Crossing Parish Boundaries: An Interview with Tim Neary

Karen Johnson

Tim Neary's recent book Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954 traces the decades of interracial contact between Chicago's youth in Bishop Bernard Sheil's Catholic Youth Organization (CYO).  Tim complicates the argument that working-class white ethnics were some the most anti-black people in the urban north at mid-century, situates black Catholics' experiences squarely in the Black Metropolis, illuminates how black Catholics created their own places, and speaks to the civil rights movement historiography, as it merges urban and religious history wonderfully.  Recently I interviewed Tim, and I have posted our conversation below.  You can also see a recording of Tim's recent talk the Cushwa Center here.

KJ: I’m fascinated by your arguments that Sheil and black Catholics assumed that social change would come by working “within the system,” rather than challenging it.  Could you speak to this dynamic in and beyond your book's time frame?

TN: When I first started doing research in the late 1990s on African American Catholics in Chicago, I began noticing that disproportionate numbers of Chicago’s African American political and business leaders during the twentieth century were black Catholics—or at least educated in Catholic schools. While only a small percentage of African Americans were Catholic, they seemed to pop up everywhere in the historical record as civic leaders. The first African American elected to citywide office in 1971—City Treasurer Joseph Bertrand—for example, was a Catholic who attended Corpus Christi grade school and St. Elizabeth’s high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side before attending the University of Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship. And there were many others like him, including the first African American president of the Cook County Board, John Stroger, a black Catholic who grew up in Arkansas and moved to Chicago in 1953 after graduating from the nation’s only African American Catholic university—Xavier in New Orleans. Ralph Metcalfe, a Chicago native, was another example. Metcalfe attended Marquette University in Milwaukee on a track scholarship, starred in the 1932 and 1936 Summer Olympics, and rose through the political ranks to become a U.S. Congressman representing the Illinois First Congressional District during the 1970s.

In addition to sharing the same race and religion, each man was a product of Chicago’s Irish Catholic Democratic Party political machine.
Political scientist and Harold Washington campaign advisor William Grimshaw dubbed them Mayor Richard J. Daley’s “loyalist black elites.” Daley, not known for racial enlightenment, needed African Americans to represent political wards in the city’s segregated, all-black neighborhoods. He chose black Catholics, because they were “part of the system” by virtue of attending Catholic schools and participating in Catholic parish life. In this symbiotic relationship, a premium was put on loyalty and knowing one’s place in the system. Blacks were supposed to serve the machine and not rock the boat, what activist and historian Timuel Black has called “plantation politics.”

Within this arrangement, it was difficult for the loyalist black elites to challenge the white power structure on the issue of civil rights. Metcalfe, for example, remained a faithful foot soldier for the machine in 1966 when Martin Luther King came to Chicago. Publicly siding with Daley, Metcalfe said Chicago could work out its race problems without the presence of King, encouraging the civil rights leader to return to the South. Even after the rise of the Black Power movement and King’s assassination, Metcalfe remained within the fold. When Metcalfe ran for Representative William Dawson’s vacated Congressional seat in 1970, for example, he campaigned on a “law and order” platform, fully aligning himself with Daley. 

Metcalfe finally broke with Daley in 1972 over the issue of police brutality in the African American community, transforming himself from machine loyalist to black activist. Infuriated, Daley stripped Metcalfe of his Democratic Party ward leadership positions and ran an opponent against him in the 1976 primary, but Metcalfe won the primary and held on to his seat. In a 1976 Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine feature entitled “Docile No More,” the black Catholic Congressman is quoted saying, “It’s never too late to be black,” and “I am the same Ralph Metcalfe. The only difference is that I no longer represent the 3rd Ward and the 1st Congressional District but all oppressed people.”

I think Metcalfe’s story speaks to the difficulty that many African American Catholics had embracing civil rights and black pride movements. While black Protestant churches in the South and North produced significant numbers of African American clergy who led on the issue of civil rights, most Catholic clergy were white Euro-Americans who failed to challenge publicly the status quo of race relations during the civil rights era. There were notable exceptions, but they were in the minority.

KJ: You do a wonderful job describing the places black Catholics created in worship. Could you speak broadly to the importance of paying attention to place for scholars of religion, as well as scholars of race?

TN: Karen, I agree with you and other scholars of race and religion—like historians Arnold Hirsch, John McGreevy, Robert Orsi, Ellen Skerrett, and Thomas Sugrue, among others—that place is essential to understanding people’s experiences and subsequent worldviews. Where we live, work, learn, and play shapes us in so many ways.

In the book, I try my best to recreate the world in which African American Catholics grew up during the 1920s and 1930s in the parishes of St. Elizabeth, Corpus Christi, and St. Anselm in Chicago’s Bronzeville. This is the same neighborhood described by sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton in the 1945 classic, Black Metropolis. Bronzeville has received significant attention by scholars of African American history and culture during the past 50-60 years, including works on religion. Catholicism, however, has been virtually absent from the literature, despite the major institutional presence of the Catholic Church in the neighborhood during the mid-twentieth century as noted by Drake and Cayton. More recently, some historians—like Suellen Hoy, who has written on the ministry of Catholic sisters in Bronzeville—have begun to fill the gap. It is my goal to place Catholicism side-by-side other well-known Bronzeville institutions, like the Savoy Ballroom and Wabash YMCA, so that readers can see that neighborhood kids who participated in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) lived lives as blacks and Catholics simultaneously. That is, when they stepped into Corpus Christi’s grand, Cathedral-like church building at 49th and South Parkway (today Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive), they brought their “Bronzeville-ness” with them. In the same way, when they walked out of Corpus Christi onto the streets of Bronzeville, they carried with them their Catholic sensibilities.

We have a tendency as scholars to separate and isolate various aspects of our subjects’ lives. While difficult, I think it is well worth the effort to try to understand, as best we can in a holistic way, the entirety of their lived experiences.

KJ: The CYO had an impact in that it provided hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans and Americans opportunities for interracial contact that were outside their jobs and often in settings that could be seen as pretty intimate (i.e. swimming pools – the cover is so suggestive!). But the CYO ultimately declined, and its message did not persevere in the broader culture. What is its significance, then, for us as historians? For people who might want to speak to racial and religious issues in contemporary life? You say it can offer a model for us – can you speak further to that?

TN: I believe that the story of the CYO—which served as a national model for youth ministry between 1930 and 1954 under the direction of its founder Bishop Bernard Sheil—is instructive for us today. In February, I spoke to a national gathering at Notre Dame of Catholic youth sports directors. While many of their Catholic programs use the name “CYO,” most of them had never heard of Sheil or the organization’s origins during the Great Depression in Chicago. Like other audiences whom I’ve addressed, they were surprised to hear that a Catholic bishop ran a nationally-known, large-scale youth sports and educational organization which was interracial and ecumenical a generation before the modern civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council. At a time when segregation—racial, spatial, and economic—is stark and continues to grow, Sheil’s expansive and inclusive approach is worth reexamining.

As an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Sheil understood his responsibility for pastoral leadership to extend to every resident of the 350 parishes within Cook and Lake Counties—whether they were Catholic or not. In this particular case, Catholicism’s parochial system ironically served to cross boundaries of race, religion, and class throughout the Chicago metro region. Parish boundaries replicated neighborhood boundaries, which demarcated segregation, but Canon Law recognized each parish as equal. Therefore, when CYO boxers competed before tens of thousands of fans at Soldier Field, CYO basketball teams played before hundreds in gymnasiums across the city, or CYO swimmers met in Washington Park before much smaller crowds, blacks and whites, as well as Catholics and non-Catholics, participated as competitors on an even playing field. The winners then went on to travel on interracial squads to compete against CYO champions in other cities.

In creating the CYO, Sheil followed four simple principles: 1) respond to an urgent need (the rise of juvenile delinquency, secularism, and materialism during the era of Al Capone); 2) be pragmatic (choose a glamour sport like boxing to attract tough kids); 3) include everyone (in the spirit of Catholic universalism and New Deal pluralism); and 4) meld religious virtue with civic engagement (e.g., holding summer vacation schools in public parks staffed by both Catholic nuns and New Deal government workers).       

Today, we might use terms like public-private partnerships, faith-based initiatives, youth mentorship, community engagement, social responsibility, and social capital to talk about such a model. Not unlike the 1920s when Bishop Sheil’s boss Cardinal George Mundelein charged Sheil with developing a comprehensive program to respond to the social ills plaguing young people, cities today—in particular Chicago—face high levels of poverty, violence, and racism. I think we need a model that works in a coordinated way on both the macro (citywide/diocesan-wide) and micro (neighborhood/parish) levels. While by no means a panacea during its time, Sheil’s CYO did improve lives, and I believe that we can learn from it.

KJ: Your book has opened up so many research possibilities for future scholars.  What subjects do you think are ripe for research?

TN: There is so much that we still do not know about the intersection of African American life and Catholicism in U.S. history. Historians of black Catholicism, like the late Cyprian Davis, Cecilia Moore, and Dianne Batts Morrow among others—have filled in many of the gaps in what religious studies scholar Albert Raboteau has called the “minority within a minority.” And scholars of Catholic interracialism—including R. Bentley Anderson, John McGreevy, and Stephen Ochs, among others—have taught us much about the history of African Americans’ encounter with the “white” Catholic Church. Yet, there is much more work to do. Part of the challenge is avoiding the parochialism of our respective scholarly fields. It shouldn’t just be religious history scholars but urban, labor, sports, cultural, and political historians who “take religion seriously” as a category of analysis. We’ve seen tremendous growth in this area over the last generation, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the future.

The impact of Catholic schools on African Americans, particularly in northern cities during the twentieth century, is just one example where further research could pay big dividends. How did parochial education affect African Americans? In what ways did it help? In what ways did it hurt? What effect did it have on the economic status, political views, and interracial interactions of black alumni from Catholic schools? Likewise, how did Catholicism’s large-scale encounter with African Americans during the twentieth century affect the Catholic Church? Did it alter teachings on racial justice, liturgical practices, or political party affiliation? The potential number of research questions appears to be endless.  

KJ: You had to do a lot of creative searching for your sources.  Tell us about them, especially for Sheil and black Catholics.

TN: In his time, Bishop Sheil was a nationally-known figure, meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House, featured in national publications like the New York Times and Time magazine. When Cardinal Mundelein died in 1939, many thought Sheil, his second-in-command, would become Chicago’s next archbishop. He was passed over for the job, however, and, although he remained a popular public figure through World War II and the immediate postwar years—speaking out on issues of racial justice and workers’ rights—his position within the American Catholic Church never regained the prominence it had held during the Depression. By the early 1950s, declining health, a growing CYO debt, and run-ins with his ecclesiastical superior plagued Sheil. In 1954, a few months after a public feud with U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Sheil resigned from the CYO. The Archdiocese of Chicago largely dismantled the program and stepped back from Sheil’s progressive social agenda. The “Apostle of Youth” remained in Chicago for another twelve years as pastor of a North Side parish, but he became a sort of persona no grata among the leadership of the archdiocese. In 1966, after Cardinal John Cody forced him to step down from his position as pastor, he left the only city he had ever lived in for retirement in Tucson, Arizona, dying in 1969 at the age 83.

I mention all that to explain why relatively little has been written on Sheil. No full-length biography exists, for example. It is rumored that he burned his personal papers out of bitterness. This was a challenge for me doing research. I relied on limited CYO records in the archives of the Archdiocese of Chicago, journalistic accounts, and oral histories. Historian Steven Avella has a chapter on Sheil in his book on mid-twentieth century Chicago Catholicism, This Confident Church (Notre Dame, 1993), and Cardinal George Mundelein biographer Edward Kantowicz describes the relationship between Sheil and Mundelein in Corporation Sole (Notre Dame, 1983). Otherwise, Sheil is largely forgotten. Besides his name attached to the Catholic student center at Northwestern University and a small Chicago park, there is little memory of the bishop and his substantial influence on Chicago and the nation during the mid-twentieth century.

Likewise, sources of African American Catholics can be difficult to come by. Catholic sisters, who encountered thousands of black students in schools across the country, were typically modest to the point of anonymity, unlikely to write memoirs or commemorate their selfless works. Oral histories can be excellent sources of information—and were for me—but require significant investments of time and energy. Moreover, we’re losing more and more of those voices each day as black Catholics born in the first half of the twentieth century pass on. Nonetheless, parish records, diocesan archives, school yearbooks, government documents, newspaper accounts, and many other sources are out there for those willing to search for them.


Thank you so much for this incredible interview Karen! Neary's work has been so important to my own research and his contribution to our understanding of both white and Black Catholics on the South Side of Chicago is invaluable. I am especially compelled by his insistence that we not silo the subjects we study off from each other, that we not arbitrarily isolate "Black experience" from "Catholic experience" when talking about Black Catholics - this is something I've thought a lot about in my own work.

Since you raised the question of future research possibilities, I wanted to share that my forthcoming book directly engages many of the areas Neary identifies. For example, I discuss the impact of parochial school education on Black families and the ways Black Power revolutionized liturgical practices and approaches to racial justice. _Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration_ is due to come out this November ( This is an exciting time to be doing this work (as your articles testify too, Karen)!
Karen Johnson said…
Congratulations on your book, Matt! I know that it's going to be a really important contribution to this conversation. I so appreciate how you, too, do not silo your subjects.

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