Have you ever wondered how Catholicism became established in the Chicago area? Who was the first priest, the first parish, the first bishop? If those questions have ever crossed your mind, you'll enjoy today's column as I take a look back into Chicago's past. So sit back, and let's begin with a history lesson in Chicago Catholicism 101.
The first Catholic to arrive in what is now Chicago was none other than Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette, who was an ordained Catholic priest. Along with Louis Jolliet, the duo arrived at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1670s. Fr. Marquette published his survey of the new territories, and soon, more French missionaries and settlers arrived. In 1795, the Potawatomi tribe signed the Treaty of Greenville, ceding a tract of land at the mouth of the Chicago River to the United States. In 1804, Fort Dearborn was erected there, and Catholic pioneers began to arrive. In 1821, Fr. Gabriel Richard of Detroit was the first Catholic to preach at the fort. In 1822, Alexander Beaubien was baptized there by Fr. Stephen Badin (the first priest ordained within the limits of the thirteen original United States). This was the first recorded baptism in what is present-day Chicago.
By 1833, there were roughly one hundred Catholics living in the area, and Chicago was soon incorporated as a town. Jesuit missionaries wrote a letter to the Most Rev. Joseph Rosati, Bishop of Saint Louis and Vicar General of Bardstown, pleading for the appointment of a resident pastor to minister to Roman Catholics living in Chicago. Rosati agreed and appointed a diocesan priest. Fr. John Saint Cyr became the first priest appointed to serve the citizens of Chicago, and celebrated his first mass in a log cabin owned by the Beaubien family on Lake Street (near Market Street) in mid 1833. Since Catholics needed a permanent location for a church, Fr. Saint Cyr spent $400 to purchase a plot of land on what is now the intersection of Lake and State Streets. Th newly constructed church building stood 25 by 35 feet, and was dedicated in October 1833. The town of Chicago began to explode in population, and the Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana visited Chicago in 1834 and discovered there were now over 400 Catholics in the Chicago area, with only one priest to serve them all. The bishop got permission to send four additional priests from Indiana to tend to the needs of the Chicago region. In 1837, Chicago was re-incorporated as a city and Fr. Saint Cyr retired as head pastor of Chicago. He was replaced by Chicago's first English-speaking priest, Fr. James Timothy O'Meara. Fr. O'Meara moved the Chicago parish to present-day Wabash Avenue and Madison Street. It was later replaced with a brick structure.
In the 1840s, the First Plenary Council of Baltimore examined Catholic communities around the United States, and concluded that the Roman Catholic population of Chicago was growing exponentially and was in dire need of an episcopal see of its own. With the consent of Pope Gregory XVI, the Diocese of Chicago was canonically erected on November 28, 1843. Soon thereafter, William Quarter of Ireland was appointed as the first Bishop of Chicago. Quarter arrived in the city and summoned a synod of 32 Chicago priests to begin the organization of the diocese. He strongly lobbied the Illinois state legislature and was successful in petitioning for a state law in 1845 that declared the office of Bishop of Chicago was an incorporated entity, with power to hold real estate and other property in trust for religious purposes. This allowed the bishop to pursue mass construction of new churches, colleges and universities to serve the needs of Chicago's Roman Catholic faithful. Bishop Quarter retired in 1848.
By the 1850s, the Catholic population of Illinois was split up into different dioceses. Downstate parishes split from Chicago diocese in 1853, becoming the Diocese of Quincy. It was renamed the Diocese of Alton in 1857, and eventually became Diocese of Springfield. The Diocese of Peoria was established in 1877 from another territorial split from the Chicago diocese, and soon the Diocese of Chicago only represented the greater metropolitan area of northeastern Illinois.
Like all Chicagoans, tragedy struck Chicago's Catholic community with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Diocese of Chicago lost nearly a million dollars in church property, leading to administrative instability for decades to come. Virtually all parishes in the diocese had to be rebuilt from scratch, including the bishop's Cathedral. Previously, the bishop's residence was the Cathedral of Saint Mary and the Church of the Holy Name, both of which were destroyed by the fire. In 1874, Brooklyn architect Patrick Charles Keely (who would later also design St. Stanislaus Kostka Church) was selected to draw plans for the new cathedral of Chicago. By July 19 of that year, the cornerstone was laid. The cathedral was finally dedicated on November 21, 1875. Bishop Thomas Foley dedicated the church and christened it as the Cathedral of the Holy Name. Now known as Holy Name Cathedral, it continues to serve as the headquarters of Chicago's Roman Catholic Church today.
In 1880, the Diocese of Chicago was reorganized to become the Archdiocese of Chicago due to its size and importance in the Midwestern United States. With its new elevation, the residential bishop would now he designated the Archbishop of Chicago. Bishop Patrick A. Feehan of Nashville, Tennessee was given a promotion and named as Chicago's first archbishop. At that time, the “Archdiocese of Chicago” consisted of eighteen counties in the northern part of Illinois, and there were one hundred and ninety-four churches and two hundred and four priests.
A decade later, Archbishop Feehan commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his elevation to the episcopacy, and thousands of Catholics turned out for the celebration because of the love and esteem they felt for their venerable archbishop. By 1899, Archbishop Feehan's health began to fail, and he requested an assistant that could preform the duties of a bishop. Rev. Alexander McGavick was selected for the job and became the first auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese. By the time Archbishop Feehan died in July 1902, there were now nearly three hundred priests serving the Archdiocese, and one hundred and fifty churches, as well as numerous Catholic colleges and schools.
Since 1915, all Archbishops of Chicago have been given the title of Cardinal. The first of these was George Mundelein, who was named as Archbishop of Chicago on December 9, 1915. He began assisting in the Vatican curia when he was appointed as Assistant at the Pontifical Throne on May 8, 1920, and he was officially named a Cardinal in the consistory of March 24, 1924. With his elevation, Chicago became the first diocese west of the Allegheny Mountains to have a cardinal, and Chicago's bishop now held membership in the college of Cardinals, whose members elect the Pope. Cardinal Mundelein served as papal legate to the eighth National Eucharistic Congress in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 13, 1938, and was one of the cardinal electors who participated in the 1939 papal conclave, electing Pope Pius XII. The village of Mundelein, Illinois (previously named Area, Illinois) renamed itself in honor of the Cardinal, and Mundelein seminary was named for him as well.
Many Roman Catholics in Chicago may not be aware of it, but there are also several other dioceses established in Chicago that serve faithful Catholics living in the area. In addition the downstate and collar county dioceses of Belleville, Joliet, Peoria, Rockford, and Springfield, there are rare examples of other Catholic dioceses within Chicago city limits. One example of this is the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Chicago. Ukrainian Catholics first settled in Chicago at the start of the 20th century, and their first parish was organized on December 31, 1905, at 939 Robey (now Damen Avenue) in Chicago. It was consecrated as St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Ruthenian Catholic Church. Because these Catholics worshiped in the Byzantine-rite, rather than the traditional Latin mass, they needed more parishes built specifically for Ukrainian Catholics. At first, to meet the needs of the growing faithful, they had to rent a local Lutheran Church building and use it for eastern Catholic services. By 1915, they had built several magnificent Byzantine-Slavonic structures in the heart of Chicago’s renowned Ukrainian Village. Ukrainian Catholic schools were also built, and enrolled about 1,100 students at their peak in the early 1960s. The largest of these, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Elementary School, won first place in a 1930 multi-state choral contest sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. By 1961, Chicago’s prestige as a significant center of Ukrainian-Catholic life in America caused the Vatican to take notice and establish a Ukrainian episcopal seat in the city. Msgr. Jaroslaw Gabro, a native son of Chicago, became the first bishop of the newly created Ukrainian Catholic eparchy. Today, the Eparchy serves about 12,000 Ukrainian Catholics, and there are about 70 priests and deacons working in the eparchy in 46 parishes and mission stations. The current Bishop is the Most Reverend Richard Stephen Seminack of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral at 2238 West Rice Street in Chicago, Illinois.
A similarly unique Catholic heritage in Chicago can be found in the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago. There are an estimated 100,000 Indian Catholics following the Syro-Malabar rite in the U.S. and Canada. Because of this, the Diocese of Chicago was established in 2001. Today, it is the only eparchy of the Syro-Malabar Church outside India, and it has jurisdiction over Syro-Malabar Catholics in the entire United States and Canada. The first and current bishop is Mar Jacob Angadiath, who was appointed as Bishop of Chicago by Pope John Paul II in 2001. The diocese includes around 18 parishes and 43 missions. The diocese's cathedral, Mar Thoma Shleeha Cathedral (Saint Thomas the Apostle Cathedral) is a parish with almost 1,000 families and serves as the seat of the bishop. This cathedral church was dedicated on July 5, 2008, in Bellwood, Illinois. Today, the Diocese serves around 86,000 faithful Indian Catholics.
It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Chicago's Catholics. In addition to the Great Chicago Fire, one of the worst tragedies to hit Chicago was another fire at a Catholic school. What is now known as the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire occurred at the on December 1, 1958 in the Humboldt Park area of western Chicago. The school, which was operated by the Archdiocese, lost 92 students and three nuns in five classrooms on the second floor. Still, Chicago Catholics rebounded and proved to be a stronger community that ever before. Cardinal Albert Meyer lead Chicago's Catholics through the difficult changes of the Vatican II era in the 1960s, and Pope John Paul II visited Chicago in person back in 1979, becoming first sitting Pontiff to stay at the Cardinal's residence. Today, the Archdiocese of Chicago has around 356 parishes, and serves about 2,383,000 faithful Roman Catholics in Cook and Lake counties. When you also consider the large numbers of faithful Catholics in the other five Roman Catholic dioceses of Illinois, and the numerous eastern-rite Catholics in Chicago – including several with Cathedrals of their own – we can truly be proud of where we have come since that faithful day when Fr. Marquette explored the Chicago river some 340 years ago. Compared to many other America communities, Chicago's Catholicism has truly stood out!