Brick and Mortar: Pieces of Catholic Chicago

Christopher D. Cantwell and the Students of CST/RELS/HIST 150 Fall 2012


Chicago has always been a preeminently Catholic city. From the encampment French-Haitian Creole Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable first built upon Lake Michigan’s swampy banks in the 1770s to the steeples that continue to tower over the city of neighborhoods today, Catholicism has been integral to the city’s development. Parishes have structured neighborhoods, priests have anchored communities, and laypeople have shaped the city’s politics. But the Catholic influence on Chicago has never been uniform. Italian festas, Irish St. Patrick’s Day parades, Greek festivals, Polish saints, and today’s celebrations of Dia de los Muertos underscore the Chicago’s Catholic history—indeed, American Catholic history, is defined by a remarkable diversity.

This exhibit provides snapshots of these shared and divergent strains of Chicago’s Catholic history. It uses Chicago as a window through which to explore some of the major themes of American Catholic history while using the city’s vitality to underscore that there are in fact many Catholic histories. Rooted in the collections from the Special Collections and University Archives of the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the exhibit is broken into two sections of interpretive essays. The first, Immigration, explores the intimate relationship between American Catholicism and European immigration. Much like America itself, the Catholic Church in America is a church of immigrants and the essays here consider how Northern, Southern and Eastern European immigrants, as well as African American migrants, forged Catholicism in Chicago. The second section, Politicization, traces how this immigrant church then engaged both the city and American culture. Through biography of politicians and reformers, the histories of community organizations, and the formation of political coalitions, we see how Chicago’s Catholic community engaged their world in ways that were indelibly American, but also distinctly Catholic.

This exhibit is the final project of Christopher Cantwell’s Fall 2012 course, Catholicism in U.S. History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The essays were all conceived, researched, and authored by students. Students worked in groups to conduct research in UIC’s Special Collections to find documents that related to major themes in the course. The groups were then assigned the task of writing an essay for a general audience that situated those documents within the contours of American Catholic history. With the exception of slight copyediting by the instructor, the exhibit remains the student’s proud work.

In addition to the dedicated work of the students, several individuals from UIC were instrumental in making this exhibit possible. Ralph Keen, Professor of History and Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair in Catholic Studies, generously made the funds available to digitize the documents. Valerie Harris, Associate Special Collections Librarian and Assistant Professor, worked closely with students to help them identify pertinent collections. Roberta Dupuis-Devlin digitized the materials. For technical support, Scott Rozman,Web Application Developer

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, generously granted us a domain and server space, while student worker Nina Andorf volunteered her time to design the exhibit. Thanks to all involved, but especially the students who took on this project with an admirable degree of seriousness!