What Parish Are You From?

Karen Johnson

For much of the twentieth century, many people in northern cities with large Catholic populations, people often asked one another where they lived with the question: "what parish are you from?"  No matter if you were a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew, Catholicism, and its way of dividing up the faithful in geographic territories, pervaded the city.

There's a great body of literature on the relationship between Americans' faith, neighborhoods, and racial politics with one of the most well-known being John McGreevy's 1996 Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Urban North.  McGreevy's book is comprehensive, and among other things, he demonstrates that we must account for religion when we consider racial change in America's northern cities.  For teaching, though, I prefer to help students go deep in a subject, rather than wide.  This semester in my American Cities and Suburbs, we're looking at one parish from a few different views as a window into race and religion in the city.

I'm using Eileen McMahon's What Parish Are You From? A Chicago Irish Community and Race Relations to help students explore the ways communities put boundaries around themselves, as well as how they have navigated the racial change that has been so central to the narrative of U.S. urban and suburban history.  McMahon's book traces the changing notions of community in St. Sabina's parish.  The book is accessible to students and, because it offers a case study, provides students with the opportunity to know a community at a deeper, more substantive level.  It also complicates their notions of white flight as simply racist by showing how Catholicism shaped parishioners' experience of racial change.

St. Sabina's began as an Irish territorial parish in 1916 at a moment in which America's Catholics were beginning to feel more confident about their place in American society.  It offered its upwardly mobile constituents a refuge from the still-present anti-Catholicism of Anglo-Protestants most baldly demonstrated by the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and Al Smith's defeat in the 1928 presidential election.  The parish also served as a place to preserve an Irish ethnic identity that was essentially Catholic, and to reduce the alienation of a big city, making it feel more like a small town to parishioners.  The parish - its streets, buildings, alleys, clubs, prayers, dances, and wakes for the dead -  became the main expression of parishioners' communal faith.

By the 1950s, when African Americans began to move into the neighborhood, parishioners saw their new neighbors as threats to their tightly knit community.  Parish priests struggled to convince their parishioners to accept black neighbors, but failed.  The parish's earlier emphasis on the corporate practices of devotionalism (the saying of prayers, novenas, and faithful attendance at Mass, all which incorporated Catholics into a family of faith that included Jesus, Mary, and the saints) as the main means of living Catholic faith, did not equip parishioners with the tools needed to address social and interracial justice.  The priests supported radical community organizer Saul Alinsky's Organization of the Southwest Communities (OSC) as a way to promote peaceful integration, rather than white flight.  But by the mid 1960s they had failed, and most of the white parishioners moved out, in part because of a racist belief that black and white people couldn't live together, but more because they were longing to recreate the personal, relational and homogenous community they had lost.

Even though most white parishioners left and saw parish's future shrouded in the death clothes of Holy Saturday, for African Americans, the parish would experience the power of Resurrection Sunday.  St. Sabina's gained new life as a thriving, mostly-black parish under the leadership of Father Michael Pfleger, who has become one of the most beloved and controversial priests in the Archdiocese, and who has partnered with his parishioners to strengthen their community.

Because of St. Sabina's importance in America today, as well as the way the parish's history offers a window into community and racial change, my students will learn the contours of this history first by reading What Parish Are You From?  Then, they will cultivate their historical imagination by creating characters based on the types of people in the book.  After writing a parish newsletter from their character's perspective, students will participate in a "fishbowl" exercise in which they will talk about a variety of subjects in character.  They practice seeing the world through another person's eyes, and, when we talk about where they stayed true to the sources and where they had to make a jump, both the limits to their knowledge and where they have made inferences become clear.  Some of my students will further their study of St. Sabina's by going on an ethnographic field trip to the church for Sunday morning worship.  This takes them off campus and, via public transportation, helps them see the city with new eyes.  (Others will choose the other option of going to Hull House.  We're studying Jane Addams and settlement houses, too.)  Going to the places we read about is powerful, and we see how people live in buildings, institutions, and social networks shaped by those in the past.  My students will also meet those who, when asked the question "what parish are you from?" will answer, "I'm from Sabina's."

I'm looking forward to this unit in the class.  I've used McMahon's book before, but haven't included the field trip component.  I wonder, what other books and teaching strategies do you all use to teach about religion in the city?  What suggestions do you have for this unit?


Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks so much for sharing this post, Karen. I love the idea of zooming in on a parish like St Sabina's for teaching these topics, and I had completely missed McMahon's book. Would love to hear how students respond to the material, the assignments, and especially to the trip to the parish itself.
Karen Johnson said…
Thanks, Trevor. I can keep you posted on responses to the field trip, etc.
Unknown said…
Hi Karen,
I'm afraid I will be of no help in the field work section, but I wonder if you have read Gerald Gamm's "Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed"? I have never assigned it, but I have found it useful to think about alongside McGreevy's book. I am eager to hear how this class develops. I suspect time frame and other factors will be significant in assessing neighborhood shifts and attachment to spatial residence. For example, when the busing crisis took place in areas like Boston in the 1970s, class, parental rights, and other factors seemed so salient as part of the public debate. It seems you are focusing on an earlier period when people made more or less voluntary choices to leave their neighborhood, so I imagine it might be more important to highlight what else you regard as more primary or basic than race in these major shifts over a period of years. I want to say more, but my post is already too long.
Mary Martha said…
Perhaps consider the other side of the coin. How the parish identity has broken down in modern urban Catholicism and people travel to attend the community they prefer. From St. Sabina, to Old St. Pats and St. John Cantius. All very different parishes which serve communities diocese wide rather than bounded by the old parish boundaries.

If you go on a field trip to St. Sabina it would be well balanced by a trip to St. john Cantius.

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