The Ramonat Seminar: Final Reflection (Fall 2015)



What Has Made

Chicago Catholicism Distinctive?

21st Century Perspective

Is there a distinctive form of Catholicism in Chicago? Twenty-two years ago, Ellen Skerret, Edward R. Kantowicz, and Steven M. Avella came to the conclusion that Chicago contained within it a distinctive style of Catholicism, based on the city’s unique qualities. Using five historical sources as their guideline in favor of a distinctive flavor of Catholicism in Chicago (ethnic diversity; a close identification between parish and neighborhood; able episcopal, clerical, and lay leadership; social and political liberalism; and, finally, as a result of all these other factors, a soaring self-confidence)1, Skerret, Kantowicz, and Avella made a compelling argument about why Chicago stands out among the Catholic population of the United States of America.

But, in 2015 looking backward, in light of recent scholarship, it is worthwhile revisiting these criteria for exceptionalism in the Chicago Catholic community. Before one can unpack the question of “does Chicago have its own special brand of religiosity?”, certain questions come to mind. Is there truly different forms of Catholicism or, better put, catholicisms based on geography, socioeconomic status, and so on? If the Catholic Church is the Universal Church, can different strands of what is supposed to be global exist at the same time? The answer to these two question might seem obvious but, often the lines become blurred. Do American Catholic practice versus, say, European Catholicism (taken as a homogeneous group for now) trickle down into the ethnic/national parish and territorial divides, the clergy versus the laity, and so on and so forth? These questions, if they were to be posed to nineteenth century Catholic leaders, would have been refuted as the heresy of AmericanismSo, how can one assert a distinct Catholicism in the city of Chicago, without questioning the nature of so called American Catholicism, and if it exists at all?

That is why the previous edition of this book that asserts that Chicago is a “Catholic town” unlike any other in America, “which did not bother those outside of the faith as much as the coreligionist among their flock”1 makes one pause in the present era. It is true that Chicago is very unique as a city, and that includes its Catholic population. However, to completely separate it from trends in the nation is to tell its story in a vacuum, especially considering Catholics in Chicago were never just Catholics at any point in time, and their intersecting identities (immigrant, second generation American, Eastern vs. Western European, male, female, etc.) impacted how they experienced the religion, and how those around them perceived their religion. In this updated edition, using the 1993 criteria, I will reevaluate what it means to be a Chicago Catholic, operating on the assumption that Catholicism can be practiced uniquely in certain settings and time periods, while still structurally held to a global standard in some sense.

Ethnic Diversity &The Parish and Neighborhood

Previously it was argued Chicago welcomes diversity and the ethnic church, “[w]hereas most other American dioceses were dominated by either the Irish or the Germans” and even still among the Irish and Germans, “Chicago welcomed large numbers of both”1. With large streams of Western and Eastern Europeans coming in, along with other ethnic groups, Chicago did in fact have a large community of various groups who were loyal to the districts they carved out in the big city. However, this rosy view of co-habitation is darkened when one considers the treatment new groups were faced with by other Chicagoans (mainly protestant), and that of older immigrant groups like the Irish who had become wealth and moved out of the slums the Eastern Europeans began to fill in their place.

Often, not all groups took to the Catholic Church all together, namely the Bohemians and the Italians, who had to have their churches built for them, having found community outside of the structure4. The practices of the newer European groups were looked down upon by the Irish, who dominated the territorial church or the “major leagues”4. Attempts to reform them were rarely successful, as their street festivals and clinging to pagan-esque spiritual knowledge did not mesh well with the establishment. That is why it is more precise to argue that this style of Chicago worship was different than Irish dominated Catholic towns in the East but, was met with the same type of resistance. It is only because other groups together formed a large enough critical mass and the clergy allowed for their practices to continue at times that it flourished.

Able Episcopal, Clerical, and Lay Leadership

There is not much one can argue with when it comes to able leadership propelling Chicago into the mainstream of Catholic U.S.A. The only critique of this “able episcopal, clerical, and lay leadership” in the present day would be the complete absence of woman religious, lay woman, and women reform societies contributions. Nuns, middle class wives, working class, and so on contributed just as much before the institutions of the church transferred over from European shores. Male and female lay people were not lost without the central church authorities, as much as practicing a Catholicism they found backwards or alien to them.

Holding up Cardinal George William Mundelein, who arrived in 1916 and served till his death in 1939, as the principle example and start of able leadership in the city is not false as much as an incomplete story. “The Vatican, endowed with the world’s longest memory, has never entrusted the archdiocese to a native Chicagoan but has always appointed an outsider”1. This still holds true as the current Archbishop Blase Joseph Cupich is not a Chicago native. But, just because an outsider built tall churches and put Chicago on the map, doesn’t mean the people who inhabited the city had done nothing in his absence. Both Mundelein and those who came before him (lay and clerical, male and female) were just as important in shaping the city’s religious style.

Social & Political Liberalism

This same critique holds true for the 1993 conclusion that Chicago was a beacon of social and political liberalism. Liberal politics, especially after Vatican II, is seen in the Catholic church but, that would not take into account two big factors present in Chicago during the 19th century: Catholics tied to the pro-slavery, anti-civil rights, and so on Democrat party, and the Catholic authorities in Rome not for many liberal reforms throughout the century, before, and beyond to a degree. Trying to interweave anti-abortion with calls to end other forms of violence as liberalism is a stretch in today’s time, though it is an understandable argument to make in context. Though it is true anti-violence campaigns, social programs for the poor, and so on were very much alive in the Church to address the politically tumultuous city of Chicago, it would not be fair to say this was the only strand or the dominant strand of political thought, if not social.

Soaring Self-Confidence

And, that all leads to the sky high self-confidence, what in many ways is the weakest argument from the past. Neither forming a numerical majority or very accepted else wise, the intersection of political and economic success can not be said of all Catholics in Chicago. Like many cities, it is the Irish in particular who dominated middle classdom having risen out of the ghettos, and shed, in some ways, the stereotype of the working, illiterate, poor. Comparing them to the Jewish socioreligous class’ power and prominence in New York1 is a more apt comparison for this sole group, then to say the arrival of Cardinal Mundelein, the ethnic church and diversity within the city, and a very liberal political and social atmosphere, lead to all Catholics swaggering about Chicago.

Instead, Chicago’s education system, namely the parochial school, is the reason to say it is distinctive, with the help of the other four points.  Without throngs of new Americans in their second generation needing to be taught, without the diversity that made them unaccepted in the public arena, without a need to stay tied to tradition and heritage, without the arrival of Cardinal Mundelein and previous leadership (especially women religious), the parochial school most likely would not be a necessity in the city. The parochial school system, surrounded by the previous institution of church and community, is what in many ways sets Chicago apart from its neighbors in the U.S.

In Conclusion

Twenty-two years ago, many gaps in historical research were brought up. Now, the questions raised at the end of the last edition have been answered in part, though much more work needs to be done. As historians, when trying to find answers, one often finds more questions along the way. Great strides have been made when it comes to understanding the Catholic experience for many European immigrant groups in the city of Chicago. African-Americas, and Latin Americans (especially the inter-play between colonialism and religion) still has a lot of room to be explored. Chicago, home to about 30,000 Native Americans5 is also a group one might consider currently, as they have been shaped by Catholic institutions for much of America’s colonial and post-colonial years. O’Toole, McGreevy, and Gjerde are all historians who study Catholic history that have addressed lay devotional activity, American freedom and the Church, Catholic literary culture and more. The enormous role of woman religious and laypeople, men and woman and beyond, is also an area gap that’s been filled over the years. Finally, cooperative and competitive relationship between other religious communities has made some headway, an example being the school system, and the fights between public and parochial/higher education in Chicago

Moving forward, the Catholic community must look to the past and the present to address the problems of today and the future. Chicago Catholicism is rich, unique, complex, and a similar story all the same. It does not lose its distinctiveness because it address what made it like the rest of the U.S. of A. Worship is not a zero-sum game and one can hold onto two identities at once, I believe. It is what it created out of this likeness that makes a compelling story nonetheless. And, as we will see in the latter chapters of this updated edition, Chicago has its fair share of special events that propelled the course of its Catholic practices in new, exciting, even dangerous ways.

Olivia Raymond


Introduction: What Has Made Chicago Catholicism Distinctive? 21st Century Perspective

¹ Catholicism, Chicago Style Introduction

2 Archdiocese of Los Angeles 

3 Archdiocese of  Chicago 

4The Ethnic Church” by Edward R. Kantowicz

5 2010 U.S Census Data



Though I attempted to replicate and refute the arguments made in the previous edition of Catholicism, Chicago Style above, quite honestly it would take a lot more research on my part to fully grasp the scope of Catholicism in Chicago during that time period, let alone compare it to the rest of the United States and the world.

But, over the course of this semester nonetheless, many topics have captured my interest for the upcoming research papers my cohort and I will be writing in the fall. Each of us, picking a particular topic within the framework of 19th century and a little bit of 20th century Catholicism in Chicago, will attempt to address a topic that appeals to us. For me, two things stood out: the role of lay devotional activity in regards to building community and institutions within the hierarchy of the church; and the role Catholic fiction and Catholic writing in general played within the public at large.

While the ethnic church and the lay leaders within it would be a good topic, especially when addressing ways to accommodate and help new immigrant Catholic groups flourish in the U.S, it is the fiction and the writings of people like Orestes Brownson that I’ve settled on. Possibly because I’m a History & English major, I think historical writing, especially historical fiction is a topic worth delving in. Coaina, The Rose of the Algonquins by Mrs. Anna H. Dorsey is one example of the literature we read from the time period. Faithful Passages by James Emmett Ryan chapter 3 also address the works of Jedediah Huntington and others. By examining both the intersecting identities of the writers (middle class vs. lower, converts vs. life long devotees, etc.), I hope to understand the reasons why they wrote what they wrote, and how it potentially might have been perceived or reflective of the times.

I haven’t taken my Historical Method core here at Loyola yet, putting me at a disadvantage when it comes to speaking about this topic but, something similar to the historical-critical method I’ve employed in theology would appeal to me here concerning the literature of the time. I want to know what it meant to the readers then, why the author wrote it beyond religious conviction (as the two mentioned above were late converts to the Church), and if such writing has a place in the 21st century, if not already in vogue in a similar fashion.

I’ll be saving that all for the new year when I begin to dive into this topic in earnest, formulating a sound research question. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays till then!


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