I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with some Polish immigrants. We were talking about parishes and I am sure they don’t know the history of national parishes here in Chicago. Maybe you’ve never heard of a “national parish” either. I’m old enough to remember some of this history, and I thought I’d share some of it with you. Maybe you never heard of a “national parish.”
When I was a deacon I was assigned to St. David parish in Bridgeport. It was one of 14 parishes in two square miles. What? Why so many? I remember that two of them were on the same block. You could probably have thrown a stone from one and hit the other. My goodness.
This practice traces back to the church in Chicago trying to help recent Catholic immigrants. Often enough in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Catholics were not welcome in Chicago. They were discriminated against simply because they were Catholic. When they arrived, they brought their clergy and religious women with them. Or, maybe they sent home and asked for some German or Polish or Slovak, or Irish, or Croatian (or whatever other nationality) priests and sisters to come and help. And they came and helped.
These new immigrants built schools (first), then churches and convents and rectories. They were for the exclusive use of their fellow countrymen (Poles, Germans, Irish, Slovak, etc.), and other nationalities were not welcome. I remember a story from Pat Malinowski, a woman I met in South Chicago. She had married Leroy Malinowski, and his family were lifelong parishioners at Immaculate Conception. His mother was the housekeeper. She wanted to put her children in the school, and the pastor told her she couldn’t. She was descended from French Canadians and wasn’t Polish. However she argued with the padre, and she won! Those Canadians can be tough. But still, the general idea was that one nationality wouldn’t go to another nationalities’ parish. After all, the Irish built and paid for the church and all the rest. Why should the Slovaks go the Irish parish? And a lot of the building was fueled by national pride. “Look at what the Germans built, can’t we Croatians do better?”
We have one of these parishes still functioning in Chicago. St. Francis of Assisi on Roosevelt is a Mexican national parish. What that means is that they serve Mexican immigrants and their children. They are not supposed to offer services in English, or to do outreach to their neighborhood. And they don’t. Their mission is limited to the Mexican immigrants and their children.
In a sense, this parish is not “catholic,” if you take “catholic” to mean that everyone is welcome. In a national parish, by definition, everyone is not welcome. In a different world, these national parishes would have been officially turned into catholic parishes after a couple of generations, but they weren’t. For example, St. Paul is still a German national parish. Strictly speaking we really shouldn’t be offering services to anyone except for German immigrants and their children.
Why even pay attention to this at all? I think this mentality has left us with a difficult legacy. You would need these parishes at the very beginning of an immigrant population arriving from let’s say Romania. But after a couple of generations, what happens? The children of the Romanians may not speak the language. Or maybe the grandchildren. But, the leftover feeling is that this is “my parish,” or maybe “my ancestors built this, and it’s mine.” (And it doesn’t belong to anyone who isn’t Romanian).
As it is we Catholics struggle to get out of our silos. We Americans, too! We have a very hard time welcoming newcomers. Someone new comes into our church and we give them a sideways glance. Someone sits in my pew. What the heck, that’s my pew! A Mass schedule is changed, and we’re out of sorts.
One of the ways we’re trying to help our parishioners get over this mentality is by having a couple of special Masses this summer. The last Sunday of June (the 26th) and the last Sunday of July (the 31st) we will have only one Mass at 11:00 am. Our hope is that the parish as a whole will gather to pray, to see each other, and to enjoy a great indoor/outdoor Mass. We’ll be closing the street in front of church and invite everyone who wants to sit outside to bring a chair.
We’ll also have a big celebration at the end of our “Remember our Past, Protect Our Future” campaign, where we’ll spend a whole weekend honoring our history and looking into the future. On that weekend, we’ll have a great Sunday Mass and some real fun!