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.

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 


One thought on “The Pride of Roosevelt Road

  1. Pingback: Walking the West Side | Ramonat Seminar 2015

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