For the men and women of the Irish diaspora, community was everything. Thousands of miles away from home, in a country that in preceding years had loudly and frequently stated its opposition to their presence, these sons and daughters of Ireland looked for any way to build a new home in a foreign land. Many may have had family here, someone to look to upon arrival. For many more, the issue became one of creating a community for Irish immigrants to be welcomed in, in the present and in the future. In Chicago, where the Irish were settling in droves and where neighborhoods were defined by their ethnicity, they took up the task of finding a way to unite themselves. As they had done for centuries in the face of adversity, and as they were increasingly doing in support of their growing nationalism, the Irish in Chicago turned to the Catholic Church.
In 1875, many Irish were working in the stockyards, factories, and industrial centers of the city’s south and west sides. The city was rebuilding itself after its trial by fire left over three square miles in ruins. But one building that had survived the fire was Holy Family, Chicago’s second oldest Catholic parish. Its steeple continued to tower over the surrounding neighborhood of working class immigrants, and provided a bond for their community.
Now, obviously I have made some generalizations here, but the basic story is true: Holy Family was an incredibly Irish parish in`1875. This fact can be proven by looking to the registry of the church parochial school in that year, which shows an abundance (almost comically so) of Conelys, Caseys, and Collins all either named James, Patrick, or John (again, generalizing – sort of). The boys of Holy Family School were the sons of working class Irishmen, men like Michael Collins, who lived on Dashiel Street and worked as a foreman, or William Carroll, who lived on Nebraska Street and appeared to have been a blacksmith.
These men were not what we would call well-off, though it should be noted that they did have jobs and were for the most part leading stable lives. Yet money was in all likelihood not something easy to come by. But all of these families felt that it was crucial that their child attend Holy Family’s school. The tuition was viewed as a necessary burden, the key to unlocking education. These families worked hard to put their sons in school, and made sure that they attended the local Catholic school.
There is so much to be drawn from this that it is hard to know where to begin. It is hard to resist the temptation to romanticize the situation, but it lends itself heavily to doing so. In this context, Holy Family is the common bond bringing together children from a country thousands of miles away, children who could have easily never met in their lives back in Ireland. Yet they meet here in the United States, in Chicago, all at their parish. All because their parents viewed education as a paramount step in advancing in American society, to growing and developing, to moving up the social ladder. And on top of all that is the faith, the Catholicism that defined Ireland through generations. This faith that created the school and the parish that these boys and their families attended. From Ireland to the US, one of the few constants is the presence of a strong Catholic parish for these men and women to call home.
In researching Holy Family’s school, these thoughts were always in my mind. It is hard, if not impossible, to not think about the individuals who attended the school or about the families that financed their education. Or even of the sisters of the schoolboys, who are noticeably absent from the registry. Where did all the Irish girls go to school? Questions like this are just one of many thoughts you’d have after glancing over something as simple as the registry. The stories that can be imagined are infinite. For a look at some of the stories drawn up by other Ramonat scholars, check out their blogs here.
To see a digitized sample of the registry, click here.