Historic St. Elizabeth’s turns 130

By Catholic New World
Sunday, December 4, 2011

This is one of two murals on the outside walls of St. Elizabeth Church on Michigan Avenue and 41st Street in Chicago. Father Tolton (center) and St. Katherine Drexel (left) are pictured in the mural. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

St. Elizabeth Church at 41st Street and Wabash Avenue is celebrating its 130th anniversary, with much of the attention focusing on its connections to St. Katherine Drexel, who ministered to African-American Catholics, and Father Augustus Tolton, the first American diocesan priest of African descent.

But St. Elizabeth did not start out as a city parish for black people. It was founded in 1881 on a site that was then outside the city limits to serve Irish Catholics, a mission which lasted for its first 40 years.

But by 1920, the racial and ethnic makeup of the surrounding neighborhoods had changed as tens of thousands of African Americans had migrated to Chicago during World War I to find work. The city’s black population increased from 44,103 in 1910 to 109,458 in 1920 to 233,903 in 1930. The “Black Belt” was centered on the area bounded by 31st and 55th streets on the north and south and Federal and State streets on the east and west.

In 1924, St. Elizabeth merged with St. Monica, the black parish that Tolton founded in 1893. Tolton, whose cause for sainthood is under way, died in 1897, leaving the church unfinished. Still, the parish grew. By 1922, the parish complex included a rectory, convent and school and hall in addition to the church. Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament — Mother Drexel’s order — ran the school, and transferred to St. Elizabeth.

In addition to a grade school, the sisters also operated the first black Catholic high school in the city at St. Elizabeth.

When a fire destroyed the St. Monica Church building in 1930, it was not rebuilt, and St. Elizabeth continued to serve as the city’s flagship black Catholic parish.