Race and faith in Chicago

Reviewed By Ellen Skerrett
Wednesday, February 6, 2019

“Disappointing” is a continual refrain in Karen Johnson’s history of Catholic inter-racialism in Chicago from the 1930s to the 1960s. At every turn in her narrative, Catholic bishops, priests and laypeople — including women religious — come up short in their commitment to racial justice.

While historians continue to debate then-Archbishop George Mundelein’s decision in 1917 to designate St. Monica’s Parish exclusively for “colored” Catholics, putting it on the same level as national parishes for immigrants, Johnson minces no words.

She characterizes the “iron-fisted” leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1916 to 1939 as “most responsible for initiating a system that encouraged his white parishioners to discriminate against their black brethren.”

Johnson asserts that “One in Christ” provides “unique insights into Catholic rights activism” and in eight chapters she introduces the reader to a large cast of characters, among them, Catherine de Hueck, Ellen Tarry and Ann Harrington of Friendship House; and Father Daniel Cantwell, Sargent Shriver and John McDermott of the Catholic Interracial Council. 

Whether they would recognize themselves in Johnson’s book is another question. In her telling, activists’ lives “were structured by their parish boundaries, centered on offering their bodies as co-sacrifices with Christ, shaped by the liturgical calendar, and inspired by the Holy Ghost — who provided them everything from a jukebox to a meal.” Really? 

Johnson’s caricatures of Catholic faith and practice are jarring, all the more so because her book began as a history dissertation at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The author describes Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), now on track for canonization, as the “United States’ first openly black priest.”

In a nod to current academic jargon, she emphasizes that the habits of Catholic nuns teaching in black parishes “removed sisters’ faces from their desexualized bodies, giving them ambiguous gender identities.” Later, in a chapter titled, “Respectability,” she claims that Friendship House workers discontinued “corporeal acts of mercy” as they turned their attention to “helping black Americans purchase homes in middle- and upper-class white neighborhoods.” 

There is no question that Johnson set herself a formidable challenge, recovering the little-known story of Catholic civil rights activism that began in Chicago 20 years before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. Understandably, she relies heavily on the unpublished 1962 memoir of Arthur Falls (1901-2001). As one of the few black Catholics in Our Lady of Solace Parish in Englewood, Falls fought tirelessly to integrate Catholic parishes, schools and hospitals.

Chicagoans familiar with battles over open housing in the city, especially Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 march in Marquette Park, may be surprised to learn the level of opposition that Catholic activists encountered in white suburbs.

When Falls and his wife, Lillian Proctor, attempted to break the color line in Western Springs in 1952, for example, “citizens gathered 1,267 signatures asking the Park Board to pass a resolution condemning the Fallses’ property for a park; the Park Board complied.” Falls ultimately prevailed and became a founding member of St. John of the Cross Parish, but, as Johnson makes clear, Catholic Interracial Council activists encountered similar opposition in suburban Deerfield in the 1950s and were roundly defeated. 

“One in Christ” argues that Chicago’s Catholic activists deserve a place in the “long civil rights movement.” After all, “in making racial justice a moral issue, it became a religious issue … something people of faith needed to address.” But how did they do this? 

One of the key figures who emerges all too briefly in Johnson’s narrative is Sister Cecilia Himebaugh, a Benedictine at St. Scholastica High School, who convinced Jesuit Father Martin Carrabine in 1935 to “make the Mystical Body of Christ [doctrine] central to CISCA’s curriculum.”

Chicago Inter Student Catholic Action (CISCA) influenced thousands of college and high school students, bringing together an average of 4,000 young men and women each week in 1939. It was through CISCA and Catholic Worker meetings — not sermons at Sunday Mass — that future leaders such as Edward Marciniak, Peggy Roach, John Cogley and Ann Lally began their own lifelong quests for racial justice.

The connective tissue here, I would argue, was Catholic education, but it is conspicuously absent from Johnson’s narrative. 

That Catholic interracialism existed at all in Chicago from the 1930s through the 1960s will come as news to children born in the 21st century. Unfortunately, in a metropolitan region still in need of racial justice, Johnson’s account provides little hope or inspiration.

“One in Christ” concludes on the bitter note that “most of the city’s Catholics and aspects of the church’s structure continued to perpetuate inequality.”