Book examines history of local parishes with Mexican faithful

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Deborah Kanter, who grew up in Oak Park and is a history professor at Albion College in Michigan, wrote “Chicago Católico: Making Catholic Parishes Mexican” (University of Illinois Press, 2020) after spending time in Mexico doing research for her doctorate, and then returning to Chicago and finding the same style of devotion in some of its parishes.

Her book focuses on St. Francis of Assisi Parish, 813 W. Roosevelt Road, which became a spiritual home to Mexican immigrants on the near West Side in the 1920s, and the parishes of the Pilsen area, which over time changed from a mostly central and eastern European enclave to a thriving Mexican-American neighborhood.

She spoke by telephone with Michelle Martin.

Q. How do you think the experience at St. Francis of Assisi and the parishes in Pilsen compared to the experience of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans elsewhere in Chicago?

A. I think the experience of St. Francis of Assisi was unique. The only place that has a similar story would be Our Lady of Guadalupe in south Chicago. St. Francis, which was an old German parish, was reconfigured in the 1920s to serve Spanish-speaking people. There were other Catholics who attended there — European Catholics, old timers who remained there and people who would show up for novenas and this and that, but Anglos were very clearly the minority at St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis of Assisi was very much a Mexican parish through the 1940s. Puerto Ricans began coming in in noticeable numbers in the 1940s and 1950s, but at St. Francis of Assisi no one ever had to apologize for speaking in Spanish and everybody in the rectory was bilingual. No one at St. Francis of Assisi had to push to get a Mass on Dec. 12 for the Virgen de Guadalupe. It had been going on since the 1920s. Today, it remains a Mexican/Latino parish; all of the Masses are celebrated in Spanish there.

Pilsen, by contrast, was a story of Mexicans coming into parishes that belonged to longtime European ethnic groups. As Mexican people moved into the neighborhood, they faced struggles at every parish. When I say struggles, I mean they could attend church at any parish but in terms of truly being welcomed, truly being included, that varied from parish to parish. Long-time parishioners in Pilsen tended to see their parish as Polish or as Lithuanian, and it often took a decade for the parishes to truly include their new members.

It strikes me that it was crucial when priests or teaching sisters led the way to welcome and meaningful inclusion. The laypeople varied in their reactions, but you had priests and you had sisters who stood up and welcomed the new Catholics in the neighborhood. A great example of that would be at Providence of God, which was the second-oldest Lithuanian parish in Chicago.

The Sisters of St. Casimir who taught at the school started partnering with the Mexican mothers who were part of the Guadalupanas in the early 1960s, and they really started to bring these wives and mothers into the parish to do advocacy for the schoolchildren and to try to keep the neighborhood safe.

In other parishes, I can see moments when individual pastors decided that they needed to learn Spanish, or more often pointed to an assistant pastor and said, “You need to go to Mexico for the summer” or “You need to take a language class.” I often found very quick transformations at parishes when there was somebody in the clergy who spoke some degree of Spanish.

These stories at the Pilsen parishes of struggle then grudging acceptance — this has played out every place in Chicago. It happened all over the Southwest Side, first in Little Village, then in Archer Heights and Gage Park, then out to Midway. It’s been happening on the North Side of Chicago for a good 30 years, and it’s still playing out in the suburbs and in communities throughout the Midwest.

I might have a narrow geographic focus, but I think it’s a good history to explain things that are going on throughout the country.

Q. You write about how attending Mass at St. Francis of Assisi reminded you of attending Mass in Mexico. Did the parishes in Pilsen ever feel like that, or was the experience more of a Mexican-European American hybrid?

A. If we look at the parishes in Pilsen that made it into this century — because there were once upon a time 13 parishes in Pilsen — they all had made space and created activities that really welcomed Mexicans. They had those in place for decades.

A lot of them had spaces dedicated to Guadalupe devotions, spaces that were very visible and, crucial for me, spaces that were accessible. Having the Virgen de Guadalupe high up on a wall and out of physical reach was not accessible, because in Latin American devotional practices, people want to get up close to the saints.

Some of the best examples where they made a visible, accessible devotional space would be at St. Procopius, where they made a Guadalupe shrine literally on the street, facing 18th Street. St Pius remodeled part of the church to make a Guadalupe shrine. At both St. Procopius and St. Pius, the parishioners worked with the priests. They collaborated in the process of planning and executing these spaces.

When I think of activities that allowed for the transfer of traditional Mexican devotional practices, I think about adding processions for the Virgen de San Juan (de los Lagos). St. Procopius became the Chicago center of devotion to the Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos, and there’s a procession that comes from Blue Island every summer.

The posadas rituals happen at all kinds of parishes, not just in Pilsen. And of course, celebrating Mass in Spanish was central to this process. By 1975, all the parishes of Pilsen celebrated Mass in Spanish except for two, and they notably closed in the 1990s.

There were some Pilsen parishes that had a hybrid aspect. Holy Trinity Croatian Parish —  I was at Croatian devotion there in 2005. They took the Croatian virgin on a procession around the neighborhood. Most of the people in the procession were not Croatian; most of the people in the procession were Mexican and Mexican American, singing along with Croatian hymns.

I also saw ethnic mixing at St. Ann (Leavitt Street), which was historically Polish. The grade school kids at St. Ann’s could sing songs in Spanish and English and Polish. The Mexican kids learned the Polish hymns, the Polish kids learned the Spanish hymns. For the adults, though, it was a little more of a dual parish where there were some activities in English and some activities in Spanish. The school at St. Ann was a nice example of cultural mixing for about 30 years.

Q. What did you see that these parishes could have done better?

A. Leadership was crucial. At this point, this is not a relevant issue for the archdiocese, because my understanding is pastors in the Archdiocese of Chicago have to speak Spanish. The pastors and the deacons need to model inclusion in meaningful and substantive ways and really encourage people to go across divides in the parish. That has potential to benefit everybody, and it looks toward the future of the Catholic Church in Chicago, which is going to be a majority Latino church.

Q. The population of Pilsen is no longer as Latino as it used to be at the end of the 20th century. How do these parishes adapt to the changes they’re facing now?

A. There is an ethnic diversification of Pilsen, but I don’t think it’s as fast or as strong as a lot of people make it out to be. If that neighborhood used to be 90% Mexican, is it down to 80-85% Mexican? All of the three churches that remain in Pilsen celebrate Mass in English and they celebrate Mass in Spanish.

I do think there are ways for people who are not Spanish-dominant to be involved in all of these churches. The majority of people of Pilsen are of Mexican origin and there’s a very strong immigrant component there. I think it’s very important in those Pilsen churches that priests and rectory staff speak Spanish. It is of primary importance to those parishes that the priests and the staff have an understanding of what immigrants and their children face.

I work with a lot of Latino college students now at my college in Michigan, and a lot of them are from Chicago. This is an incredibly bad time to be a Latino person in the United States. There is so much mistrust and there is so much vitriol against immigrants. Parishes need to develop meaningful systems of support for the vulnerable people who live in these communities. By doing concrete things to support them, these parishes would well serve the majority of their parishioners.

In 2015, Pilsen had seven parishes, and it has three today. For many people, the nearest parish is no longer just blocks away. A lot of people don’t have vehicles and it’s not so easy for a lot of people to get to church. The Catholic Church has to think creatively about how to best serve people in the neighborhoods.

Q. What big lessons can the archdiocese learn from this history, especially as we move through Renew My Church?

A. This is partly about knowing the history of Chicago.

We all know on an intellectual level that the Catholic Church is a global institution, but most American Catholics have a default notion of Catholics as white descendants of European immigrants. Chicago-area Catholics need to reframe their idea of who is Catholic.

If we look back a century ago, when George Mundelein was the archbishop of Chicago, he wanted to create an archdiocese that was more American. At the same time, he understood that Poles wanted and needed Polish churches. Lithuanian immigrants wanted and needed Lithuanian churches. He decided he was not going to open any more national parishes for different ethnic groups.

The last two national parishes that he opened were the first two Mexican parishes in the city in the 1920s, St. Francis of Assisi and Our Lady of Guadalupe. He said he did it on behalf of “the strangers in our midst.”

As I look back, I realize that Mexicans have been part of the archdiocese for a century. I’m guessing most Catholics think it’s a much more recent phenomenon. Over the last century, the Mexican population has grown and is reshaping neighborhoods and parishes across the city and the suburbs. Knowing this history is really important. If 50% of Chicago-area Catholics are Latinos, they are not a minority, and they are no longer the strangers that Cardinal Mundelein referred to.

We need to be building meaningful relationships across ethnic lines, which is why I do the work that I do.


  • books
  • hispanic
  • parishes

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