The Ramonat Seminar: Using Data to Tell Stories

John, pay attention.

You and the two other John’s in your class raise their heads in confusion. You’re not sure if your teacher, an older Irish Nun, is speaking to you or one of the others. It’s winter time and the classroom is cool, and packed. Younger children and young men sit together, while she drills you all on math, reading, writing, and the Catholic way. You worry about the winter though, staring out the window. Your mother and father work as a housekeeper and shoemaker respectively, and you have three other siblings. While your tuition is reduced compared to the others at $50.00 a month, you know they can’t afford to put you through school for several more months. That means less time to absorb anything, more time spent locked away at home or working odd jobs with your Father… and the winter storms of Chicago are setting in.

The Holy Family Parish, and its parochial school system, within the larger context/debate of the parochial schools of the Catholic Church versus a public education in America, was the focus of this week’s assignment. Above, a modern shot captures the Church. But, besides the Church, the school is what educated the families that lived within the Parish’s boundaries. Claire, Hector, and I focused on Pgs. 92 and 94 of a 1866 Tuition Record for the young men and boys whose last name started with C. Here is a link to our combined map, and here is all of our data compiled.

While it is by no means a wholly accurate depiction of what school would have been like back then, from the information we gathered, tuition ranged from $0.00 to $1.50 at its most expensive rate. Your classrooms would have experienced various prolonged absences, even from students who were receiving a free education. Around early winter/mid-summer is when they’d begin missing school, if they had showed up at all when it began in August. You might have had siblings that attended at the same time, if not in the same classes as well. And, some contributed to the fuel needs of the school via an extra few equal to their tuition rate.

While many things contributed to the this assignment, I draw from one of our readings by Brosnan when it comes to who would have taught these young boys. Nuns, at the time, submerged themselves “…within the convent’s corporate identity, predominantly immigrant nuns moved in public spaces inaccessible to other women” (486). Brosnan further claims that, “[e]ach day, Sisters of Mercy walked miles on the city’s muddy streets to reach their parochial schools, crossing the Chicago River, a particularly dangerous venture during icy winter months” (487).


With this all in mind, it appears that the parochial school system in Chicago, at least when it pertains to this small subset in 1866 of the Holy Family Parish, was a mixture of wealthier and poorer students, from various family backgrounds, united under the banner of education by dedicated nuns.
As always, I struggled with this assignment, but I do believe it paints a very cool picture of what it would have been like to be a student back then!
* Mistakes with tuition rate and the meaning of the fuel column cleared up
  • Kathleen A. Brosnan, “Public Presence, Public Silence: Nuns, Bishops and the Gendered Space of Early Chicago,” Catholic Historical Review 90:3 (July 2004), 473-496.

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