Throughout American Catholic history, immigrants have played an absolutely vital part in the growth of Catholicism. Particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European immigrants brought with them Catholicism to urban centers across country that was primarily Protestant. In Chicago, the Near West Side neighborhood housed many different ethnic groups during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a substantial chunk of the population was Italian and eventually Italian-American. We analyzed three different documents from the Near West Side Community Records to get an idea of what Italian American Catholic life was like in the Near West Side neighborhood in the mid-20th century. The first document was an itinerary for a lecture series that Our Lady of Pompeii Church was hosting called “Family Life Lecture Series.” The second document was a weekly bulletin from “The Holy Name Society of Our Lady of Pompeii Church.” And the final document was “The New World: Official Catholic Paper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Joliet.”
The Near West Side Community Committee was founded in 1938 originally as the West Side Committee and dealt with the 20th ward of Chicago. It was a community organization that organized activities and programs for the youth, welfare programs for families, and neighborhood cleanup campaigns. The programs the committee funded were very similar to mutual benefit societies that served a plethora of needs in immigrant communities and it partnered with churches to create and maintain sodalities, particularly aimed at young people. Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church has served the Near West Side community for over a century and stands as a relic of Italian-American Catholic life in Chicago in the 20th century. The construction of the church and subsequent school is a very familiar story of immigrants building Catholic parishes in their respective neighborhoods as both a religious and social center for themselves. They were more than social and religious centers too. They were also places where these immigrants could adjust to social, individual, and communal values that facilitated upward mobility. And a big part of that upward mobility was becoming more “American” while still retaining their cultural heritage.
Our Lady of Pompeii Church was established in 1910 and would serve as an enclave for Italian immigrants in Chicago as only the second Italian parish in the neighborhood. The community was growing rapidly and was in need for another parochial facility to serve and administer to the growing immigrant and migrant community. It was in 1910 that Father Pacifico Chenuil, then Pastor of Guardian Angel Church (which was the first Italian parish in the area) arrived at the decision to proceed with the establishment of a new parish farther west at Lexington St. and Lytle St. to serve the Italian community. This church is just one example of the important role the Catholic Church played in the new immigrant communities in urban centers such as Chicago as it served its community in various different ways and was a vehicle in its immigrant population’s pursuit of upward mobility.
Our Lady of Pompeii has served its community with Catholic schooling, sodalities and other social organizations, as well as “life-planning” groups and seminars for people. In short, it has served its Near West Side community in many viable ways aside from religion (although, obviously, that is its main function). In 1966, Our Lady of Pompeii partnered with the Near West Side Community to have a “Family Life Lecture Series” which was basically in direct opposition to the International Family Planning Movement which promoted the use and implementation of birth control. The Catholic Church argued that there is no need to limit population growth and that there is no such thing as “excessive fertility” as the IFPM stated and encouraged husbands and wives to seek help from the Church when planning on having a family. Perhaps the most focal point of opposition between the IFPM and the Catholic Church was that of the use of contraceptives. Many lay-people during the mid-20th century were secretly using birth control but the stance of the Church was and always has been that it opposes the use of birth control. So in order to teach its Italian-American residents of the Near West Side how proper Catholics should conduct themselves and their families, Our Lady of Pompeii held this lecture series.
Before the International Family Planning movement really took hold, the issue of family planning wasn’t as substantial for the immigrant church as was the solidarity between people and the hopes of upward mobility for its ethnic members. As previously stated, Our Lady of Pompeii housed a Catholic school as well. In 1967 parochial schools made up 30% of Chicago’s elementary school enrollment. This can be attributed to the immigrant church’s (at this point, second and third generation) high regard for Catholic schooling. And even though Italian-Catholics favored public schools more so than their German, Irish, and Polish counterparts, there were still parishes that encouraged Catholic schooling in the Italian-American community as we can see with Our Lady of Pompeii. Between 1925 and 1965 enrollment in Catholic elementary schooling doubled. This can be largely attributed to different ethnic groups moving up from working-class to the middle-class, so there was less of a need to “assimilate” by sending their children to public schools and they could now explore their families’ heritages. This is exemplified by the Italian-Americans living in the Near West Side who had achieved upward mobility and were now free to send their children to parochial schools. Along with this upward mobility of ethnic groups, Catholicism in America had finally entered the foray of politics and the forefront of culture in the early 20th century and by the mid-20th century it had become just as formidable a player in culture as Protestantism; Catholics even had their own newspapers for the Archdioceses of particular cities among a plethora of other programs and publications.
Our Lady of Pompeii also housed different sodalities for its members for cultural engagement and also just for socializing activities. The Holy Name Society was a group for women, and is just one example of groups at Our Lady of Pompeii that sought to bring together people from the neighborhood in a social setting. This promoted the well-being of all its members as well as helping all of the Italian immigrants and later Italian-Americans feel an extremely strong sense of community with one another. Many of these programs were directed toward young people and drew parallels to the Catholic Youth Organization that attracted young people through sports and other physical activities. This was a way to keep young people out of trouble but also to make their heritage (which was mainly being of Italian-descent and Catholic in our example of the Near West Side) more attractive. After the 1960’s the city rapidly began to change as industries left at an alarming rate and many “white” ethnic groups fled to the suburbs. And also the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1965 deeply fractured the Near West Side community. However, Our Lady of Pompeii is still standing, and the portion of Italian-Americans that still call the Near West Side home still use it as an enclave for religion, schooling, and socializing and it stands as a symbol of their collective Italian-Catholic heritage.
Peter Donaldson, “American Catholicism and the International Family Planning Movement,” Population Studies Vol. 42, No. 3 (Nov., 1988), pp. 367-373.