Chicago has over three hundred Catholic parishes, many of which were founded by various ethnicities and nationalities from across the world. These churches united immigrants in a new homeland. For example, the great Polish cathedrals gave voice to working-class Poles and allowed them to build structures that reflected the dreams they and their descendants would strive for, while Bohemian churches helped unite a scattered people in a single location. These parishes served as community centers and expressions of a single people. However, as times and fortunes changed, many of these immigrant groups left the neighborhoods they had settled in, and in doing so left their parishes. Some immigrants never left their neighborhoods, but instead saw the arrival of new and different peoples who challenged their control of the area. Throughout these demographic changes, the churches remained, and though a few fell into disrepair and abandonment, most were embraced by a new community. For the people doing the embracing, it can seem a bit challenging to confront the legacy of a parish’s history and the ghosts of a long-gone community. However, embracing those who have come before you is a part of the Catholic experience. Practices that seem unique to one ethnicity can be picked up by another without pause, especially in regard to devotion.
In July, Chicago’s Brighton Park will hosts a procession of the faithful celebrating the feast day of St. Anne. The novena to St. Anne offered by Our Lady of Fatima Parish celebrates the Mother of Mary for nine days of prayer, culminating in a march through the streets of the community. Under the leadership of Father Néstor Saenz, the pastor of the church since 2005, the novena has continually drawn a significant crowd. The parishioners today are largely Hispanic, and Father Saenz has promoted devotion to Anne alongside traditional Mexican Catholic devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, saying that “Our Lady of Guadalupe is the mother of everyone but St. Anne is our grandmother!” However, while Fr. Saenz has carried the banners of St. Anne forward for this community, the celebration of Anne in Brighton Park long predates his arrival to the parish. This July will mark the 117th novena, which have continued uninterrupted since 1900, when the parish was known as St. Joseph’s and the novena to Anne was brought to Chicago by French-Canadian immigrants. Although the Brighton Park church has long been void of any French-speaking Catholics, the practices that began over a century ago by these founding church members continue. At Our Lady of Fatima today, a practice with distinct French-Canadian origins is carried out by Hispanics who ensure its survival, and that the prayers and intentions of the parish’s founding community remain in continued memory.
Brining Anne to Chicago
A few miles north of Quebec City, situated on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré has been a site of pilgrimage for generations of French-Canadian Catholics. Few sites are as important for Catholicism in Quebec. Beginning in 1658 with the erection of a small chapel dedicated to St. Anne, and the curing of a builder’s rheumatism, Beaupré has been a site of healing for generations. However, during the latter nineteenth century, many French-Canadians were compelled by economic promise and necessity to leave Quebec for the U.S. Many came to the Northeast and to New England. A good number – though significantly fewer – went to the urban Midwest.
Somewhere around 6,000 foreign born French-Canadians lived in Chicago in 1900, not counting native-born children. These immigrants, after suffering under Protestant British rule, held on tightly to their language and to their faith, and sought both in their own parishes. It is not surprising that devotion to Saint Anne would find expression amongst the French-Canadians of Chicago, and in the fall of 1889 the new parish of St. Joseph’s would give this devotion a home. Father Cyril Poissant became the new pastor in 1900 and brought his own personal commitment to the Mother of Mary to the parish, along with a small relic of the saint that he had gained in Quebec. Establishing the first shrine to Anne in the city of Chicago, Poissant led the parish’s first novena in July 1900.
The popularity of the shrine quickly expanded as French-Canadians from around the city flocked to the church in Brighton Park to worship one of their most influential saints. Brighton Park took on much the same meaning (and often times the very healing spirit) that was found in Beaupré. The church soon received a larger relic – the largest in North America outside of Quebec – and within a matter of years changed its name to become the parish of St. Joseph and St. Anne, reflecting their new patroness. The draw of the parish’s physical connection to St. Anne brought thousands from beyond those French-Americans who normally worshiped at the parish. By the parish’s own account, “people of various nationalities and races attended, but of particular note were the great number of Polish people.” The Poles were such frequent attendees that they were afforded their own novena in later years. Thousands attended the novena at St. Joseph and St. Anne from 1900 onward, pouring in from across the country to visit the shrine, often hoping for a cure to their ailments or to a loved one’s sickness, much as they did in Beaupré. In 1913, thousands attended the novena, and in a theme common throughout the years, many reports of invalids coming to walk or the ill being miraculously cured circulated throughout the attendees. Both in Quebec and in Chicago, crutches were hung in the church, left behind by the cured.
The church and its novena had distinct French origins, but the French-Canadians who founded the parish numbered only a few thousand in the entire city, against tens of thousands of Irish, Poles, Germans, and Italians. Devotion to Anne kept St. Joseph & St. Anne a vibrant French-Canadian parish, but change came inevitably to Brighton Park. The old French societies that had once met in the parish hall faded away, and the novenas increasingly were dominated by other nationalities. French disappeared from the pulpit, and the pews were filled with Irish and Germans. By 1950, the arrival of Father Lawrence Fitzpatrick signaled a definitive change in ethnicity. Writing their centennial history in 1989, the parish recollected that “The French character of the parish remained strong until the end of the Depression” but quickly changed before the Second World War. Through all this change, the novenas to Anne remained, even if the Canadians did not.
In the 1940s, homes along the novena procession route were decorated with personal shrines illuminated by candlelight. At the 50th novena in 1950, the Chicago Tribune remarked that 15,000 typically attended the processions. In the 1960s and early 70s, attendance decreased at the novenas, but began to rebound in the latter 70s. After celebrating the church’s centenary in 1989, the parish was consolidated with the parish of St. Agnes to form the new community of Our Lady of Fatima – Shrine of St. Anne. With a new Hispanic base, the church reoriented itself to better serve its community. In 2002, Father Marco Cardenas, CMF became the administrator of the parish and continued the novenas, and the novenas have been practiced annually under Fr. Saenz since he became pastor in 2005.
Looking at Our Lady of Fatima, the novenas to St. Anne serve both as a very real way for the faithful to express their hopes and seek intervention, and as a way to utilize the ethnic church in a practical way. Granted, it would not have been surprising for the parish to have stopped the novenas; many such practices meet their end eventually. However, each subsequent generation that arrived at the church (whether calling it St. Joseph and St. Anne’s or Our Lady of Fatima) embraced the novena and embraced St. Anne, a saint that may have previously been of no significance to the new parishioners. Embracing Anne and the novena has allowed the parish to reflect an original element of its founders’ faith, and allowed Anne to maintain her ministry within the parish. For other churches within Chicago and elsewhere in the United States, coming to terms with the ethnic past provides a great opportunity to strengthen one’s faith. Though it may seem odd to take up the candlelight procession of a different ethnicity or the prayer of a foreign community, by doing so we tap into a rich tapestry of souls who have come before us and keep their intentions preserved. Though the French-Canadians who built St. Joseph’s have long since passed, they live on through the parish and its parishioners. When Fr. Saenz leads his community onto the streets of Brighton Park this month, the French will march with him.