Sweet Home, Catholic Chicago

A new exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, respectful but not without flaws, reminds America’s third-largest city of its rich Catholic heritage. By Monta Monaco Hernon.

If you’re interested in seeing how the Catholic faith helped shaped one of America’s biggest cities — Chicago, third in population only to New York and Los Angeles — you could do worse than to tour “Catholic Chicago.”

A featured exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, the formative lesson in our nation’s Catholic heritage, opened in March.

Given the museum’s secular perspective, coupled with the negative bias Catholics have come to expect from our culture’s treatment of all things Catholic, the show could have been less than a success in Catholics’ eyes.

Happily, there’s only a smattering of material that will cause consternation for Catholics faithful to the Pope and magisterium — and much to inform, delight and maybe even inspire a little “Catholic pride.”

The entryway sets the tone. Photographs of ordinary Catholics of all ethnicities line one wall, leading to a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Using her image acknowledges that Spanish-speaking Catholics make up the fastest-growing Catholic population in Chicago

“I wanted to provide a stunning image to reflect the beauty and significance of the Catholic impact on Chicago,” says exhibition curator Jill Grannan, “and also explore connections between tradition and new celebrations, the past and the present, and the influence that different and diverse immigrant and ethnic groups have had.”

Also in the foyer are artifacts related to the 28th International Eucharistic Congress, held in Chicago in 1926. The accompanying text focuses on the meaning to Chicago Catholics of hosting such an important international event. It wants for a fuller explanation of Catholic teaching on, and devotion to, the Eucharist. But, again, considering the nature and goals of the venue, the wording could have been far worse.

In fact it’s an early signal that the exhibit will present its subject with respect, affection and maybe even some measure of appreciation.

The “meat” of the exhibition is divided into six sections, beginning with “Laying Foundations.” After viewing records from the first baptisms in Chicago, we learn that in 1833, when the first Catholic parish, St. Mary’s, was established in Chicago, approximately 128 of the 350 people living in the “city” were Catholic. Being away from the Protestant-dominated Eastern Seaboard would afford early Catholic residents the ability to make their mark on a new city in a way they weren’t able to in the more established urban centers.

“Catholics really built [Chicago] from the ground up,” Grannan says. “They didn’t experience the same level of anti-Catholic or cultural [prejudice] right away. They were able to establish strong roots and a presence that is present in architecture.”

Incidentally, Old St. Mary’s parish celebrated its 175th anniversary this February, although the early structures no longer exist.

“Laying Foundations” also highlights important Catholic figures, including St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and established hospitals and schools in New York and Chicago. Of particular interest is the wicker chair in which Mother Cabrini died in 1917.

A green-and-gold vestment worn by Cardinal George Mundelein in 1930 also is on display. He figures predominantly throughout the exhibit, which credits him with helping to shape the 20th-century “American Catholic experience.”

“School Days” is the next section. A video shows students past and present talking, mostly positively, about parochial schools, with of course some “plaid” humor and generally good-natured comments about discipline. Visitors sit at two school desks to write their own Catholic school memories.

There is an extensive discussion of school segregation. This notes that, in 1946, Cardinal Samuel Stritch officially stated that Catholic churches and schools must open their doors to all. The directive may have helped pave the way for the desegregation of the country’s public-school system: Eight years later the U.S. Supreme Court passed the nation-changing Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“Committed to Community” follows. Community here seems to mean Catholics as whole, ethnic groups within the universal Church, and vocations. Gowns, pictures and mementos demonstrate the traditions and sacraments of Catholic life, such as baptism and marriage, as celebrated by various ethnicities. Photographs show, for example, a woman joining the Poor Clares in 1960 and a priest blessing the St. Jude Police League.

“Worship in the City” is the most beautiful and spiritual section. In the center of the room sit two pews facing a stained-glass window depicting a priest celebrating the traditional Latin Mass. Above is an ethereal “photomural” modeling the dome of St. Clement’s Church. Most spectacular is a crucifix by contemporary liturgical artist Meltem Aktas, a convert to the faith from Islam who has been featured in the Register. Her work, a burst of rich red and gold, shows angels on either side of Jesus looking at the wounds in his hands and weeping.

“Worship in the City” also includes an overview of Chicago’s church architecture. Mrs. O’Leary and her infamous cow (the one that may have started the great Chicago fire of 1871) make an appearance here. She was a parishioner at Holy Family Church, the second oldest in Chicago, dating to 1860.

With the fire spreading, Father Arnold Damen prayed to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, promising to keep seven candles perpetually lit if the building was saved. Holy Family, which we’re told “set the standard for church architecture in Chicago,” stands today. Seven electric candles keep his promise.

Fair Enough, and Balanced

It’s in the final two sections, “Changing the Church” and “Faith in the Future,” that we encounter displays revealing exhibit organizers’ unorthodox understanding of recent developments in Church history. A Call to Action display, for example, states that the group, founded in Chicago in 1978, has “demanded accountability from Church leaders.” In reality the organization openly promotes dissent from Church teachings, agitating for women’s ordination, homosexual “marriage” and a married priesthood.

Nearby a display of paper-bag puppets represents DePaul University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Studies curriculum. Frankly, it leaves one wondering less about the legitimacy of the academic minor itself — and more about why college students are making paper-bag puppets.

Balancing that scale is a video interview with the pastor of St. John Cantius parish, a favorite among tradition-minded Catholics. The priest trumpets the resurgence of interest in the traditional Latin Mass and sacred art.

The exhibition will remain open until Jan. 4, 2009, making for what Grannan calls a long run. “There is a very strong interest,” she says, “in this kind of exhibition.”

Monta Hernon writes from

La Grange Park, Illinois.


Chicago History Museum

(312) 642-4600


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