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  • Making Mexican Parishes: Ethnic Succession in Chicago Churches, 1947–1977*
  • Deborah Kanter

After World War II, St. Pius V Church buzzed with activity each day at the corner of Ashland Avenue and 19th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Over four hundred children attended the parish school. The Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) sponsored sporting activities and dances. The shrine to St. Jude attracted parishioners and outsiders alike. Wives belonged to the Rosary Altar Society, husbands to the Holy Name Society. Each March, the once-Irish parish held its St. Patrick’s Homecoming Party. In August they hosted an eleven-day carnival that brought in funds from neighborhood fun seekers. Every October this Dominican-run parish sponsored a Rosary Sunday procession in which as many as 15,000 faithful paraded their devotion through area streets. Mass was offered five times each weekday with Mass intentions printed in the weekly bulletin. One week in 1947 the masses were offered in the memory of the deceased with surnames such as Nawrocki, Koterba, Mizejewski. This prosaic list embodied the ethnicity and religious devotion of St. Pius V parish, but one notice sticks out. The Friday 7 A.M. Mass was offered in thanks to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, the Virgin Mary from the Mexican city of that name. Apparently there was at least one Mexican parishioner there in 1947.1

At this time, the Pilsen neighborhood encompassed thirteen principally Slavic parishes. By 1970 it had become the city’s first majority Mexican neighborhood. My research explores Pilsen’s transformation through the prism of its many parishes. [End Page 35] Mexican entry into local churches was gradual, almost tentative in the 1950’s. When the unnamed parishioner at St. Pius V declared his/her gratitude to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, that lone act of Mexican devotion marked a first step to making that church home, but it surely went unnoticed by the parish. Yet by the 1960’s, as one priest recalls: “It just kind of changed dramatically. That presented a lot of problems obviously, both for the ones coming in and for the ones who were left here.” 2 A 1962 souvenir program from St. Pius V Church declared that “The Mexicans . . . are taking up residence in our territory, placing their children in our school, and attending our church.”3 The stories from Pilsen illustrate the transition from the parish as Euro-American ethnic enclave to a shared congregation; in time most churches became de facto national parishes serving the needs of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.4Assertions of Mexican devotion would be played out in parish after parish, with increasing effect throughout Pilsen.

In 1977 multiple parishes banded together for the first Via Crucis, the Living Way of the Cross. Now a tradition for over thirty years, the Good Friday procession requires that traffic be diverted off 18th Street for half a day.5 As Mexican Catholics literally take over the streets to walk together with Jesús, the event epitomizes the aims of post-Vatican II inculturation. For Anscar Chupungco, OSB, inculturation aims “to create a form of worship that is culturally suited to local assembly.” Liturgy and rites promote the laity’s active participation in a “fuller experience of Christ” as “revealed in the people’s language, rites, arts, and symbols.”6 The Via Crucis epitomizes the efflorescence of a Hispanic liturgy that draws upon devotional practices with deep roots in Mexico’s religious life.7 At the same time, these practices have [End Page 36] been adapted to reflect the realities of recent immigrants and Chicagoans of Mexican-descent. In the words of Rev. Arturo Pérez-Rodríguez, collectively these faithful “incorporate, embody, enflesh worship.”8 With the launch of the Via Crucis, its subsequent growth and perseverance in Pilsen, one can say that the Mexican spiritual conquest of the neighborhood was complete. A committed Mexican laity, partnering with open-minded Euro-American clergy, indelibly stamped Pilsen as católico, Catholic and Mexican.9

Old Parishes, Changing Neighborhood

It only takes thirty minutes to walk from one end of Pilsen to another. Within this compact geography, Pilsen became home to...


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pp. 35-58
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