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  • Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914–1954 by Timothy B. Neary
  • Gerald R. Gems
Neary, Timothy B. Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914–1954. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. 293. Notes, bibliography, map, photos, index. $45.00, hb.

Though relatively brief, Timothy B. Neary's work represents the most comprehensive, authoritative, and detailed analysis of his subject to date. His extensive research utilizes a vast array of primary sources, archival records, church documents, private papers, interviews, newspapers, journals, and magazine articles in an interdisciplinary study that covers religion, race, ethnicity, social class, and politics to analyze a largely forgotten figure that preceded the luminaries of the better-known civil rights of the mid-twentieth century.

Neary examines the life and work of Bishop Bernard J. Sheil, archbishop of Chicago who founded and directed the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) from 1930 to 1954. Sheil used the CYO to conduct his own personal crusade against juvenile delinquency, racism, anti-Semitism, and communism. Although a Catholic program, the CYO welcomed both males and females of all faiths to its extensive program of athletic competition, social services, community centers, and educational facilities. It boasted the largest athletic league in the world, which reached national proportions by the end of the 1930s, serving as a means to control wayward youth. Its integrated boxing program and track-and-field teams supplied athletes for the U.S. Olympic team.

Neary starts each of his six chapters with a telling vignette that gives voice to the African American participants in the various CYO programs, many of whom converted to Catholicism. Sheil's network included politicians, educators, and labor activists that extended his reach and his influence. In a highly segregated city, such contacts provided some African Americans with an entree into the Irish Catholic Democratic political machine that secured patronage jobs well into the following century. Sheil became a prominent national figure in a crusade for equality, democracy, and social justice, even criticizing the church hierarchy for its complacence and continued segregation practices in its schools, hospitals, and facilities.

During World War II, Sheil established the eponymous School of Social Studies, which charged no tuition, and numbered 1,800 students by 1949. The CYO also began operating its own radio station that year. With the death of Cardinal George Mundelein in 1939, who had been Sheil's superior and benefactor in the Chicago archdiocese, his star began to descend. He was not chosen to succeed Mundelein, and his spendthrift administration of the CYO did not endear him to the Catholic hierarchy. Sheil also confronted [End Page 120] the Cold War red-scare tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy in the post–WWII era, but his liberal ideology lost its allure as the nation and the Catholic Church regressed into a more conservative attitude. Sheil resigned as the director of the CYO in 1954, leaving the church administration with a $429,000 debt (165). He died an embittered man in 1969 at the height of the civil rights movement that he had helped launch, albeit prematurely. Neary proclaims Sheil to be a man ahead of his time. His last chapter covers Sheil's legacy and more current racial issues that still beset the city and the church. In 2001, a black Catholic parish applied for membership in a white suburban Catholic athletic league and was denied. Despite the intercession of then Cardinal Francis George, the white teams threatened to forfeit games played at the black school and would not guarantee the safety of the black athletes in their own locations, indicating the persistent racism that still afflicts elements of American society.

Gerald R. Gems
North Central College


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