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.


One thought on “With Distinction: A Reflection on Chicago’s Church

  1. Pingback: Rethinking Catholicism, Chicago Style | Ramonat Seminar 2015

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