began writing over spring break, and finished my first draft by the middle of the week. That draft was horrendous constructive, and I carried a good deal of it over into my second draft, which I finished a few days later. That draft is still fundamentally the same one I am working with, although I have edited it further and added proper citation. After months of abstract planning, it’s really refreshing to have my paper take physical form. All in all, I am quite happy with the progress I have made.

Nonetheless, I would be lying if I said that there were no problems. I tried following my outline exactly, which led to issues – I was forced to adapt my outline significantly from its original form. I also found myself disappointed by how few sources I utilized relative to the sources I had available. Between years of Le Courrier Franco-Americain, numerous devotional practice books, and a variety of other historical works, I had to leave out much of what I wanted to bring in. Several interesting figures, places, and stories never made it into my draft, and elements that I still feel can strengthen my argument have been left out.

More exact immigration and community numbers could (maybe) be found. I probably could do a much better job of addressing the historiography, and that’s on top of the pile of books I still haven’t gone through in any serious way. I know I’m limited by space (despite exceeding thirty pages), but I would still like to bring more guns to bear. Additionally, I ran into issues with citation. The footnotes and bibliography were formatted to the best of my ability, and as such, need attention. I also could never escape a nagging feeling that much of what I was arguing was based on source availability more than anything else. For example, in regard to priests, several New England French-Canadian communities had a preference for Quebecois priests over clergy who simply spoke French. In Chicago, my view is that the community was never large enough to demand national priests over francophone priests, and that the community’s history shows it was lucky to have a French-speaking priest. Nonetheless, I do not know for certain if there was a marked desire one way or the other. Many priests in Chicago were from Quebec, but I cannot say if this was due to any Chicago preference. My records show a struggle to maintain distinctly French parishes, and to suggest that the community would have the power to demand specifically national priests is inconsistent with this view. However, I could be wrong.

Above and away, however, the most frustrating issue I faced was with terminology. “French-Canadian”, “Canadiens”, “French”, “French national”, “Quebecois”, “French-American”, “Franco-American”: all of these terms can more or less be used to describe Chicago’s francophone community in 1900. My argument is that the French-Canadians and French nationals largely form one solid Franco-American community by the beginning of the twentieth century, combing elements of both nations into a singular society. Still, I struggled when referring to a specific practice as “French” but not related to the Republic of France, and so forth.

Overall, the draft turned out much better than I had expected. I feel like I’ve crafted a convincing argument coupled with a history of a forgotten community. That being said, there is much more work to be done. I have a sneaking suspicion that my work may not be viewed as the unrivaled masterpiece that I believe it to be. In all honesty though, I genuinely look forward to receiving constructive feedback on my work. I’m well aware that there are issues to be addressed, and I am excited to begin solving them. Having another set of eyes review my work is always a rewarding experience, and usually leads to immense improvement. With some editing and revisions, I’m fully confident that this paper will be something to be proud of.

Les Canadiens du Sud: A Look at the Churches of Kankakee

While chasing a deacon down a country road, struggling to keep up even at 70 MPH, I realized that it might be worthwhile to write a post about the trip I took on Sunday down to the Bourbonnais area. I know that there was no blog post assigned for this week, but the story seemed worth telling (plus I took 200 photos and wanted to get some use out of them).

My trip downstate served to test one of my arguments. My paper currently looks at a number of French-Canadian parishes in Chicago, and seeks to present that the Canadiens in the city used both Québécois and French elements in the design of their churches. However, I had been struggling with the French national population in Chicago – could their presence in these parishes have led to the inclusion of grottos to Our Lady of Lourdes, windows to the Sacred Heart, and other traditionally French elements? Using Social Explorer to check census information, I found that while there were around 6,000 French-Canadian born citizens in Cook County in 1900, there were 3,000 French-born as well. Granted, not all of them would have been Catholic and involved in the parishes, but certainly some of them were.

However, in Kankakee County, there were only 137 French nationals in 1900, compared to around 1,500 French-Canadian born. If the parishes in Kankakee County had similar elements to the ones in Chicago, it would suggest to me that French-Canadians were the ones bringing these elements in. At the very least, it would strengthen my belief in my own argument, which is always helpful. Additionally, I have seen records of a priest from Notre Dame de Chicago leading pilgrimages down to St. Anne for the July novena, and I have frequently encountered interaction (often in the form of Chicago Canadiens heading south for picnics or celebrations) between Kankakee County and Chicago, so I thought it would be worthwhile to view the places these French-Canadians visited.

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A sign for St. Anne’s Church outside of St. Anne, IL

My day began at St. Anne, IL, at the Church of St. Anne. The town and the original church were founded by Charles Chiniquy, a French-Canadian Catholic priest (who was later excommunicated, and turned vehemently against the Church, and who I mentioned last week). The current St. Anne’s dates to 1872, and the church claims to be the ‘first shrine in the USA’. The church stands at the center of a small park, and dominates the local town. Led by a Viatorian pastor (a reminder of the old St. Viator’s College in Bourbonnais, founded by French-Canadian priests but presently operating as Olivet Nazarene University), St. Anne’s seemed like a healthy parish, at least in terms of attendance at their morning Mass.

Inside, I noticed a number of elements that I’ve seen in Chicago. The main altar is centered around a figure of Saint Anne and Mary, above which is a small window with the Sacred Heart. There is a smaller chapel to St. Anne in the back, and among the stained glass, I noticed a window devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes.

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The interior of St. Anne’s, showing the main altar

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A shot of the Sacred Heart above the altar

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A window devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes

Leaving St. Anne, I drove to Herscher, IL and the Church of St. Margaret Mary. I stayed for a few minutes before I began speaking with the deacon there about my project, and he recommended I go see Sacred Heart Church, which was closed at the time. After a quick call, he offered to bring me there and open up the church. Following him (or attempting to), I arrived at the small frame church. Looking around for a few minutes (and not wanting to outstay my welcome), I noticed a window devoted to Marguerite Bourgeoys, the saint and founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal, which had a large convent in Bourbonnais and served in some of my parishes in Chicago.

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Sacred Heart Church, outside of Herscher, IL

After leaving Sacred Heart, I travelled to Maternity BVM in Bourbonnais proper, located next to Olivet Nazarene. I arrived a bit later than I had hoped to, but a baptism kept the church open. After talking to a tired-sounding priest, I was free to roam the church. Maternity served as the main parish for the Congregation of Notre Dame convent and for St. Viator’s College, and though both these institutions are gone, the parish remains (and in great shape, at that). The ceiling of the church is the same blue design I’ve seen being added to Our Lady of Fatima in Chicago, and it was the same design I saw briefly at St. Margaret Mary’s earlier in the day. Maternity had statues of St. Anne and Mary, and the Sacred Heart, which was also visible in the windows. Like most of the parishes I’ve seen, French names dot the inscriptions below the windows. Outside, there was a small, old parish cemetery, alongside a sizeable grotto.

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The grotto at Maternity BVM in Bourbonnais

After Maternity, I stopped at St. Rose in Kankakee. I did not expect the church to be open, and had hoped just to putz around outside. However, as luck would have it, the church was open and I spent a few minutes looking around. The interior was far more impressive than I had been expecting (perhaps because the church itself was dark and empty). St. Anne was present here, alongside other distinctly French elements, including windows with Margaret Mary Alacoque and the Sacred Heart, Joan of Arc, and Louis de France.

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A window devoted to Joan of Arc at St. Rose

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Depiction of Margaret Mary Alacoque viewing the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Finally, I stopped in Beaverville, IL, just southeast of St. Anne. Beaverville – originally called Sainte Marie – is home to the imposing St. Mary’s (which refers to itself as the “Cathedral in the Cornfields”). The church is massive relative to its surroundings, and I could easily imagine it as a parish church in a Chicago neighborhood. I arrived in the middle of a stations of the cross ceremony, and took a few photos before the evening mass began. The French language is very visible throughout St. Mary’s, in window inscriptions and on pillars dedicated to old parishioners. The present church, which was recently renovated, was finished in 1911 and is currently headed by another Viatorian priest. St. Mary’s was firmly founded by French-Canadians, but was also home to nuns from the Congregation of the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary, a French order that served the parish’s school – Holy Family Academy – from 1895 until the 1960s. A statue of St. Anne and Mary and a Sacred Heart can be found in the church, along with a beautiful grotto on the far side of the grounds, but the grotto seems to have been the result of the nuns’ influence more than the local Canadiens. The cemetery behind the church, along with the separate graveyard for some of the nuns, is filled with countless French names like “Arseneau” or “Fortin” and serves as a thoughtful reminder of the village’s origins.

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St. Mary’s, the “Cathedral in the Cornfields”

In all, this trip exposed me to a region far different from what I have been studying. My focus is, and will remain, the urban French-Canadian experience. I will not be able to document the French-Canadians in Chicago to extent I would have been able to do if I were studying the Kankakee region. In Chicago, the Canadiens were one small group hidden beneath much larger ones. In Kankakee, the French-Canadians were perhaps the defining group. The downstate French-Canadians were present in the world of Chicago’s community, and there was interaction between the two, but ultimately they lived in two separate spheres. One was urban, and one was not – this is a profound difference, and one that forever separates the two communities. Nonetheless, the presence of the same elements in the parishes of Kankakee County as I have seen in the parishes of Chicago suggests that to some extent French-Canadians shared a similar outlook regardless of where they settled. Sacred Hearts, St. Anne, and Our Lady of Lourdes – along with the occasional Joan of Arc – show a community focus both on North America and Europe, looking at once to their native homeland in Quebec and their ancestral origins in France. The fact that both rural and urban parishes contained the same elements suggests to me that these elements were crucial to the French-Canadian community. Even if the French were involved in Chicago’s French-Canadian parishes, their presence alone does not explain away distinctly French elements: it is clear that these elements were cornerstones of the French-Canadian identity.


As a special note, I just wanted to say that I encountered only kindness and politeness during my trip. Everyone I talked to was gracious in allowing me access to their parishes and allowing me to take photographs.

The Sacre-Coeur of Chicago

In a little over five pages, I laid out plans for my research paper. I just wanted (and am in no way compelled) to give a quick update on the status of my project, and on how the plan stands moving forward.

The Good

After weeks of worrying about the progress of this paper, it was nice to be able to sit down and actually think about how to turn pages of notes and stacks of books into a coherent argument. Once I began writing, I went much further than I intended to – I usually don’t make very intensive outlines, and stick to planning basic ideas. This time around I was more specific (somewhat), and felt like I laid out a solid path for arguing my topic. My thesis right now (and it remains as a sort of place-holder, subject to change) is that the devotional practices and acts of the French-Canadian community in Chicago reflect a small community amplifying itself through ties to the wider world, and well in-tune with ongoing religious changes in France and Quebec. Shrines to St. Anne connect Chicago to the massive Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Shrine outside of Quebec, and grottos make overt links to France and the rising devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes in the latter nineteenth-century. Much of what I have seen in Chicago’s French-Canadian community during the late 1800s and into the 1900s reflects a community punching above its weight, with visits from the mayor, governor, and archbishop common at ethnic celebrations and Masses, and large processions on feast days that remind an overwhelmingly Irish and Polish city that there are still Canadiens present.

The Shrine of St. Anne at Our Lady of Fatima/Shrine of St. Anne Church in Brighton Park, Chicago – the church itself is currently undergoing extensive renovations (Image: Our Lady of Fatima)

I’m relatively happy with my outline, though I’m writing this before it has been reviewed by other eyes. Nonetheless, it has been satisfying to finally get a clearer idea of the path forward with this project. I now have an effective plan to follow, and much of the anxiety I had about this project is gone. I’m starting to piece together how to use my resources, and I have a good idea of the problems that still need to be addressed.

The Bad

About those problems that need to be addressed: outlining has made very clear the difficulties I will encounter in writing this paper. Some of the issues I’m facing include a fear that I am not making good enough use of my sources and that I’m leaving out too much of what I’ve researched (where will I put in the story of the French-Canadian priest who left the Church, and wrote pamphlets blaming the assassination of Lincoln – who had served as the priest’s lawyer in the 1850s – on the Jesuits? Right here, evidently). There are so many issues of Le Courrier Franco-Americain with so much information, but I do not think that even a quarter of what I take notes on will be used in my final paper. I feel like I have found so many different stories and interesting factoids that I cannot work into my current argument. Which leads me to doubt my argument, and fear that it is ultimately an overly simplistic argument that an ethnic community defined itself by looking to its homeland. I feel like I will either need to buttress my thesis in some great way so as to make it more original, or come up with a better one to replace it, or just double down and defend it.

Outlining has also made clear to me that I am still lacking a great deal of information, and that I have many sources left to go through. In trying to state how my paper will fit within existing historiography, I was reminded of the lack of information on urban Midwestern French-Canadian communities during the last two centuries. I also have confronted the issue of what type of history I am writing, and I still do not know how to answer that question. I have been looking closely at the works of Robert Orsi for guidance, but still need to strengthen my knowledge of the historiography. This in turn will probably shape the thesis in some form, and likely make it better.

The Future

In all, I would say that the outlining process has gone well. I am much better off now than I was before. While there are still problems, they are manageable and can be brought to heel. Additionally, I came up with a title, which I used for this blog post – I’m rather happy with it, because it at once indicates the paper is Catholic and French, and it speaks to the value of the community within Chicago.

I have the clearest idea so far of how this paper will come together, and finally have brought order to the madness. Even if heavy changes are in store, at least I have a plan to change. It can be adapted and altered over the next few weeks, but now I have an operating procedure to follow. Time to put it to use.

Un journal et une paroisse

I’ve been surprised by the vibrancy and strength of the French-Canadian (or, depending on the time or your viewpoint, the Franco-American, Quebecois, Canadien, etc.) community in Chicago during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coming into this project, I knew very little of the presence of francophone immigrants in Chicago, and would have never suspected that their numbers were as high as they were, even if the ten thousand or so odd French-Canadians were dwarfed by the city’s Irish, German, and Polish populations.  In my research, one of the best signposts of this community has been their French language newspaper, Le Courrier Franco-Americain.

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Le Courrier was published under a variety of different names, with its last name change coming in 1905. The paper traced its origins to a Kankakee publication in 1856, and published weekly in Chicago until around 1920. Providing coverage of news related to the general francophone community in the Midwestern United States and the broader French world, the page above from a February 1917 issue is reflective of the publication’s wartime coverage. The French-speaking population of Chicago was very interested – as was most of the nation – in the First World War’s ebb and flow, and 1917 would be an especially important year for the community as the United States entered the war.

I’ve had a few difficulties with the PDF files I’ve created, so what I have to showcase of the paper is a bit limited. I’m also limited by the fact that I have only touched a portion of what I have. The respective historical societies of Minnesota and Wisconsin have lent me the full run of the paper from 1905-1913, and 1917 (along with an issue from 1890).  This comes out to a lot of microfilm to glean through, but I am making considerable progress. The paper can be read in so many different ways that it really has proven its worth as one of my main sources. Even its name change in 1905 is a useful bit of information: the pre-1905 name Le Courrier Canadien reflects a community more at touch with its traditional heritage, whereas the name Le Courrier Franco-Americain shows a community establishing itself firmly within their adopted home.

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The above page is from the December 14th, 1917 issue. There is a lot to use on just this one page. The ad for naturalization shows a community pushing (or perhaps being pulled) to become full American citizens, and gain all the rights and powers associated with citizenship. The fact that this move is being organized by a French national club is significant because it shows that at least some elements of this community wanted to see it transition more into American society.  The article on the centenary of Illinois shows the francophone community highlighting its role in the founding and creation of the State of Illinois, perhaps trying to reflect that their place in Chicago is unique compared to other immigrant communities because the French were some of the first explorers and settlers of the region. Additionally, the sidebar listing consulates, organizations, industries, and businesses shows both a helpful list of further research opportunities, and the strong desire of the community to work with its own members. Finally, there’s the rather obvious “portrait of the week” (a weekly photo of an important community member which was placed in all the 1917 issues) which shows Fr. Gelinas of St. Jean-Baptiste, one of the French-Canadian parishes in Chicago.

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Finally, I just wanted to include some photos from Sacred Heart Church, a small Chicago parish on the far south side near Blue Island. Founded in 1904, it was created to serve a group of French-Canadians working in a nearby brickyard. Some of the bricks from the brickyard were given to the community, which used them to cover the walls of their small frame church and build an enduring sacred monument. The photo above is from the interior of the small church, and it shows the striking grotto built into the wall. Modeled on the famous Lourdes shrine, the small grotto at Sacred Heart is a clear sign of the French influence on the parish. Worship at Lourdes skyrocketed in the latter nineteenth century, and to see such a shrine in a Chicago church is amazing. The Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Sacré-Coeur is another key element of French devotional practice, and in addition to the name of the parish, it can be seen most visibly in the stained glass of the church.

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In all, I have a number of primary sources related to my community that I have been working with. There is still a lot more to be done, but I’m slogging through fairly well. I’m looking forward to visiting the Archdiocese archives again tomorrow, and stopping by Notre Dame de Chicago on Sunday.

À bientôt! (Yes, I am required to use French in this blog)

Nouvelles frontières: Beginning a look into French Chicago

This semester, this blog will primarily follow my efforts to create a research paper of 25-30 pages on the French community in Chicago during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries


The French have long been confined to Chicago’s past. Marquette, LaSalle, Joliet – these names are of the 17th century, and speak to a Chicago that these men never knew, beyond some thoughts for the future of a swampy portage area. A few students of Chicago history will note that the city’s first permanent Western resident was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a mixed Frenchman who settled in the Chicago area around 1790. After du Sable though, the French seem to fall out of the Chicago story.

The French were not present in large numbers relative to the Anglo population in North America. When the British gained control of the Illinois Territory in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, many French speakers left the territory. Still, significant numbers remained through into the nineteenth century. When Chicago was incorporated in 1833 as a town, the French formed a significant portion of the population. This significance is further amplified in the city’s Catholic history: when the first parish, St. Mary’s, was founded in that same year, it was done so by request of the 130 odd Catholics living in Chicago. The majority of these families and persons were French. The first pastor of St. Mary’s was Jean Marie Irenee St. Cyr. The Church history of Chicago begins with the French, from the region’s first explorer down to the first parish.

Yet the French legacy in the city can be rather hard to come by, which seems intriguing given their role in its early history. In looking for memories of the French in Chicago, one should not expect to find a “Little France”. The French population was dwarfed by other ethnicities but it was never erased completely. The French remained throughout the 1800s and well into the 1900s, buttressed by the arrival of French-Canadians beginning in the 1840s and 50s. They may not have been a dominant group, but they were present though the decades. While neighborhoods cannot be tied solely to the French, their catholic faith provides evidence of where they lived and prayed. The French parishes of Chicago were centers of one of the city’s least well-known minorities, and though none of these churches are French today and quite a few are closed, the buildings – and the parish records – still stand.

In all honesty, I’m still working out how to proceed with my research. I have identified a number of secondary sources which may be of some use in examining the broader French origins in Illinois and early America. For primary sources I benefit from the extensive record keeping abilities of the Archdiocese. St. Louis, St. Jean Baptiste, St. Louis de France are closed, but their records should still be available. Sacred Heart and Notre Dame are still active parishes. St. Mary’s may have some material on their earliest French parishioners, and Old St. Pat’s briefly housed a French community in their basement. Articles related to the French Catholic community are of interest: I’ve found a jubilee celebration book from Notre Dame which provides great information both on the wider community and the specific parish, information I’d struggle to find elsewhere. There is also a Chicago based French newspaper that ran from 1905 to 1919 that will likely be of great use to me. Added to all of this will be newspaper reports from the native Chicago press and their perceptions of the French community, in whatever function I can find.

I’ll make greater headway with my sources after going to the Archdiocese archives (and after meeting with a research librarian) but as for what exactly I’m looking to write on, I have a few ideas:

  1. How did the French Catholic community define itself within Chicago? Were there specific practices (like Taizé prayer), monuments, or focus points that helped the French strengthen their parishes?
  2. How were the French perceived by other ethnic groups within Chicago? How were they viewed by the Church?
  3. How did the French cope with perennially being outnumbered within the city? How did they handle the loss of their parishes to other ethnic groups like the Irish or Germans?
  4. How did the religious orders – like The Sisters of the Sacred Heart, or the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament at Notre Dame de Chicago – affect the community?
  5. What was the role of the Chicago French community in supporting the memory and legacy of early explorers like Marquette, or other early American Church figures like the North American martyrs?

These questions will be refined as I begin to get a better understanding of the community and of my own intentions. I genuinely feel as though this topic is interesting and worth exploring. I only hope that I am able to fully do it justice and craft a thoughtful and insightful look at Chicago’s first ethnic community.

With Distinction: A Reflection on Chicago’s Church

After spending fifteen weeks studying the history of the Church I call myself a member of, in the city I call home, reflecting on the past of both of these great institutions seems difficult. The Catholic Church has never been a simple topic (few millennia old organizations are), and localizing its history to one city simplifies the task only slightly – especially when the city is one as boisterous and fluid as Chicago.  Her history is populated by the citizens of the Old World come to make a life in the New, and bringing life, innovation, conflict, and development to the “stormy, husky, brawling” city on the lake.

Chicago, the “second city” has always been eager to define itself and to plot a distinct course to success. This desire is as present in the civic history of the city as it is in the religious. When we began our study in August, we opened with the introduction to Catholicism, Chicago Style (1993) which asked the question “What has made Chicago Catholicism distinctive”? The work’s authors answer with five factors: ethnic diversity, parish and neighborhood ties, strong leadership, a liberal nature, and a “soaring self-confidence”.

I would agree with many of these points. Namely, the unique ethnic makeup of Chicago – not Irish or German dominated, the Catholics of the city were a hodgepodge of European migrants. Czechs, Italians, and Croats (to name a few) would all come to Chicago and prevent the Irish, Germans, or Poles from having a unilateral claim to the Roman faith. The highly diverse conditions of the city would impact the faith through the development of national parishes from the latter 1800s up to the beginning of the administration of Cardinal Mundelein in 1915. While the English-speaking Irish were given territorial parishes that had boundaries, Germans, Poles, Czechs each received parishes for their nationality where their language was spoken and their traditions highlighted. More so than Irish Boston or New York, the Catholic nature of Chicago could not be tied to one majority group, and if anything was defined by this fact.

St. Mary of the Angels Parish in the 1940s (Image: John Chuckman)

The authors also count a “soaring” confidence in their explanation of Chicago’s faith, and I am inclined to side with them. How one would prove that a city’s confidence is unique or distinct, especially when compared to another city with similar levels of confidence, I cannot say. Maybe it would be best to look at what the Chicago Catholic community accomplished. As a Loyola student, I am contractually obligated to point out the example of Fr. Arnold Damen. Damen to me, though he was not a Chicagoan when he first arrived in the city from Belgium, certainly died a true son of the city. Fr. Damen was not even supposed to stay in Chicago, but upon seeing the city in the 1850s, decided to build a church on the West Side.  Not just any simple church for a struggling Catholic community, but a grand church unrivaled in the city and the region. One to rival the best Protestant churches around. He did all this in an undeveloped West Side neighborhood far from the center of the city. Holy Family would not even open until 1860, but Damen had already begun planning a college that would open its doors in 1870. Damen seems to reflect this Chicago confidence that defined the Church in the city: grand plans to raise up a whole community, even when the means to do so were not readily apparent. The same can be seen throughout Chicago. The Polish Cathedrals, built by a working class immigrant community, reflect the churches of the Old World built by its poor descendants in the New, but show a forward thinking attitude and a desire for greatness. The grandness of many of Chicago’s churches speaks to the city’s confidence, and the great number helps define the city geographically.

Chicago was, and to many still is, a city divided by parishes. While Chicago is noted for its multitude of neighborhoods, the sheer number of parishes within the city allowed for many to identify their home through their church. Owing greatly to the ethnic diversity of the city, parishes often represented communities, and provided a center for a network of people and a source of activity, pride, and involvement. As the authors note, many Chicagoans would define themselves as being from “St. Gert’s” or “St. Bridget’s”, as parishes served as markers for communities.

2012 map of Chicagoland parishes (Image: Archdiocese of Chicago)

2012 map of Chicagoland parishes (Image: Archdiocese of Chicago)

Additionally, the city’s liberal nature is worth noting. While most large cities are typically liberal, I interpret this as referring to the blue-collar nature of Chicago’s Catholic citizens. Early 19th century Chicago Catholics were not elites – they filled factories, dug the canals, and built the railroads. Often found at the lowest tier of society, they were in need of charity and social outreach such as the Church provided through education (including language classes) and healthcare, to name a few things.

I do find fault in regard to leadership. The authors claim an exceptional leadership in Chicago’s Church, but begin their list of great leaders with Cardinal Mundelein, while merely glossing over the string of poor leaders in the 1800s. The text even states that “Rome considered Chicago an ecclesiastical disaster area”. Anthony O’Regan, the third Bishop of Chicago, served only four years in the city (1854-58), spending this time writing of his desire to leave as soon as possible. Followed by James Duggan, who “literally went insane and had to be removed by Rome”, the authors don’t seem to build a strong case for the 19th century hierarchy. In the 20th century, the text glosses over Archbishop John Cody, calling him a “controversial figure” in regard to an investigation by the Sun-Times and the Justice Department into embezzlement on his part.

Ultimately, explaining why Chicago’s Church is distinct is difficult task open to wide interpretation. Many could argue that the Church in Chicago is very similar to the Church in New York (or Boston, Baltimore, or wherever), and with good evidence on their side they may compose a strong argument. However, I feel that while each individual point for the Chicago’s Church’s distinctiveness may not prove it to be unique, the combination of factors paints a portrait of a city with a special relationship with the Catholic faith. While four of the five points the authors list are strong, they ignore what I see as crucial factors.

One of the first things I would count is the school system. Obviously not a unique Chicago thing, the Chicago Catholic school system seems worthy of note to me in explaining the Church’s place in the city. The development of the private, Catholic parochial school system during the late nineteenth century was the cause of much argument in contemporary society. Nativists and anti-Catholics of all walks of life often argued ferociously against perceived Catholic attacks on the American school system (and therefore, the American way of life). Catholics objected fiercely to the idea of being forced to attend a state sponsored, and supposedly Protestant influenced schooling system, and opted to design their own institutions. Presidents expressed dismay over the Catholic system, while Church leaders like New York’s Bishop John Ireland worked to defend and advance the system. In Chicago, historian Edward Kantowicz noted that the bishops often “encouraged pastors to build a school building first, wisely judging that the children would form the glue to form the parish together”. Schools formed a bond for the community, and helped integrate the Church into the lives of its members to a much greater extent. The Catholic schools in Chicago expanded the Church’s institutional network over the city, and provided education for millions of children throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why is this distinct to Chicago, though? The school system itself is not, but its scale certainly is. Nearly every parish had a school, which is really saying something when the numbers of parishes was so high. Chicago quickly became the largest diocesan school system in the United States, and to 2015 remains the largest private school system in the United States.

Another factor towards explaining the city’s relationship with the Church lies with the women religious, who, again, do not represent a unique Chicago phenomenon. However, their role certainly is worth noting. Chicago Style came out in 1993, and states that “the enormous contribution made by women religious…still remains to be examined more fully”. This task would be undertaken a few years later by historians like Suellen Hoy, Deborah Skok, and more recently by Mary Beth Connolly. In Hoy’s 2006 Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past, she notes early on that “convents and sisters were by no means unique to Chicago”, but few Catholic communities were as shaped by the involvement of Catholic women’s orders as Chicago was. In 1846, five nuns of the Sisters of Mercy arrived in the recently incorporated city, and their numbers would only grow in the coming decades: by 1946, over 9,000 nuns operated in the City of Chicago.

Newspaper clip showing Mercy Hospital at 26th and Calumet, close to its modern home on 26th and Michigan (Image: Faith in the City)

The nuns ran hospitals, charity networks for the poor and disabled, academies and parish schools – in many ways, the Sacred Heart, BVM, and Mercy sisters acted as the front lines of the Church in Chicago. Considering the vast school system, it is worth remembering that nuns would have played a huge role in staffing these institutions. As such, nuns were often some of the most visible faces of the Church to generations of young children growing up Catholic. While priests may have seemed confined to the parish church, the women religious appeared to be leading the church on the ground. Yet, it is perfectly fair to ask how this is unique to Chicago. While nuns are not unique, their role in shaping Chicago was rather distinct, especially when compared to cities like Boston or Baltimore. Nuns in Chicago formed the foundations for a social welfare institution long before the city government or even the famed settlement houses (i.e. Hull House) were capable of handling the city’s poor. For tens of thousands of school kids, the nuns instilled Catholic values that would last a lifetime. Part of the reason the nuns were so instrumental in Chicago ties into what I believe is one of, if not the most important factor in explaining the uniqueness of the Chicago Church: the city of Chicago itself.

Chicago was a frontier city for the first few decades of the 1800s. Whereas New York, Boston, and even the Catholic Church’s American base in Baltimore were all relatively old American cities, Chicago was a new settlement located on the very periphery of the United States. Granted, this periphery would consistently push itself further West and Chicago wasn’t long for the frontier, but in 1833 when the settlement incorporated as a town, the city’s first Catholic parish (St. Mary’s) was founded. Gilbert J. Garraghan, a Loyola Jesuit who wrote a history of the Church in Chicago, stated that in 1833 there were 130 Catholics in Chicago. These numbers seem very high, especially given Chicago’s population at that time likely did not exceed 200, but the Catholic presence in the city from its founding is significant. Chicago was not founded by Catholics, and a Protestant elite did hold much power for much of the 19th century and well into the 20th, but Catholics were the first Europeans to set foot in what would become the city. Fr. Marquette and Fr. Joliet laid the precedent for the Catholic presence, one that would be present from founding through prosperity.

Map depicting Chicago at its incorporation as a town in 1833, four years before it was incorporated as a city (Image: David Rumsey Map Collection)

This factor seems to be the most significant in my mind: Chicago’s relationship with Catholicism is unique because Chicago presented a unique opportunity for the Church to enter a city at its inception. The opposition to Catholicism never was as entrenched as in Philadelphia or Boston, and the Church was able to guide itself into a stable and favorable position by being present through every major event in Chicago history. The power of the parishes, the schools, and the nuns was intensified by the undeveloped state of Chicago – when the Sisters of Mercy took over control of Chicago’s only hospital in 1851, they increased the influence of the Catholic Church in the city dramatically, and in a way that was simply undoable in much of the developed East. Additionally, while other cities were certainly frontier towns, and the Church would have a presence in every one of them as the US pushed West (the Catholic Church designated America as mission territory until 1908), few of these settlements grew as Chicago did. None of these cities grew into what Chicago became: the largest city west of Philadelphia, and the second largest in the US for the last few years of the 1800s and through the majority of the 1900s. As a center of trade, finance, and transportation, Chicago’s unique history provided gave the Church unique opportunities unseen throughout much of the nation.  In explaining why Catholicism is unique in Chicago, it only makes sense to look to the city itself.

In all, it is incredibly challenging to describe why Catholicism seems distinct in Chicago. I’m probably biased in my claims, because as a Chicagoan I’m inclined to believe that everything we do is unique and inherently better, despite any empirical evidence to the contrary. I do think that Chicago’s Church is unique – throughout the world, the Catholic Church adapted itself to suit local needs and conditions, and in Chicago this was no different. When Catholics first established themselves in the little town on Lake Michigan in the early 1800s, they gave the Church an opportunity to be involved in one of the greatest stories in American history. The relationship between city and Church was not always simple, but as the city expanded, the Church expanded to fill the needs of a growing Catholic core. Chicago provided a new life not simply for tens of thousands of immigrants, but for their faith as well. In 1993, Catholicism, Chicago Style made the case that this Church was unique due to its ethnic heritage, parish strength, liberalism, leadership, and confidence. Today, I would deemphasize leadership (but still examine it), and add in the power of education, the nuns, and city itself to help explain the connection between Catholics and Chicago.

Even this does not feel adequate though. Any one of these factors could be the subject of great research. Listing them quickly does not do them full justice, and leaves out a number of other factors that could help add to this argument. The laity themselves, the men and women who formed the ranks of the Church, are certainly worthy of looking into. Perhaps there was something unique to the Chicagoan that defined how their role in the Church would play out. The railroad workers, the meat packers, the multitudes of urban workers who defined early Chicago Catholicism – they could help explain the distinctiveness of Chicago Catholicism. Cultural habits too seem worthy of note. Political ties could also be worth looking into, along with Chicago’s ecclesiastical influence in the wider Church, perceptions of Chicago from both within the city and beyond, the power of other religious groups in Chicago and their relationships with Catholicism, etc. There are many factors that could be cited in explaining this city’s faith, and maybe none is more valuable than another. In the end, perhaps these factors are more visible to Chicagoans, but it seems clear that the relationship of the Catholic Church with the City of Chicago is distinct in American Catholic history, and it only seems fitting that the rise of the Church from humble, quiet origins in America be compared to the rise of Chicago. Each rose from very little in the new American republic, and both would have a profound influence on the development of the nation.

For writing this final post, I used Suelllen Hoy’s Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past, Ellen Skerrett’s Born in Chicago: A History of Chicago’s Jesuit University, Dominic Pacyga’s Chicago: A Biography, and the introduction to Catholicism: Chicago Style by Ellen Skerrett, Edward Kantowicz, and Steven Avella, along with its first chapter “The Ethnic Church” by Kantowicz.


 

In looking to next semester, I have yet to come up with a firm idea of where I would like to go with my research project, so any ideas I offer here are simply speculative. There are a few things I have been drawn to though. Perhaps one of the things that interests me the most is the French, and the French-Canadians. Obviously Chicago was originally explored by the Frenchmen Marquette, Joliet, and LaSalle, and the French Empire did leave a colonial legacy in the region, but I never really thought about this fact. The French always seemed like something out of the history book, a fact of the past with no real impact on the present. That is, until I read about Notre Dame de Chicago, a Catholic parish not too far from Holy Family in the Near West Side. The modern church was finished in 1892, and reflects a French background that I am very unfamiliar with.

Notre Dame de Chicago, at 1338 W. Flournoy St. near UIC (Image: Wikipedia)

Earlier this year, I attended a French Mass at St. Teresa of Avila, hosted by the Communaute Catholique Francophone de Chicago, a group of Catholic French expats and citizens in Chicago. It was a Saturday night Mass, but fairly well-attended by what seemed to be a core group of French Chicagoans. Though I would not necessarily describe the group as seeming particularly devout, they seemed social and engaging.

Looking further into the lasting French Catholic influence in Chicago seems like a solid research plan. The French have long been overshadowed by the Irish or the Poles, and their influence forgotten. Yet their legacy lives in, even if the community today is a fraction of what it once was. I don’t know how exactly what a project on the French Catholic community would look like (probably I would write a research paper, which is something I am comfortable doing) but the idea is one I have been mulling over for a few months now.

Another idea I had was to look at how certain communities in the 1800s remembered Fr. Marquette and the early Catholic explorers of Chicago and the Illinois area. I imagine I could look at histories from the time, and see how Marquette was depicted and see how his legacy fared throughout the 1800s as Catholic ascendancy left the Church in a much higher standing in 1900. This idea resulted from a trip to Starved Rock I took a few weeks ago, and from a memorial to Marquette I saw in the small town of Utica near the Illinois River. I wondered if there was a trail of Marquette memorial that could be tracked through Illinois, and what the presence (or lack) of memorials could say about a specific community.

A memorial to Fr. Marquette in Utica, Illinois (Image: Dan Snow)

All in all, I seem to be leaning towards something with the French. Though, I could just as easily come up with something completely different by January. Certainly though, if this semester has taught me anything, I plan to come up with a detailed plan before I begin working.

The Pride of Roosevelt Road

My Mom told me that “you’re never alone in Holy Family”, and after visiting the Near West Side parish Saturday morning, I completely understand why. Guided by Chicago historian Ellen Skerrett, our class toured Holy Family, St. Ignatius College Prep, and other sites around University Village and Greektown. Holy Family, the second oldest Catholic church in Chicago, was founded by Father Arnold Damen,   S. J. and opened in 1860. The Victorian Gothic church is stunning, but what stood out to me the most was the number of statues inside the building. Though statues are certainly nothing new in a Catholic church, I struggled to keep count (Holy Family’s website lists 29 wooden statues adorning its interior), and I noted depictions of St. Patrick, St. Stanislaus, St. Jude, and St. Aloysius among many others. The statues made the church feel somewhat crowded, but each seemed to add representation to the different ethnic groups that have called Holy Family their parish.

Interior of Holy Family, showing some of its many statues (Image: LUMA)

In addition to touring the church, we also viewed the school that Loyola sprang from, and that continues to educate some of the best Chicago has to offer. St. Ignatius College Prep is a truly astonishing school. Nearly every room was remarkable, and the interior was truly impressive. Guided around the sophisticated campus, it was hard for me to see the school as an active high school, especially when I was drawn to comparisons with my alma matter (yet to be fair, I’d bet few schools could compare with St. Ignatius). The school felt very much like a museum, especially given the number of architectural fragments and other decorative pieces with accompanying captions that litter the halls. During our tour of the campus, we were told Fr. Damen wanted the school to be as impressive as possible, as the main clientele of the college (which became a secondary school in the 1920s) were the inhabitants of the West Side, who would have lived in far less austere homes. Damen wanted Holy Family and St. Ignatius to be as proud and elegant as the best Protestant churches in Chicago to lift the spirits of the urban Catholic population and give them something to strive for.

The Brunswick Room in St. Ignatius College Prep (Image: Stephanie Barto)

Though we would stop by Hull House, Old St. Pat’s, and the memorial to the Haymarket Bombing during the rest of our tour, I remained stuck on this idea of Damen building Holy Family and St. Ignatius for a working class neighborhood. This fact is so central to the parish and college’s history, and formed a key part of the character of the institutions. Holy Family was the largest structure visible on the West Side for miles during the late 1800s and much of the early 1900s, towering over the tiny homes of the workers. Damen built the church to rival the Protestant churches in the city center, and built an elaborate and elegant structure in the heart of Chicago’s blue-collar Catholic neighborhood.  Though its spire is still visible today for miles down Roosevelt, the character of the school and church has changed.

The Old

The Irish and German neighborhood of the 1860s and 70s began to give way to an Italian neighborhood in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Jews, Poles, and other minority ethnic groups found their way to the Near West Side during this time as the neighborhood remained a dynamic and fluid space. For every family that moved out, a new one would move in, often altering the ethnic makeup of the area. Though the 1940s and 50s brought African-American and Latino families, Italians were still very prominent in the Near West Side, home to Chicago’s Little Italy. The neighborhood of the 1950s was very different ethnically from the one that Fr. Damen originally served, and to many it seemed ridden with crime and poverty. While it remained a significantly working class neighborhood, it was more dangerous and more impoverished than ever.

Women from the neighborhood protesting in front of City Hall, 1961.

Near West Side women protesting near City Hall in 1961 (Image: UIC)

The West Side was dramatically and forcibly remodeled during the 1960s by the unstoppable force that was Richard J. Daley. Few successfully stood up to Boss Daley, and the citizens of the Near West Side would be no different. The University of Illinois at Chicago – long housed in Navy Pier – was a pet project of Daley, who pushed to relocate the university into the Near West Side. Many residents protested vehemently against the proposal, and some pursued protection through the court system. These methods proved ineffective, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear an appeal on the case in 1963. With the residents defeated, UIC began to move in to the area. Old homes, businesses, and streets were destroyed and removed. The old Italian neighborhood was paved away, as was most of the historic Hull House complex. UIC’s arrival began a process of urban renewal that ultimately transformed the neighborhood into a growing middle-class and upper-middle-class center, bringing in new wealth and new construction that continues to this day.

And the New

I do not want to necessarily argue against the expansion of UIC or romanticize the old neighborhoods. The development in the area has been incredibly impressive, and has redefined the community, bringing new life and well-needed investment. Holy Family has benefited from this, as property values have risen and the region around the parish and school has become safer and wealthier. The Near West Side of the 1950s and 60s was in need of government action of some sort, and the 1968 riots certainly did nothing but add to the impression of the region as dangerous and crime-ridden. It is just odd to look at the parish today, and at St. Ignatius, and think about how the neighborhood is so much different from it once was. Rising Irish families moved out of the area in the early 1900s and headed north to new middle-class neighborhoods. Countless Irish and German residents left the poor, working-class neighborhood for middle-class areas as soon as they could around the dawn of the 20th century. By the end of the century, some of their descendants would move back to Near West Side.

View from the Roosevelt CTA stop, with Holy Family visible in the background on the right (Image: YoChicago)

The ever-changing nature of the West Side seems well-reflected in this gentrification. The area has certainly developed greatly (and largely for the better) since the 1960s. As it was when the Irish and German were replaced, the Italians found themselves moved out of the area, though they were pushed rather forcefully. The neighborhood around Holy Family is different from it once was, but it has always been changing. And this change, like most change before it, has not been complete. The Near West Side is a much wealthier place than it was in the 1960s, but there are still many in the area who are struggling or poor. Gentrification has not been complete, even if it has been powerful. There are still many marginalized people living in the neighborhoods of the West and Near West Side. The area is certainly safer than it was decades ago, but it is by no means as safe as many of the northern neighborhoods.

I initially wanted to cast Holy Family as having been built to serve a community that no longer exists. I wanted to say that Holy Family and St. Ignatius were built to bring pride to a downtrodden community, and that the modern Near West Side is no longer a working-class, poor area, and that its social development has invalidated the original character of Holy Family. When I thought about this though, I felt I was doing a disservice to the people of the Near West Side and to the church itself. Yes, the neighborhood is different.  Yes, there is more money, and the surrounding buildings are not as trashy and dirty as they once were. But there are still many in the neighborhood who are in need of the church, and who respect and value its presence. Holy Family is located in a nice neighborhood now, but what has kept it alive is not the rising property values, but the people who have stayed with the parish when so many families have cycled in and out. Many of them are old residents, who have lived in the area for years. The people who have lived in the Near West Side and who saved Holy Family from the wrecking ball in the late 1980s and early 90s were not new middle-class residents, but longtime inhabitants of the area who stuck with the church through its troubles and made sure it survived. These parishioners, many of whom are African-American, saved Holy Family just a few short years ago through personal donations like the ones that built the church. While they did have help from outside the neighborhood and from families who had held the church dear even after leaving the area, the parishioners who continued to stay in the church through and after its tough years cannot be overlooked.

Modern view of Holy Family and St. Ignatius (Image: Chicago Province)

In all, I wonder how much Holy Family has really changed. My main view is that Holy Family was built to give the Catholics of a poor neighborhood something to be proud of. When I looked back on our tour of the area, and on what we’ve discussed in class this semester, I couldn’t not notice how the area has seemingly changed. It is cleaner, safer, and wealthier than it ever has been. It seemed as though a core of its character – giving pride to an overlooked community – was gone. Yet this aspect of the church has not changed. I overlooked the community that saved the church by attending Mass and donating to its survival. I focused on the wealthier people who moved in, and thought that they did not need Holy Family to be proud. Yet the older inhabitants of the Near West Side, and the parishioners of Holy Family who have been members of the church for years are not necessarily of this wealthier class (though they are not necessarily poor, either). Many African-American Catholics worked diligently to save Holy Family from destruction. Many of the Near West Side’s poorer citizens and older citizens who have overseen the transformation of their community played a large role in saving Holy Family. The newer, wealthier residents helped, as did Catholics who had long since left Holy Family, but the residents who have served the church for years and continue to maintain the church should not be denied being part of the mission Fr. Damen sought to serve. The people Damen wanted to serve are still present in the Near West Side despite all its changes. Holy Family still serves the same goal of giving pride to its community. Early working class citizens drew pride from its architectural grandness. The parishioners who have served through the struggles and into our present day the church can draw pride from having saved it.

More information on the history of the Near West Side, visit the Encyclopedia of Chicago 

Zita and the Maids of Chicago

Last Thursday, our class heard a talk from Professor Kathleen Cummings of Notre Dame on American sainthood and the canonization of the first American saint, Frances Xavier Cabrini. In examining what appeal a specific saint may have to a community, I’ve looked at Saint Zita, and what her appeal may have been to Chicago Catholics around 1900.

Saint Zita, who lived roughly from 1212 to 1272 (Image: This Cross I Embrace)

There has never been a St. Zita’s parish in Chicago. The Italian saint doesn’t appear to have had any community or association in the city. There are no Catholic institutions named after her in Chicago. The Italians of the city had plenty of other saints to look to, and it is hard to show a definitive connection between Chicago and Saint Zita, though more intensive research could likely yield better results. Yet I think that Saint Zita could have, and perhaps was, a very important saint for many Chicago Catholics around the dawn of the twentieth century.

Zita lived in thirteenth century Italy, not far from the city of Lucca in Tuscany. Born around 1212, at the age of 12 she became a servant in the household of the Fatinelli’s, a local wealthy family. The work was hard, the rewards minimal, and expectations low. Zita was pious and devout through her time in service of the Fatinelli’s, and remained a paragon of virtue and generosity despite her humble position. Zita was said to be a symbol of charity and kindness throughout Lucca, though she was treated poorly by other servants who shunned her apparent devotion and work ethic. Through patience and compassion, even her enemies were won over. Upon her death in 1272, Zita was respected and worshipped as a local saint within Lucca. Canonized by Pope Innocent XII in 1696, Zita is worshipped as the patron saint of maids and domestic servants.

This fact drew me to Zita. Although there does not appear to have been something as obvious as a parish named in her honor, Zita could have had a huge appeal to Chicago’s Catholics nonetheless. A Mother Jones report states that the 1870 US Census shows that of all women employed, 52% were employed in “domestic and personal service”. Especially for immigrants, domestic work was often the only option for women seeking employment in American cities. Maids, cooks, nannies were all needed in large numbers by wealthier middle-class and upper-class families, and many women worked tirelessly in these occupations for decades in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Encyclopedia of Chicago notes that in 1870, “one in five Chicago households employed domestic workers, who accounted for 60 percent of the city’s wage-earning women.” These servants worked difficult jobs for modest pay, and were typically young single women from immigrant communities willing to work long hours at a low status job.

Irish Servant Humor, 1861

Immigrant servants were not necessarily well-regarded (Image from Harper’s Weekly in 1861, Source: American History USA)

Chicago’s domestic service industry was huge, and undoubtedly large numbers of these Irish, German, and Polish servants were Catholic. Saint Zita would have been a good spiritual figure to invoke for many of these hard-working Catholic girls, as her devotion to God saw her through a life of challenging work without sacrificing her kindness or faith. There is a question of how well-known Zita would have been to these Catholic maids and workers. Granted, Zita is an Italian saint and not one of the more well-known ones at that. The Italians were not as prominent in domestic service as the English-speaking Irish were, and the Irish may not have known too much about the patron of maids. However, the fact that a Chicago Tribune piece from January 1877 tells the story of Saint Zita’s life indicates that there were some in Chicago’s popular media who knew of her. It also seems possible that priests preaching to tired masses of servants would have reminded them that they face the same struggle faced by Zita. Furthermore – if the library of St. Ignatius College is to be any indication – we should note that in their limited collection of works on the saints, the Jesuits took the effort to purchase a biography of Saint Zita. It would not be right to say Saint Zita was an immensely popular saint for Chicago’s Catholic servants, but it seems more than likely that she was known to a good many at the time.

After World War One, European women were gradually replaced by African-American workers in the domestic service field. In 1900, 30% of domestic servants in Chicago were African-American, and these numbers would grow sharply over the next few decades as white European immigrants moved out of the industry. Perhaps as the domestic service field became less heavily dominated by Catholic immigrants, Saint Zita was invoked less frequently. Her popularity certainly never reached the levels of Kostka or Patrick, and in an American society that is less reliant on domestic service, Zita likely will never be a well-known figure.

However, Saint Zita stood out to me though as a saint that would have been a great figure for the countless domestic servants and maids of urban Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As the patron saint of a field so well-represented by Catholic immigrants, Zita would have had a lot to offer. The struggles she faced in the thirteenth century were very much the same problems being faced by Irish women in nineteenth century Chicago. Though her legacy may be hard to find, Zita seems a perfect saint for this Catholic group on the periphery, one in need of a figure to look up to. If her life was to be any example, Catholic servants could take heart knowing that lowly Zita would long be glorified and remembered. Though she did not have a life rich in comfort, her life was not lacking in meaning or satisfaction, and she clearly provided inspiration for those around her. Zita provides a good example that material wealth and position are not always the best ways of defining one’s life.

The Basilica of San Frediano, Zita’s shrine and resting place in Lucca (Image: Wikipedia)

For more information on domestic servants in Chicago from the Encyclopedia of Chicago, click here, and for information on Saint Zita, click here.