Our readings this week told a story of a powerful but fragmented Chicago Catholic Church. In Catholicism, Chicago Style, the authors claim that, “There was no other group [in Chicago] that was strong enough, united enough, or perhaps cared enough to oppose the dominant position of Catholics.” At the same time, John Buenker frames the Chicago mayoral races of 1905 and 1931 as a game of ‘who can appease the most ethnic-Catholic groups’ while emphasizing that it was Catholicism that eventually united the groups. Patrick Kennedy, focusing on the period immediately after, emphasizes the work of the German-American archbishop of Chicago George Mundelein. Mundelein facilitated the “creation of ethnic parishes” to appease the Irish majority of Catholics in Chicago. However, these are all stories of the past. It is clear by the institutions and neighborhoods that Chicago’s past focused on local politics which was driven by local churches. The question becomes, is it still this way today?
Since I have been studying the actors in Catholic political history for the past month, it is difficult for me to think about a topic in Catholicism without applying the cases of Father Daniel Berrigan and Fr. Michael Pfleger. While reflecting on these two men in relation to how local Catholicism is today, I realized that these two men are fantastic evidence in support of Catholicism remaining local. Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a member of the Catonsville Nine, was famous on the small community of Block Island. The documentary Seeking Shelter highlights this community of Catholics and non-Catholics alike who surrounded and loved Fr. Berrigan. They spoke of long nights talking about the latest political issues or philosophy. Though this may not be a community Church in the literal sense, it reveals the communal nature surrounding the Catholic ideas which Fr. Berrigan preached. Fr. Pfleger, on the other hand, invokes a much more literal local Catholic Church. St. Sabina’s is heavily invested in the community, and the interior reflects this. The painting behind the altar depicts Jesus Christ with a skin tone that matches many of the members of the community. The celebratory music and dances much more reflects African Culture than traditional Catholic Rites. This, I believe, is the ultimate example of the Catholic Church remaining local.
However Fr. Berrigan and St. Sabina’s are relatively extreme cases. What about the local Churches scattered around Chicago that rarely, if ever, make the headlines? I visited St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church in Lincoln Park and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Uptown to find out. I did this as an alternative to visiting Open House Chicago sites, but going to Mass in these different communities ended up being more valuable in my eyes. St. Vincent DePaul at DePaul contrasts well with Madonna della Strata at Loyola. Even though Loyola and DePaul are similar as Catholic schools on the north side of Chicago along the red line, their worship spaces are quite different. St. Vincent DePaul is a parish on its own, with its focus being an independent Catholic Church that happens to have a large student population. Madonna della Strata, on the other hand, is funded, staffed, and run exclusively by the University, and outside parishioners are a small (but growing) percentage of attendees. This stark contrast is more evidence for the argument that Catholicism is local to this day. My experience at Our Lady of Lourdes echoed this contrast on a broader sense as its design, worship, and population were almost entirely unique especially compared to the marble monolith that is St. Peter’s in the loop or the heavily white parishes which I have frequented in the suburbs. As we have gone along studying the neighborhoods of Chicago essentially created by the Churches they surrounded, Fr. Berrigan’s island, Fr. Pfleger’s sanctuary for African American Catholics, and the differing populations and worship styles among Chicago Churches today, it has become clear to see that Catholicism has been and remains a highly local institution.