ST NICHOLAS UKRAINIAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

By Samantha Weigt, Robert Harshbarger, Patricia Kelley, and Karla Witt

   

St. Nicholas Parish was established in 1905 as a Greek-Catholic church located on 3721 W 62nd Street in Chicago and was Chicago’s first Greek-Catholic parish. Today, St. Nicholas is a church located at the center of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. St. Nicholas Parish has much history that ties into two of the major themes taught in U.S. Catholic history: the immigrant Church, and the American Church.

The first wave of Ukrainian immigration to the United States began in the 1880s and lasted until World War I. In 1887, Henry F. Bowers had founded the American Protective Association in order to safeguard Protestants and their values from the Catholic Church. He viewed Catholics as slaves to the Church and did not want to see his fellow Protestants get dragged down. Submission to the Church is a fearful idea for Protestants who reject the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and see it as a foreign government controlling American citizens.

The Americanism Crisis, a period when Catholics began feeling a loss of identity and were slowly conforming to mainstream American culture began around this time. The three major factors of the crisis was the feared lingering ethnic identification among Catholics, embarrassment that Rome was not adjusting to modern life and a resurgence of nativism sentiment. Catholics were more likely, and often still do, strongly identify with their country of origin. This coupled with the nativism of Protestants could be a dangerous mix. Such polarizing sentiments can create animosity and can be seen in the early gang wars of the time.  Protestants also detested the idea that the Church was not modernizing and accepting advancements in science.

Before St. Nicholas Parish was built other immigrant groups had been arriving in America for nearly four centuries when the Ukrainian immigration had a significant increase. The immigrants coming to the United States shifted from Western Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe. Catholic Orthodoxy is prominent in these areas and immigrants brought their form of Catholicism to the United States. The main difference between these earlier Catholics and the Ukrainian Catholics was the use of Ukrainian and the Old Slavonic used for the celebration of Mass and other services.

The earliest document is a picture of the St. Nicholas Parish’s Providence Fraternal Insurance Organization. There are a total of 64 people in this picture, including the pastor and children. This picture was taken in 1949, at the time of the American Church phase. The forerunners to youth groups, sodalities were ways for the laity to organize social events and bring the community together. At the time of the Cold War, Catholics often identified themselves by parish and sodality. Most importantly to the sources found was Cold War Catholicism. The Catholic Church was becoming more involved in politics and asserting their identity as Americans. Catholics took a staunch stance against communism. Both laity and priests actively spoke out against communism during the Cold War.

The next three documents were written early on in 1960. The second earliest is a letter written on March 1 that was sent to John Duzansky from Reverend Nestor Fecica. During this time, preparations were being made for the Second Vatican Council and there was a hopeful buzz in the air about changes to Church doctrine for a more liberal Catholic Church. Duzansky was the President of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School Building Committee and Fecica was a Reverend of St. Nicholas Parish. Fecica discusses educating the students to be proud that they are American citizens, to love the United States, and to pledge allegiance to the flag daily. These patriotic ideals are the basis of the concept of an American Church. In the letter, Fecica discusses how refreshed he is to see new schools dedicated to religious ideals in “turbulent days of religious and patriotic decline.” With the latter statement Fecica is referring to the growth in conservative Protestantism in the United States and increased liberalism among Catholic laity. Fecica also writes that the students of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School are to be taught to take pride in being Catholics. Conservative Catholics would support this letter and stand by Fecica’s statements. However, nativist Protestants would severely disagree because Fecica is talking about Protestants as if they are unpatriotic. He feels Christ would look down on them and favor the Catholic Church. They would protest that Fecica’s way of thinking is flawed and that Protestantism is more patriotic and moral than Catholics have ever been in United States history.

Chronologically, the next document was a letter written on March 3 addressed from Mayor Richard J. Daley to Reverend Michael Wawryk, Pastor of St. Nicholas Parish. This letter is written before a religious concert in honor of Cardinal Albert Gregory Meyer because the Cardinal is going to bless a memorial plaque for the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School.  Daley explains to Reverend Wawryk “the placing and the blessing of the memorial plaque is an occasion of significance to all Chicagoans…” He also describes the dedication as a symbol of reverence for “our great community for religion and the value placed upon education.” It is obvious to the reader that the mayor is a Catholic, even without previous knowledge. One could interpret the mayor’s words about the ceremony being that Daley holds a great amount of Catholic pride and believes that this blessing occurring at one church is truly a blessing for everybody in the city of Chicago. Some Protestants may be able to recognize and respect the tradition of a memorial plaque as an honor.  There are many at this critical time that would claim it is not an honor for the entire community, and that Protestants should be a proud part of Chicago’s community, not just Catholics.

The final document is the program for the religious concert in honor of Cardinal Albert Gregory Meyer’s visit and memorial plaque dedication.  This is the plaque Mayor Richard J. Daley previously discussed in his letter to Reverend Michael Wawryk. This program is simply a schedule for the sequence of events that would take place for the concert to welcome and thank Cardinal Meyer for his presence. There is no blatant personal or explicit political opinion in the program but it does show that St. Nicholas Parish was a thriving community. It is a huge honor for a parish to have Cardinal, an elite individual in the Catholic Church, to visit a parish.  The Archbishop of the Diocese of Chicago was also present at St. Nicholas Parish to attending the ceremony to bless the memorial plaque. The concert had various musical sets that St. Nicholas parishioners performed, an appearance by Mayor Richard J. Daley, and concluded with prayer as in audience.

The 1950s and 1960s was a critical time in American Catholic history and for St. Nicholas Church. St. Nicholas Parish endured with the Cold War in full swing, the substantial growth in Protestantism, and the end of the American Church. These are some of the difficulties American Catholics were beginning to face but continued to prosper as a Catholic Chicago community. These documents all symbolize the assertiveness that the Catholic Church so desperately needed at this point in time. From the simple picture demonstrating successful devotional culture to the religious concert for Cardinal Albert Gregory Meyer, St. Nicholas is a parish that has brought prestige to the Catholic community of Chicago.

Further Reading

Hyrcak, Alexandra, “Ukrainians.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. (2004)

Nagurney, Michael J. “The Reaching of Ukrainian in the United States.” American Slavic and East European Review. 4 (1945): 186-194.