Howdy! Welcome to what I hope will not be a series of incoherent ramblings. My name is Dan Snow, and I am currently a junior History Major at Loyola University Chicago. My historical interests draw me to industrial Britain, but the subject of this blog will (for the immediate future) be the role of Catholic immigrants in 19th century Chicago. As a student in Loyola’s inaugural Ramonat Seminar, I will be looking at the role of European immigrants to the booming city in the mid to late 1800s, and at the Catholic faith that helped define their presence in the community. This is a topic that I find incredibly fascinating. Like any other Chicagoan, I claim to be Irish. My mother’s grandparents were direct immigrants from Ireland to Chicago, arriving in the city a little before the dawn of the 20th century. I have been kept keenly aware of the struggles Irish immigrants faced in Chicago, and of the important role they played in building the city.
Barring any personal relation to this topic, I maintain interest in the power of faith in uniting men and women from another continent together in the melting pot that was (and still is) Chicago. It seems that the signs of Chicago’s immigrant Catholic past are fairly easy to find. Sometimes I feel our city rivals Rome in number of churches. Driving five minutes from my home, I could reach five Catholic churches. Chicago seems noteworthy to me in that each immigrant community built its own Catholic church. This often resulted in numerous churches being built within walking distance of each other. The Irish, Italians, Germans, Croatians – everybody had their own church. The Poles always seems especially noteworthy for their cathedrals like St. Mary of the Angels and St. Stanislaus Kostka. It seems fascinating to me that while the worldwide Catholic Church theoretically united all of these different ethnicities, the reality of language barriers or national pride just led each to build their own centers for faith and community.
Yet this course is not solely a course on the role of Roman Catholics. It is also a broader examination of what religion means in an urban setting. The power of urban religion is an often overlooked topic that forms a central tenet of this class. Quoting Northwestern professor Robert Orisi (and copying from a class PowerPoint), urban religion is “what comes from the dynamic engagement of religious traditions with specific features of the industrial and post-industrial cityscapes and with the social conditions of city life. The results are distinctly and specifically urban forms of religious practice, experience, and understanding” (Orsi, Gods of the City, Page 43).
In trying to find a good example of urban religion in Chicago, I immediately think of the parish of St. Sabina’s in the South Side neighborhood of Auburn Gresham. St. Sabina’s is a well-known Catholic parish in the city, mostly due to the influence of its pastor, Fr. Michael Pfleger. Pfleger may be one of the most unique Catholic priests in Chicago, a priest who many admire and respect (and who many would describe quite differently). To those that know nothing about Fr. Pfleger or his parish, St. Sabina’s is a predominately African-American parish in a crime-ridden area. Fr. Pfleger has been pastor of St. Sabina’s since 1981, despite the efforts of the archdiocese to have him rotated out of this position. A prominent community activist, Pfleger has advocated strongly for efforts to stop crime in Chicago’s troubled South Side, to bring attention to the troubles faced by its citizens, and to reform the neighborhoods to create a safer environment. He commonly appears at rallies to promote change and on the news in the wake of a shooting. It cannot be said he is not a tireless activist for the betterment of his community and for the people of Chicago. However, his particular style of activism has brought him criticism, most notably from the Archdiocese of Chicago under the late Cardinal George. Cardinal George and Fr. Pfleger were near polar opposites and this often left them in conflict. Pfleger’s controversies stretch from adopting foster children to delivering a controversial speech on Hillary Clinton while speaking at then presidential candidate Barrack Obama’s home church in 2008. Pfleger draws criticism from many for his often emotional and emphatic speeches, and these speeches have landed him in trouble many times over the years.
Despite all this, Pfleger continues to be a popular pastor and enjoys the support of his parish. Fr. Pfleger seems a perfect example of urban religion to me. Operating within a troubled community, Pfleger has adapted typical Catholic ministry (specifically compared to what is seen in Chicago) to serve his community in a way that he feels best suits its needs. He has greatly expanded the ministry of St. Sabina’s and involves his parish in employment services and care for the elderly, in addition to social activism. The specific reality of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood drove Fr. Pfleger to embrace what he believes to be a path of justice and equality – he has followed a near radical line in his position as pastor. He uses Catholic teaching and tradition to meet the needs of his parish in a way that sets him apart from most other priests in the city. As a Roman Catholic priest in Chicago, his parish is distinct. His style is unique. For most of Chicago’s Catholics, his Mass would seem wildly different compared to the usual Sunday service offered at the majority of the archdiocese’s churches. He seems a product of the community that he serves in, and functions as a good introduction to urban religion.
I hope I have managed to spread some light on who I am, what I am interested in, and what the next few months of studying will bring. Thanks for reading.
For more information on Fr. Pfleger, I have linked his parish’s website and the Wikipedia article on him: