Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954

Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954

by Timothy B. Neary

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Controversy erupted in spring 2001 when Chicago’s mostly white Southside Catholic Conference youth sports league rejected the application of the predominantly black St. Sabina grade school. Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, interracialism seemed stubbornly unattainable, and the national spotlight once again turned to the history of racial conflict in Catholic parishes. It’s widely understood that midcentury, working class, white ethnic Catholics were among the most virulent racists, but, as Crossing Parish Boundaries shows, that’s not the whole story.
            In this book, Timothy B. Neary reveals the history of Bishop Bernard Sheil’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), which brought together thousands of young people of all races and religions from Chicago’s racially segregated neighborhoods to take part in sports and educational programming. Tens of thousands of boys and girls participated in basketball, track and field, and the most popular sport of all, boxing, which regularly filled Chicago Stadium with roaring crowds. The history of Bishop Sheil and the CYO shows a cosmopolitan version of American Catholicism, one that is usually overshadowed by accounts of white ethnic Catholics aggressively resisting the racial integration of their working-class neighborhoods. By telling the story of Catholic-sponsored interracial cooperation within Chicago, Crossing Parish Boundaries complicates our understanding of northern urban race relations in the mid-twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226388939
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/14/2016
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Timothy B. Neary is associate professor of history at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, and executive director of the Urban History Association.

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Minority within a Minority: African Americans Encounter Catholicism in the Urban North

If a black man is anything but a Baptist or Methodist, someone has been tampering with his religion.

— Booker T. Washington

In the late Friday afternoon of 3 January 1930, Mrs. C. Dickerson, a visiting nurse for Chicago's Department of Health, stepped out of the bitter cold into St. Elizabeth Catholic Church. Perhaps returning from work to her home in the 3800 block of South Calumet Avenue, the African American woman decided to say a few prayers. St. Elizabeth's Romanesque limestone building on the northeast corner of 41st Street and Wabash Avenue regularly offered visitors quiet refuge from the bustling streets of the surrounding Black Belt neighborhood. Upon entering, Dickerson was confronted with billowing smoke — the church was on fire! She quickly ran to the parish office and notified the pastor's secretary.

The secretary phoned authorities, and the Chicago fire department responded with trucks and scores of men. As the imposing structure burned, parishioners from the surrounding neighborhood arrived on the scene, including, according to one witness, "old colored women and children, [who] stood in the maze of hose lines, saying the rosary." In disbelief, they witnessed the swift destruction of their beloved church. Longtime African American parishioner Pete Adler pulled a life-size crucifix from the burning church as the fire department chaplain rescued vessels containing the Blessed Sacrament. "The devout Negroes [on the scene]," reported the Chicago Tribune, "broke into a hymn as the priest reappeared, opened his slicker and displayed the sacrament, which he had carried under the garment." Two hundred firemen — including Chicago's all-black Engine Company 21 — battled the consuming blaze in frigid weather, but for naught. The edifice collapsed after three hours of futile firefighting.

Just a few years earlier mostly Irish Americans lived in the parish, but now St. Elizabeth's nearly four thousand parishioners were almost all African Americans. On Sunday, two days after the fire, many "former [Irish American] parishioners came as in a pilgrimage to view the ruins of their old parish church." Both blacks and whites mourned the loss of their sacred space.

During the preceding generation, remarkable demographic changes had transformed St. Elizabeth parish. The large-scale migration of African Americans to Chicago's South Side from 1910 to 1930 dramatically altered the racial composition of the once Irish American parish. Although most African American migrants were Protestants, a significant minority like Dickerson were Roman Catholics. In the late nineteenth century, Chicago's black Catholics worshiped similarly to European immigrants. Like Poles, Italians, and Bohemians, who made up segregated "national" parishes, blacks gathered in their own separate church — St. Monica's at 36th and Dearborn streets. Chicago's black parish — like other national parishes that claimed pastors of their own ethnicity — boasted an African American pastor for a time in the 1890s.

However, as the great influx of African Americans arrived from the South around World War I, archdiocesan officials abandoned the national parish model for a missionary approach. Irish American St. Elizabeth took over the "mission" of nearby St. Monica's, and a religious order of white priests trained to work in Africa and Asia assumed control. White religious sisters committed to serving African Americans in the United States operated the parish school. St. Elizabeth's numbers swelled in the 1920s thanks to the arrival of black Catholic migrants and a large number of conversions. As Chicago's African American population grew, more and more residents moved to neighborhoods farther south and west, leaving those parishes adjacent to St. Elizabeth's with few white inhabitants. In the early 1930s, Cardinal George Mundelein turned over two more South Side parishes — Corpus Christi and St. Anselm — to religious orders to run as missions for African Americans.

On the eve of World War II, more than ten thousand Catholics belonged to the three black parishes. Each parish ran its own grade school, while St. Elizabeth and Corpus Christi (after 1944) operated coeducational high schools. Although they began as missionary parish spin-offs, the African American churches flourished during the decade of the Great Depression. Like their Euro-American counterparts, they worked to meet the spiritual, educational, and social needs of their neighborhoods, and though racially segregated, they functioned like other Catholic communities throughout the city. They offered the sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, Confirmation, and Marriage. They comforted the sick and buried the dead. Their parishioners filled large church buildings on Sundays to receive the Eucharist and attended parochial schools during the week. Like Euro-American immigrants before them, a significant number of African American migrants used urban Catholicism's resources to create a home for themselves. More specifically, between World War I and World War II, St. Elizabeth, Corpus Christi, and St. Anselm became the home of black Catholicism in Chicago. In time, they also served as the nucleus of African American participation in the CYO.

From National Parish to Mission Field: Jim Crow Comes to Catholic Chicago

By one account, Chicago's first African American Catholics were James and Eliza Armstrong, who arrived to the city with their daughter Rosa during the Civil War. By the early 1880s, a small number of African American Catholics were worshipping in the basement of Old St. Mary's, an Irish American church at 9th Street and Wabash Avenue, just south of downtown. When the St. Augustine Society held a bazaar in 1882 to raise money for a place of worship that African Americans could call their own, an Irish American woman, Annie O'Neill, donated the substantial sum of $10,000 to begin construction on a church at 36th and Dearborn streets. In addition, Archbishop Patrick Feehan donated another $1,000 to the cause. Chicago's nascent black Catholic community had formed a distinct parish community by 1885. In 1889, the parish hired an African American contractor to construct a church building. Five years later, a Franciscan priest dedicated the still unfinished gray stone church to St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine, the North African bishop of Hippo.

St. Monica's was distinctive for having as its pastor Augustus Tolton, the nation's first recognized African American priest. Earlier in the nineteenth century, three Healy brothers — the sons of an Irish American slaveholder and mulatto mother — were prominent Catholic clergymen, but their light skin allowed them to pass for white. Tolton, on the other hand, faced overt racism his entire life. Born in 1854 to Roman Catholic slaves in Brush Creek, Missouri, he grew up with his mother and two siblings as a free black and a Catholic in Quincy, Illinois. His mother and a German American priest supported his vocation to the priesthood. When Catholic seminaries throughout the United States refused to accept him, he journeyed to Rome and studied at the Sacred College of the Propaganda, where he was ordained in 1886. Tolton requested a transfer from his home diocese of Quincy after encountering racial hostility from white Catholics (including fellow clergymen). In 1889, Archbishop Feehan appointed the young African American priest to organize and lead the black Catholics of Chicago.

Tolton fulfilled the traditional roles of an ethnic national pastor. African American Catholics looked up with great pride to this dynamic leader from their own race. As the only black parish priest in the United States, Tolton attracted attention far beyond the South Side. He supplemented regular Sunday collections through outside speaking engagements because his parishioners were small in number (thirty-five families) and of modest means. No geographical boundaries defined the parish, since St. Monica's served blacks throughout Chicago. With its charismatic pastor and racially defined parishioners, St. Monica's fit the primary characteristics of a national parish. Unfortunately, the small but growing faith community took a heavy blow on 9 July 1897.

On that midsummer day, Tolton died of heatstroke at the young age of forty-three. Suddenly, the leader of black Catholics in the United States and ethnic pastor of St. Monica's national parish was gone. Without any other black clergy, nearby St. Elizabeth Church assumed administrative control of St. Monica's. Priests from St. Elizabeth offered Mass, but activity in the church diminished, and attendance by black Catholics declined. Finally, eleven years after Tolton's death, St. Monica's received its own pastor, Rev. John Morris, a white Chicago archdiocesan priest previously stationed at St. Catherine of Siena Church on the West Side. Morris's leadership improved conditions at the neglected parish, and, by 1910, nearly six hundred families worshipped at St. Monica's.

In 1912, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, anticipating the first great migration of African Americans, began addressing the educational needs of black children on the South Side. Katharine Drexel founded this order of white nuns in 1889 to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of American Indians and African Americans. In September 1913, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament opened a school in the former horse stables of the 8th Regiment Armory at 37th Street and Wabash Avenue. By 1915, the school boasted an enrollment of 198 pupils, with 7 nuns and one lay African American teaching.

Before the mass migrations of World War I, when relatively few African Americans lived in Chicago, the primarily Irish American leadership of the archdiocese anticipated a favorable future for black Catholics, one that included integration into mainstream society. A buoyant article in the archdiocesan newspaper, the New World, called for white Catholics to take part in the process of assimilating African American migrants to the urban North: "To those who would like to see Africans in the process of becoming right living American citizens through the amalgamating agency of the Catholic Church, let them attend Mass at St. Monica's Church ... and visit St. Monica's School. Such visitors cannot but be impressed with the fact that in its Christian interpretation the word 'brother' cannot be limited by race or color." Ironically, these "Africans" were already American citizens with ancestors in the United States long before the arrival of most European Catholics. Despite their condescension, church leaders in 1913 saw great potential for the integration of Chicago's small African American population into Catholicism.

With the outbreak of World War I, however, thousands of African Americans began arriving weekly to work in industry. Over the next five years, this migration brought tens of thousands of African Americans to the Midwest's industrial center. The massive influx of blacks prompted white Chicagoans to label their presence the "Negro problem." Likewise, the archdiocese of Chicago confronted its own difficulties brought on by the arrival of large numbers of African Americans. A 1917 New World article announced, "The whole city is obliged to take a hand in the solving of a problem that belongs to the whole city." Despite the "Negro problem," church leadership confidently predicted African American migrants from the South would embrace Catholicism: "The number of conversions will be swelled considerably when the means are provided for spreading the effective work of St. Monica's."

During the migration, Rev. George Mundelein of New York became Chicago's third archbishop. Mundelein, a political ally of fellow New Yorker Franklin Roosevelt, fostered lofty aspirations for the American Catholic Church. His "Americanization plan" called for breaking up the national parish system in favor of territorial parishes. Geographic boundaries, not ethnicity, would define parish life. Mundelein disliked national parishes for two reasons. First, their insularity and homogeneity isolated them from the larger culture, thereby adding credence to the charge that Catholics held foreign allegiances and were unpatriotic. Second, ethnic pastors, often from religious orders, held the locus of power at the parish level, denying Mundelein strong influence over Chicago's Catholics.

Mundelein also felt pressured by the dramatic demographic changes in his archdiocese resulting from African American migration. The small, segregated Black Belt centered around 35th and State streets could no longer contain the growing number of African Americans. Many white Chicagoans feared the burgeoning black population would spill over into other parts of the city. Rev. James Callaghan, pastor of St. Malachy's in the 2200 block of West Washington Boulevard, for example, expressed his opposition to the archbishop about changing the parish into a black church in order to augment overburdened St. Monica's. The pastor argued that turning his parish over to African Americans was impractical, because of its large size and the scarcity of black Catholics in the area. "I don't know how many Colored Catholics may be on the west side," wrote Father Callaghan, "but there are [only] five or six in this parish." Mundelein chose not to transform St. Malachy's into a black parish at that time. Rather, five months later, he announced a policy that resulted in the effective segregation of Chicago's African American Catholics into one parish.

In October 1917, Archbishop Mundelein sought the assistance of Rev. Adolph Burgmer, provincial director of the Society of the Divine Word. Founded in Germany during the 1870s, the Society of the Divine Word missionaries were a religious order of men dedicated to spreading Catholicism to non-Christian populations, especially in Africa and Asia. Their North American headquarters were located in Techny, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Mundelein revealed to Burgmer his plan to change how the archdiocese ministered to African Americans by transferring St. Monica's pastor, Father Morris, to another parish and assigning "the Mission of St. Monica" to the care of the Society of the Divine Word.

In addition to changing the leadership of St. Monica's, Mundelein forbade whites from attending services and receiving the sacraments at the parish:

I desire St. Monica's to be reserved entirely for the colored Catholics of Chicago and particularly of the South Side; all other Catholics of whatsoever race or color are to be requested not to intrude. It is, of course, understood that I have no intention of excluding colored Catholics from any of the other churches in the diocese, and particularly if they live in another part of the city, but simply of excluding from St. Monica's all but the colored Catholics.

In reality, white churches in Chicago, whether Catholic or Protestant, did not usually welcome African Americans. The Chicago Defender addressed regular occurrences of Sunday morning discrimination in its pages. In one political cartoon, a white minister, presiding over an all-white congregation, says, "Sexton, will you ask that colored gentleman in the back seat what he wants here." The congregants turn and look menacingly at the African American visitor, who is then forced to leave. The Defender asked, "Since all of us serve the same God, why is it that a black face is unwelcome in a church conducted by whites, and a man is forced to go miles out of his way to find a place to worship?"

Mundelein justified his policy to Burgmer in three ways. First, two churches near St. Monica's provided white Catholics with the services that they needed. Second, the small church was increasingly overcrowded. Finally, because of the work of Society of the Divine Word and Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament missionaries, the growing black Catholic population no longer needed as much outside support from white Catholics in the archdiocese. The prelate went on to note that African American men "are nearly all at work and obtaining a much more adequate wage or salary." He stated that black Catholics were now in a position to support their own church and school. "Scattering" African Americans in parishes across the city, the archbishop argued, was not in their best interest.

Mundelein placed the ultimate financial responsibility on the shoulders of Chicago's African American Catholics themselves. He wrote that it was their responsibility to make sacrifices, like other Catholics, in order to pay off the parish debt and build up the school. "If they do, — if we see good will, their ready response, their generous cooperation, then this will simply be the beginning of what we are prepared to establish for our Colored Catholics," he told Burgmer. "Should they fail, I would be disappointed and sadly mistaken in my judgment of them, and a parish for them would die like a poorly nourished infant. But when I consider their many good qualities, their peaceful family life, their love for their children, their strong religious spirit, I fail to see how they can fail."


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Table of Contents

Introduction. “Building Men, Not Just Fighters”
1. Minority within a Minority: African Americans Encounter Catholicism in the Urban North
2. “We Had Standing”: Black and Catholic in Bronzeville
3. For God and Country: Bishop Sheil and the CYO
4. African American Participation in the CYO
5. The Fight Outside the Ring: Antiracism in the CYO
6. “Ahead of His Time”: The Legacy of Bishop Sheil and the Unfulfilled Promise of Catholic Interracialism

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