The early days of Chicago and the Catholic Church

By Chicago Catholic
Thursday, November 8, 2018

Bishop William Quarter

Note: This story is part of a special issue marking the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Chicago. 

Chicago Catholics were “present at the creation” of their Midwestern boomtown.

In 1833, the same year that the community on Lake Michigan incorporated as a town, a group of French, Irish and British Catholics organized St. Mary’s parish.

Ten years later, the city was designated a separate Catholic diocese. The fìrst resident bishop, William J. Quarter arrived from New York on May 5, 1844. However, Catholics had actually lived at the swampy prairie site that the local Miami Indians called “Chicagou” for a century and a half before its incorporation as a town and its organization as a diocese.

The fìrst European who landed in Chicago was a Catholic priest. In September 1673, French Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, along with Louis Joliet and four other companions, discovered the portage between the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers. As they dragged their birch-bark canoes over this land bridge, they envisioned a canal connecting the watersheds of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.

Marquette returned to the site a year later and spent the winter of 1674-1675 in a rude cabin near the portage. Like many Chicagoans of the time, he contracted a deadly virus in the brutal cold, and he died the following spring while returning northward, to his base at St. Ignace, Michigan.

According to Ulrich Danckers, an amateur historian who has meticulously researched “Early Chicago” as a labor of love: “During the next 25 years many other missionaries, traders, and military men followed the pathways opened by Marquette and Joliet. ... By the year 1700 both a mission and a trading post stood on land that is now almost at the center of the city.”

Jesuit Father Francois Pinet founded La Mission de l’Ange Gardien (Guardian Angel Mission) in 1696, surrounded by a Miami Indian village. This was almost three-quarters of a century before the establishment of the better known California missions.

Guardian Angel Mission lasted only until about 1702 or 1703, when it was abandoned due to frequent Native American raids. Throughout the 18th century small-scale but fierce warfare raged incessantly across the center of North America as the French and their English rivals made and broke numerous alliances with indigenous communities and confederations. Nevertheless, various French traders and missionaries lived on the banks of the Chicago River from time to time throughout the century.

After the French and Indian War and then the American Revolution settled the European contest for control of the Midwest, more permanent settlement could begin in Chicago. Jean Baptiste Point de Sable, a biracial French-speaking man with a Native American wife, built a log cabin near the mouth of the Chicago River around 1784 and remained there as a prosperous farmer until 1800. He is widely heralded today as Chicago’s first non-native, long-term settler.

Probably born near Montreal, Point de Sable (or Pointe du Sable, as it is sometimes written), was a “free Negro” and a Roman Catholic. The Chicago pioneer and his wife, Catherine, had their marriage solemnized by a Catholic priest at the mission of Cahokia, Illinois, in 1788. Later, their daughter also had her marriage blessed by a priest at the same settlement.

Despite the long Catholic presence in Chicago, there was no priest resident here at the end of the 18th century.

After American ownership of the mid-continent had been established, the U.S. government erected a military post, Fort Dearborn, near the mouth of the Chicago River in 1803. The fort was destroyed and its garrison massacred at the beginning of the War of 1812 but the government rebuilt it in 1816.

In the meantime, some English-speaking settlers, both British subjects and American citizens, had fìltered into the tiny settlement. Most notable among the newcomers was John Kinzie, who bought Point de Sable’s farm on the north bank of the river shortly after the older settler had moved on to Missouri territory in 1800. The majority of traders and farmers who lived around Fort Dearborn, however, were still French-speakers, such as Antoine Ouilmette (sometimes spelled Wilmette) and the brothers Jean Baptiste and Mark Beaubien.

The latter two men both lived in the Chicago area until their deaths in 1864 and 1881, respectively. Much more than Point de Sable, the brothers Beaubien can be termed fathers of Chicago, in the most literal sense. Between them they fathered 42 children by a succession of Native American, French, and English wives.

Adapted from “The Archdiocese of Chicago: A Journey of Faith”


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