By David Saucedo, Veronica Picchi, Dan Christman, and Caitlyn Hannon


German immigration to the U.S. first began in the 1840s when an uprising began in Europe intended to overturn the monarchies in countries like France and Denmark.  However, a German uprising sparked by writer Karl Marx began in 1848 as the German crown removed socialists and Catholics from the country. These German refugees, also known as the 48’ers, flooded to the U.S. in search of political freedom and made up the Midwestern German working class.

By the early twentieth century, Germans in Chicago had established hundreds of German clubs and organizations - the largest ones being The German Club of Chicago and the German (Aid) Society of Chicago. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s Germans, specifically Catholics, faced many of the same hardships other immigrants faced, including the struggle to find work and assimilate into American culture while preserving their own heritage and ethnic traditions.  Through these various organizations and clubs, Germans sought aid and unity amongst each other as they slowly but surely established a strong German Catholic presence in Chicago.

In “Germans in Chicago,” the author discusses several important German figures that came about in Chicago around 1850.  George Schneider, manager of the Illinois Staatazeitung, “organized the first public protest against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in January, 1854.” This protest resulted in the formation of a new political party that elected Lincoln to the presidency.  Other important German figures in Chicago noted in the document include Anton Caspar Hesing, organizer of the Northern Army in the Civil War, and entertainers like Franz Amberg, “president of the Chicago Song Festival in 1881” as well as “promoter of the Vereingigte Maennerchoere.” Other German immigrants at this time would have been proud to see their ethnic presence not only known, but appreciated by other Americans who included their efforts into Chicago’s history.

 In “Dedication,” an essay from editor Oscar A. Stoffels’ publication German Club of Chicago Worlds Fair Souvenir Book  published in 1933, the author wrote, “German Americans must come to a fuller realization that unity in our ranks, more than anything else, will bring to us a rich measure of happiness and success and at the same time assure our compatriots that we are worthy of public trust, capable of exercising sane leadership, intellectually and spiritually fitted to fill judicial, administrative, and executive offices for the benefit of our country and our respective communities.” In other words, it was necessary for Germans to establish a German Society Club in which they can serve the Chicago community while maintaining their German ethnicity.

Another essay by F.E. Spoerer in the publication German Club of Chicago Worlds Fair Souvenir Book: Twenty Years of the German Club, Spoerer discusses that in March 1913, five men by the name of Charles Wurster, Julius C. Kirchner, Henry P. Runkel, Otto G. Klose, and Adolph Georg, Jr. gathered together to discuss organizing a German Club in Chicago. These men believed that Germans held admirable character qualities and believed that the organization would allow Germans to provide a civic duty to their city. The primary goals were: securing of historic justice for Germans, recognition of achievements in the United States, developing of cooperation between Americans and Germans, and making public German ideals and German virtues as qualities of the American character.  Similar to Stoffels’ idea of a German club, the German Club created by these five men also held fifteen officers and governors and three secretaries in which they tried to benefit for their community.

German Catholics were just one ethnic group out of the many that struggled to assimilate into American culture not only through work, but school as well.  In James W. Sanders’ book The Education of an Urban Minority, he discusses the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in determining whether or not American schools should have a religious focus or not.  Catholics wanted to “secure the interests of Catholic children attending public schools” (Sanders, 24), but faced discrimination from Protestants, speaking against “the Catholic hierarchy.”  In Chicago in the 1860s, Catholics of all ethnicities banded together with the city’s Jews to object to the reading of the New Testament in schools. In 1910 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the reading of the New Testament in schools was declared unconstitutional, leading to the first miniature victory Catholics won against Protestants (Sanders 25).  This decision greatly affected the public schools in Chicago, which now provided Catholics, including German Catholics, with a better opportunity to assimilate more easily into American culture.

In the 1920’s the biggest contributor to the Chicago community was Chicago’s archbishop George Mundelein. George Mundelein was of German and Irish descent and born in Manhattan in 1872; he was appointed archbishop of Chicago in the year 1915. He arrived to Chicago during the time the church was experiencing an international crisis due to World War I. Chicago was, and still is, a city primarily of immigrants and most of these immigrants were primarily Catholic. When the United States entered into a war against Germany, this sparked hate crimes and neighborhood wars in the city, and the local parishes became involved in these neighborhood wars. World War I sparked American nativism and anti-Catholicism because Catholics were primarily immigrants from the warring countries. Due to this anti-immigrant sentiment toward Catholics, specifically German Catholics because Germany was the main enemy in the war, Mundelein wanted to Americanize the Catholic Church in Chicago. He said that too many immigrants in church clung too much to their ethnicity, and in order to receive less hate from other Americans, they would have to assimilate into American culture.  Mundelein forced Chicago parishes to remove their parochial schools (which were private and taught in individual languages based on the immigrants who attended that parish), and said that the schools must be taught in English.

While German Catholics had an incredible impact on their communities in Chicago through cultural and social groups, they also had a widespread effect on political aspects that branched out further from Chicago.  In Philip Gleason’s article “The Case of the German-American Catholics” he discusses the Central-Verein, which had a “systematic dedication to social reform” (Gleason 368).  He discusses the Central-Verein’s “quest for social justice” as German Catholics continued to assimilate into American culture after their difficult experiences in the 1880s and 1890s involving the struggle for workers to gain better working conditions and wages.  Parish workingmen’s societies were organized by German Catholics in several cities including St. Louis, Dubuque, and Buffalo, and sought speakers from all over the country, including Chicago.  Their main goal was “to lead the German Catholic societies into the work of social reconstruction according to the principles of Rerum novarum” (Gleason 370).  Not only did workers support this movement, but Catholics had also found a way to get involved to fight for a common idea - rights.

German Catholics had an impact in the growth and development of Catholicism in the city of Chicago. Some specific points to reiterate are the German Society Club that stood for not only maintaining German ethnicity, but also serving a civic responsibility for their Chicago community. The most important contributor of German descent to Catholic change in Chicago was most certainly archbishop George Mundelein. Appointed as Chicago archbishop in 1915, he came to Chicago and reformed the church to make it be more Americanized.  This was during a time where a flux of nativism and anti-Catholicism occurred, so Mundelein’s efforts were much needed in order to lessen the hate that was spreading throughout the city during World War I.

Throughout various organizations and Catholic groups, German Catholics had a vital effect on Chicago’s growth into the twentieth century involving many issues, including schooling, worker’s rights, and ethnic traditions. Through their hard work and dedication to assimilation as well as change, the German Catholics in Chicago left a lasting impression on the city that is still prevalent today.

Further Reading:

Philip Gleason, “An Immigrant Group’s Interest in Progressive Reform: The Case of the German-American Catholics,” The American Historical Review.  Vol. 73, No. 2 (1967): 368-370.

James W. Sanders, The Education of an Urban Minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833-1965. (New York: The Oxford University Press, 1977).