Chicago’s Unique Catholicism

This week, the class participated in the Open House Chicago weekend. Exploring Catholic churches and separate political, the strong influence of Catholicism in Chicago was evident. However, throughout our readings for the week, Chicago’s relationship with Catholicism shined uniquely compared to other American cities. In this post, I will discuss my own experiences in the Open House and how those sights related to Catholicism and/or Chicago politics, followed by a discussion on how Chicago Catholicism is different than the rest of the country.


The first site I visited was the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. Although a Catholic cathedral built in 1915, the Byzantine style reflected the growing parish in the Ukrainian neighborhood. According to the guides at the Cathedral, St. Nicholas was modeled after St. Sophia’s in Kiev—the capital city of Ukraine. The chandelier was made in Greece, but the stained-glass windows were made in Chicago. Through the leadership of a Chicago architecture firm, the church combined the influence of Ukraine, Greek artisans, and Chicago based companies. The Ukrainian Village Catholic parish growing at the turn-of-the-century was still young enough to have a deeper connection to their home country but were also beginning to create local ties to the communities around them. The Catholic cathedral provided a fundamental component of the developing neighborhood where the Ukrainian ethnic population was not yet fully assimilated in the rest of Chicago. Constructed during the mayoral era of the younger Carter Harrisons of the Carter Harrisons, the church was rooted against the push for Americanization opposed by Carter Harrison. Discussed by John D. Buenker, Harrison Jr., although not from an immigrant family, gained the respect of minority groups because “the conviction that [he] understood their handicaps with an old world culture facing puritanical narrow-mindedness” (Buenker, 176). The construction of this beautiful Catholic cathedral was possible because of the strong ethnic community in the area, and the support of a pro-minority mayor who would have allowed the parish to use Eastern European influences. St. Nicholas provided an example of Chicago Catholic activity in the context of local political leadership.

Another site I visited was the Holy Name Cathedral. Going inside the church was exciting because of the vicinity to our downtown campus and the beauty hidden inside. As the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the history of the site is easily present. However, on their website’s description of their history, the church emphasizes, “The history of Holy Name Cathedral Parish is as much the story of Catholic immigrants and their new city, Chicago, as it is the story of bishops and seminaries.” Discussed during a tour, the Cathedral began when the University of St. Mary of the Lake was established to provide priests in the rapidly growing immigration of Chicago. As Ellen Skerrett, Edward R. Kantowicz, and Steven M. Avella explored in their work, “in no other city did such a wide range of Catholic groups make their mark” (Skerrett, Kantowicz, Avella, xvii). The first location of the Cathedral Parish was at the university. The emphasis of a “new city” was described in the tour when the guide emphasized the architecture of the church created a mixture of traditional Gothic influence in a modern church. Coincidentally, a theme throughout the Open House sites and the readings for the week was how Catholicism in Chicago grew along with the city itself. As St. Nicholas was built with the help of European business and inspiration, Chicago’s growing businesses began to take a part—although Chicago could not provide all the resources yet. With the Holy Name, when Chicago’s population began to flourish, Holy Name’s history was a resource for religious leadership in a rapidly modernizing city.

St. Peter’s in the Loop Roman Catholic Church, built in 1953, showed the evolution of Catholicism growing along with Chicago. Approaching St. Peters is shocking because the church is a modern stone-faced building directly attached and surrounded by city buildings. When you go inside, it feels like another world compared to the busy city outside. The intention of St. Peters was a place of prayer for those on-the-go in the city. When Chicago has efficiently developed into a thriving metropolis, the Catholic Church adapted to meet the parishioner’s new needs. St. Peter’s was built to reflect a modernized Chicago but was also literally built within the city life—showing the never-ending presence of Catholicism in Chicago.


My fourth site of the weekend was Chicago’s City Hall. Considering the current location was the seventh City Hall of Chicago, it is safe to say the changing locations reflect the growing needs of the expanding city. However, the Open House allowed us to explore the City Council Chambers where a neighborhood-district alderman represents their local constituents needs in local Chicago politics. Although initially challenging to create an immediate connection of Catholicism and City Council, the reading by Skerrett, Kantowicz, and Avella provide insight: “The first two marks of Chicago Catholicism, ethnic diversity and the close identification between parish and neighborhood, hark back to the beginnings of Chicago” (Skerrett, xvii). When the parish is heavily connected to the neighborhood, the alderman would have to consider the religious influence in decision-making. If there is a city council ruling which would negatively impact the religious groups of the neighborhood, the alderman would likely feel local pressure to vote against such a ruling. Additionally, when I visited City Hall with my aunt, I asked her how I might be able to connect Catholicism to what we observed—beyond the obvious influence of the Daley family—and she brought up how challenging it is to forego religious views in politics. Even if not obvious, religious affiliation increases social capital, which then increases political participation. With Chicago’s historical Catholic presence, the aldermen likely could have Catholic roots which could influence their decision-making.

Another political site had more obvious relations to Catholicism—the Catholic Charities St. Vincent Center. Founded by nuns and now a part of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Although it was formed originally to serve parishes struggling to provide for their community, Chicago Catholic Charities assist anyone who looks for service in a wide variety of considerations. The St. Vincent Center is the current headquarters for Chicago’s Catholic Charities but also houses the St. Louise de Marillac Chapel. According to a guide I talked to on-site, the original church was converted into office space, but then recently converted back into a chapel. Although the transformation of a chapel to office space is a bit peculiar, I think it may demonstrate how those serving through the center realized the growing need for their services in Chicago. The nuns and workers at the Catholic Charities prioritized serving the community over the convenience of an in-house chapel. The direct involvement of Catholics in civil services provides a clear connection between Catholicism and local politics.


Over the weekend, we also had the option to visit the “Hairy Who?” exhibit at the Art Institute. The art was interesting, to say the least, and the exhibit was very enjoyable. One of the informational panels on the wall described their work well: “At the moment when the personal was first being recognized as political… they always approached these themes from individualistic, rather than ideological, positions.” Their work was influenced by relationships, gender, and sex while relying on the spontaneity of everyday situations in naming work and choosing subjects—“fearless and disobedient yet technically refined.” What was unique about the “Hairy Who?” art shows were the unfortunate consequences which prevented a show opening—Martin Luther King’s assassination protests in Chicago and a janitor throwing away work in New York.

Although the “Hairy Who?” group began in Chicago and held their first shows there, they are not rooted directly in Chicago culture or politics beyond what is also evident in other cities. The fearless disobedience of their work reflected the post-Vatican II ideologies of direct action—whether one is Catholic or not. Given the universality of Vatican II changes, it is difficult to relate “Hairy Who?” uniquely Chicago like the Open House sites.


When Chicago was born, Catholicism quickly took root in the culture and politics. As Catholicism and Chicago grew synonymously, the classic Catholic political machines were famous in Chicago. As Daley carried the machine into the Cold War, Catholic presence in politics proved unique to other major cities. Boston had the “long-standing social dominance of the so-called Boston Brahmins;” New York is “often considered a ‘Jewish City’” (Skerrett, xxi). For other cities, the Catholic dominance already fell or fell during the Cold War.


Referenced Work:

Buenker, John D. “Dynamics of Chicago Ethnic Politics 1900-1930.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984)67, no. 2 (1974): 175-99.

Skerrett, Ellen, Edward R. Kantowicz and Steven M. Avella. “What Has Made Chicago Catholocism Distinctive?” Catholocism, Chicago Style (1993): xvii-xxii.

All photos by me.

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