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What Parish Are You From?

What Parish Are You From?: A Chicago Irish Community and Race Relations

Copyright Date: 1995
Edition: 1
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    What Parish Are You From?
    Book Description:

    For Irish Americans as well as for Chicago's other ethnic groups, the local parish once formed the nucleus of daily life. Focusing on the parish of St. Sabina's in the southwest Chicago neighborhood of Auburn-Gresham, Eileen McMahon takes a penetrating look at the response of Catholic ethnics to life in twentieth-century America. She reveals the role the parish church played in achieving a cohesive and vital ethnic neighborhood and shows how ethno-religious distinctions gave way to racial differences as a central point of identity and conflict.

    For most of this century the parish served as an important mechanism for helping Irish Catholics cope with a dominant Protestant-American culture. Anti-Catholicism in the society at large contributed to dependency on parishes and to a desire for separateness from the American mainstream. As much as Catholics may have wanted to insulate themselves in their parish communities, however, Chicago demographics and the fluid nature of the larger society made this ultimately impossible. Despite efforts at integration attempted by St. Sabina's liberal clergy, white parishioners viewed black migration into their neighborhood as a threat to their way of life and resisted it even as they relocated to the suburbs.

    The transition from white to black neighborhoods and parishes is a major theme of twentieth-century urban history. The experience of St. Sabina's, which changed from a predominantly Irish parish to a vibrant African-American Catholic community, provides insights into this social trend and suggests how the interplay between faith and ethnicity contributes to a resistance to change.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4927-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Religion, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Maps and Tables
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    It began as a typical summer afternoon in August 1965. Seventeen-year-old Frank Kelly and his buddies headed over to St. Sabina’s after their ball game to meet up with some of the girls from the parish. They had all graduated from the Catholic grade school and had spent many hours in the community center gym playing sports and roller skating. Now that they were in high school, they had the privilege of attending the popular Sunday night dances. The school and the parish, however, had changed since the days when the children had donned their uniforms for first grade. African...

  6. 1 The Making of the Irish Parish Community: A Historical Background
    (pp. 6-26)

    Chicago’s South Side Irish have played a prominent role in the city’s history. In the neighborhood of Bridgeport they established a political base and network that launched one of the strongest political machines in the country and gave Chicago several of its mayors. Another South Side establishment and tradition is the Chicago White Sox formed by Charles Comiskey, son of an Irish immigrant and city council alderman. In 1910 Comiskey laid a green cornerstone for his new ball park at 35th and Shields in the midst of an Irish neighborhood.

    The South Side Irish community has been immortalized in the...

  7. 2 St. Sabina: A Parish Founded on a Prairie
    (pp. 27-41)

    St. Sabina’s began “ ‘on a prairie, with a few families and lots of mud,’ ” recalled the founding pastor, Rev. Thomas Egan.¹ On July 3, 1916, Egan, then assistant at St. Mary’s in Evanston, received orders from Chicago’s new Archbishop, George W. Mundelein, to establish the parish in the southwest community of Auburn-Gresham.² Like many parishes established in America, St. Sabina’s had a humble beginning. Egan said his first mass on July 9th in a storefront at 7915S. Ashland Avenue “on a borrowed table in a rented room” for two hundred parishioners.³ The altar made its way by horse...

  8. 3 “I’m from Sabina’s,” 1916 to 1941
    (pp. 42-74)

    “ ‘Chicago has the best Catholics,’ ” Rev. Cornelius Hagerty, a Holy Cross priest from the University of Notre Dame, used to quip on his visits to his family in St. Sabina parish. “ ‘They’ll even wave to you from the back of a paddy wagon.’ ”¹ On another occasion he remarked to Father Egan, “ ‘I have heard that in country districts in Ireland a priest can hear confession all afternoon and never encounter a mortal sin.’ ” The native of County Tipperary defended his parishioners saying, “ ‘A priest can hear confession right in Sabina’s Church in the...

  9. 4 Ticket to Heaven: Community and Religion at St. Sabina’s, 1940 to 1960
    (pp. 75-96)

    The pride and confidence that Catholic America acquired after the First World War remained unshaken by the Second and continued to grow in the next decades. The postwar economic boom and the GI Bill of Rights provided greater opportunities for white Catholics to move up the economic and social ladder. By the mid-1950s the Catholic Church in America was primarily middle class. Other ethnic groups were now joining the ever increasing Irish and German middle class. Their new economic position created a need to reshape Catholicism to reflect their higher status and greater sophistication. “A parish is not only a...

  10. 5 The Saints Come Marching In: Irish and Catholic Identity
    (pp. 97-115)

    In March 1954 freezing temperatures and snow flurries worried officials who had spent the past year organizing the second annual South Side Irish parade. They feared the inclement weather would keep Chicago’s southern contingent of Irish away from the festivities. The first parade was a charming neighborhood event with Girls Scouts, Little League ballplayers, and the like marching before family and friends. This year, however, parade organizers recruited not only police and fire units but also the marching bands from the Great Lakes Naval Base, the 5th Army, and Notre Dame University. They need not have been concerned. Nearly 100,000...

  11. 6 The Troubles: Racial Tension and the Parish Community
    (pp. 116-129)

    While the parish continued to be a vital force within the Irish-American community after World War II, external forces were at work to challenge it physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Chicago’s black belt began to explode in population as the Great Migration of black refugees from the South poured into the city during these years. This forced many blacks to seek homes in many traditionally all-white neighborhoods and parishes. In addition, new ideas, partly brought on by this crisis and partly by American Catholicism’s maturation, would challenge popular notions of Catholicism’s role in parish communities. Some clergy and laity made tremendous...

  12. 7 Make No Small Plans: The Parish Community and the OSC
    (pp. 130-156)

    As the black belt moved further south and west after World War II, neighborhood after neighborhood succumbed to fear, hostility, panic peddling, violence, and ultimately to white flight. Confusion, division, bitterness, and resentment worked their way through succeeding neighborhoods and parishes. Religious groups fought each other as they groped to find solutions for their disintegrating communities. It appeared as though nothing could halt the destructive process that physically and psychologically wounded people and communities.

    Monsignor John McMahon, however, who became pastor of St. Sabina’s in 1952, refused to submit to the idea that the presence of blacks meant the death...

  13. 8 Where Two or Three Are Gathered: St. Sabina’s in the 1960s
    (pp. 157-184)

    “It was a classic Irish ghetto which saw itself as under threat,” recalled R. McClory, who served as assistant priest at St. Sabina’s. “When I got there in 1963, the black movement was right at the border. There was one black family that lived in the parish at that time. So it was like a “ ‘The barbarians are at our border! The Huns are at the wall!’ kind of experience.”¹

    Persuading parishioners of his philosophy of openness and tolerance was no easy task for Monsignor McMahon. Negative attitudes toward blacks had been passed on from one generation to the...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 185-190)

    Patrick Lonigan confides his feelings to his son Studs on their moving day from the fictional parish of St. Patrick’s, which James T. Farrell based upon St. Anselm’s in his Studs Lonigan trilogy, saying, “You know, Bill, your mother and I are gettin’ old now, and well, we sort of got used to this neighborhood . . . The old people . . . they were all nearby, and they all knew us, and we knew them, and you see, well, this neighborhood was kind of like home. We sort of felt about it the same way I feel about...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 191-213)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 214-219)
  17. Index
    (pp. 220-226)