Lessons from Chicago's Ethnic Parishes

By Mary Frances Porod
March 10, 2017

In a Polish Parish in the Little Village neighborhood, I began my life as a Catholic in the late 1950s.  The parish had a school staffed by the Felician Sisters, who staffed several schools on the southwest side of Chicago.  I was only half Polish, but that half was nurtured and educated in the customs and traditions of American Polish culture.  The 100% Polish families did a full Wigilia on Christmas Eve, and if you didn’t fully participate in the customs, you knew that there was straw under the table to signify the manger. And it wasn’t weird.  Sister made sure that all the children knew how to sing “Dzisiaj w Betlejem” and” Lulajze Jezuniu” – staples of the Polish Christmas Carols.

The priests all knew your names, as did the Sisters, since a mid-size family of four children meant the Sisters would be calling roll with your family name for the next several years.  Dad was an usher and a member of the Holy Name Society, and Mom volunteered for the carnival, was in the Mother’s Club, and played cards with a few of the other ladies of the parish.  Stay-at-home moms were the norm, and only those few children who had working moms or who lived 10 blocks away from the school were allowed to stay at school for lunch.  The rest of us walked home.  The roll call at the school was a who’s who of Southern Polish names, ending in “ski” or “zyk” or “cz”.  The Sisters had no difficulty pronouncing my last name, and I assumed that the whole world was Polish, or at least part Polish.

The pastor was Polish and stayed at the church until he died. Then the associate pastor took over.  And he stayed until he died. Parish priests didn’t come and go on a six-twelve year cycle.  We only went to mass at our home parish.  Your parents were friends with other parents from the church families, and these families formed the core of their social group.  The parish was the center of family life. Most of the children attended the Parish School. Many moms didn’t drive, so the neighborhood was full of seemingly close knit families, coming and going to the parish roller skating parties and parish carnivals.  The parish provided activities which brought people together.  Because everyone’s worlds were much smaller, there wasn’t a huge need to travel out of the parish community.

Parishes in Chicago were built seemingly on top of each other, mostly out of desire to worship with one’s own ethnic group.  It was a safe haven, where the individual cultures of the European immigrants were most easily understood.  People were not judged or criticized for what they ate, wore, or how they celebrated, because everyone else in the community did the same.  The unifying feature of these parishes was their place as a safe haven - to borrow from the “Cheers*” theme song, “Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…your troubles are all the same…”  This sense of belonging and security still exists in some parishes.  For example, Immaculate Conception Parish on South California Avenue still has a Lithuanian Mass, even though the majority of parishioners are Spanish speaking.  There is a group that comes to this mass from all over the Chicago area, to participate in mass in their native language, and to celebrate fellowship.  Many of these people were involved in the building of the new(er) church on the property, and proudly claim ownership within the parish.  They know that the neighborhood has changed, and the ethnicity of the parish has shifted, but to them it will always remain their parish. They are happy to share the heritage of the parish.  Their 100th anniversary mass was tri-lingual, with representatives from the Lithuanian and Mexican communities.

My old parish in Little Village is thriving as a Latino parish.  The school has been closed for many years but is rented by the Chicago Public Schools.  This income has helped with much needed building repairs and updates.  The old convent is used as a Parish Pastoral Center.  The rectory has been upgraded.  These buildings have gained a new life and purpose in supporting the religiosity of the surrounding community. The change in ethnicity was not a death knell for this parish, but a chance to be reborn.  The common characteristics of the ethnic parish remain the same.  The community has been welcoming, even throughout the transition times.

My parents would join their Latino neighbors after mass for breakfasts of posole and menudo.  I can still hear the men challenging my father to eat a whole jalapeno, which he did.  With tears streaming down his face, my Polish dad would be laughing with men he came to call his “Mexican brothers.”  The Anglo and Latino populations of this parish came together in mutual respect.  This led to the same characteristics mentioned earlier: safety, lack of judgement, and community.  Embracing new cultures and finding commonalities were the keys to the successful transition of this parish from an Eastern European ethnic parish to a Mexican ethnic parish.

My current parish has no real ethnic identifiers.  People join and are reluctant to move away.  This parish has always had a reputation as a welcoming parish.  In its earlier days, it might have been identified as either an Irish or Italian Parish.  As the parish, has become more diverse, it has retained its welcoming personality. The current pastor and his associate make a special point of inviting the congregation to participate in all of the various church activities. Parishioners linger after mass to chat.  Networking occurs.  People can comfortably ask for prayers.  The priests are accessible.  It is a no judgement zone, and people feel secure in being valued by the community. In addition, an activity is not deemed as successful by the numbers in attendance.  It is seen as a success based on Christ’s words, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”(Mt 18:20)

So what can we learn from the old ethnic parish model?  Inclusivity, welcome, and the importance of a common culture were innate to ethnic Parish communities.  How do we make these characteristics apply to Catholic parishes today?  Parishes cannot operate under the “If you build it, [they] will come,” Field of Dreams** mentality.  The world has expanded exponentially in terms of accessibility.  Families now have two working parents.  Children have activities that consume most of their free time.  For many younger families, sports have replaced religion as the social “watering hole” where parents find other like-minded parents with which to communicate.   (Prayer happens only when the opposing team gets too close to scoring the requisite winning points!)

Parishes need to tap into this shared experience mentality. What does the Parish offer that the community cannot get elsewhere?  The obvious answer is the experience of communion with the reception of the Eucharist.  And for die-hard Catholics, this is enough to bring them to the mass week after week.  But what is the experience of community, of welcoming, of safety and security when walking through the doors of the church?  And how do you get people into the church to experience it if it’s already there?

We have lost some of the reflection that was part of the earlier church, the sense of awe and reverence, and the spirituality of being in stillness with the Lord.  How do we get back to this?  How does it become desirable?

Chicago parishes have changed significantly, with some trying to maintain their ethnic heritage.  If this is done in such a way as to welcome the incoming ethnic groups, the parish can remain strong and successful.  But each parish is also at the mercy of the demographics and the “per capita” of its constituency.  At the end of the day, a church has to maintain fiscal health.  If parishioners see clear to support the church in order to maintain the community and ergo, the experiences they cannot get elsewhere, the church should be on solid ground.  If the church is administering to an impoverished population, but can still prove that it is providing exclusive experiences to its parishioners, it is incumbent upon the healthier churches to assist these parishes.  This was unheard of in the days of the ethnic churches.  These churches were supported by the members of the community who all belonged to the church.  The parish was an autonomous community.

Fast forward 50 years and this is no longer the reality of the modern parish, at least not in the city of Chicago.  And yet, there are strong, sustainable parishes that are committed to serving their communities of faith with a zeal and fortitude reminiscent of those earlier churches.  And so the church continues to evolve.  Some of the ethnic communities have been replaced by diverse communities of faithful.  New ethnic groups have claimed other parishes and established communities in which their culture is respected and honored.  Autonomy is no longer a word that applies to parishes since we are all part of the one true Church, and to be autonomous belies the world view that is intrinsic to the acceptance of this idea.

How should Catholics today relate to their own religious heritage in terms of parish ethnicity? Is it more about finding a “comfort zone”?  As any practicing Catholic knows, it is not only what one “gets” from the church.  As stated in the Prayer of St. Francis, “It is in giving that we receive.” What we bring to the church is going to affect what we get from the church experience.  If we bring our sorrows, we may hear a passage from Scripture that speaks to our heart, comforting us.  If we bring our joys, they will be magnified.  If we bring our hands, we may be given opportunities to do God’s work in unexpected circumstances.  If we are open to the gifts of other cultures and ethnicities, we may find our lives enriched in ways we’ve never imagined.  Likewise, we have gifts to share, be they cultural, spiritual, or tangible, and we need to be willing to share these within the context of promoting the message of the kingdom of God.   At the end of the day, it’s how we, the people of the church, treat each other, welcome each other, and stand by each other in the sense of community within the greater context of God’s love.  A parish that can facilitate that is looking back to the lessons of the ethnic church, and forward to the church of the future.