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.

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