Documentary shows history of Chicago through Catholic lens

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Movie poster for “Holy Ground.” (Photo provided)

The producers of “Holy Ground” want to take viewers on a walk through Chicago history, looking at each step through a Catholic lens.

The documentary, currently being screened at local theaters, parishes and other venues, takes viewers from the Catholic origins of Chicago — all the way back to Marquette and Joliet, through Jean Baptiste Point DuSable to the creation of Old St. Mary’s Parish in 1833 and the Archdiocese of Chicago 10 years later — and traces the way its history is reflected in the development of its parishes.

The documentary will be available to stream later this year.

Director Michael Jolls started working on the project around the time he was working with St. Mary of the Woods Parish in Edgebrook, first helping the parish stream Masses during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and then helping the parish expand its video offerings, including creating a series of videos about its iconic Marian stained-glass windows.

St. Mary of the Woods figures into “Holy Ground,” but as a post-World War II parish built in a Northwest Side neighborhood that has a suburban feel, it is a late entry into the story.

What comes before is history that many Chicagoans might not be aware of.

“When I started this, I didn’t know that Billy Caldwell and Chief Sauganash were the same person,” Jolls said.

Indeed, Caldwell was a member of the mixed-race population of the area. The son of a British father and Mohawk mother, he interacted both with indigenous people and European settlers, and is believed to have helped John Kinzie’s family survive the Fort Dearborn Massacre.

After the War of 1812, when his sympathies lay more with the British than with the fledgling United States, he allied himself with the Potawatomi people of what would become the Chicago area, and, acting as Chief Sauganash, a Potawatomi leader, he signed the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, which required native inhabitants to move west, across the Mississippi, and was rewarded with a grant of 1,600 acres along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Some of that land is now part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County; much of the rest makes up the Sauganash neighborhood. Whether that land grant was a bribe to get him to sign the treaty, as one of the speakers in the documentary speculates, is unclear; it is known that he sold most of the land and joined his Potawatomi community in the area around Council Bluffs, Iowa.

It is important to understand that the cultural milieu of the area that became Chicago was indigenous and French — and therefore Catholic — during the early period of European exploration and settlement, said Ann Durkin Keating, a historian and professor at North Central College in Naperville, who is featured in “Holy Ground.”

“That world is predominantly Catholic,” she said, noting that there was probably a Catholic mission established in the area as early as the 1690s. “That connects into an indigenous history. There were many Catholic indigenous women in Illinois, often married to French men. The Catholic story there is tied up in trade and French colonialism.”

The year 1833 marks the incorporation of Chicago as a town and the creation of its first parish, Old St. Mary’s. The next parishes were in outlying areas, serving mostly farming communities, until the city became a transport hub. Then more parishes were built to serve immigrant communities in Chicago proper, and the outlying parishes began to have missions that later became daughter parishes, as St. Mary of the Woods is a daughter parish of Queen of All Saints, which was built in 1929.

Keating, who grew up in St. Mary of the Woods Parish, said that the church can provide a valuable lens to trace the growth of Chicago and its suburbs.

“It’s looking at Chicago as a Catholic city, with a Catholic history, with a Catholic population, and even more than that, with a Catholic infrastructure,” she said. “So many of our neighborhoods and communities are tied to their parishes.”

When the idea for the documentary was first discussed, Jolls said, it was about the history of St. Mary of the Woods. But as he began researching, he realized that he had to go back further.

‘’I said, ‘Your history starts with Queen of All Saints,’” Jolls said. “‘Their history starts in 1929, but they’re in Sauganash. Where do you want to begin? Can we do it on a longer scale?’”

The documentary then follows the creation of parishes on the Northwest Side and in the north suburbs, an account that mimics the arc of the history of the United States in general, and the Chicago area in particular, with more suburban parishes built in the early 20th century as outlying communities were tied to downtown by commuter rail, a near halt to construction during the Great Depression, and a postwar boom that blossomed further with the birth of the interstate highway system.

Along the way, viewers learn about changes in church styles and why they happened, including the shift from interior decorations focused on the saints of immigrant parishioners’ home countries to more American interiors, including at Queen of All Saints, where a stained-glass window in the baptistry features Billy Caldwell.

Jolls said he tried to use the “rule of three” in the film, repeating information three times in different ways, to help it stay interesting and stick with viewers.

“What would be the ultimate take away from it?” Jolls said. “It’s that people can exit the film with a better understanding of the city of Chicago. Not just the history of the parishes, but of the way the parishes anchor communities. … I didn’t make this film for Catholics. This film was made for Jews, for Muslims and for atheists, as well for Catholics, so they understand how these communities developed.”


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  • chicago history

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