Parish Life in the Old Neighborhood #socs

Back in Chicago, we were the members of Holy Cross Parish, which had been founded by the Lithunian immigrants (including Mary’s grandparents) that lived in Back of the Yards. The church had been built by the old-timers and was magnificent, practically a cathedral. It had, among other things, a real old-fashioned organ, the kind with leather bellows and pipes and all kinds of stops and everything. The only person who played that organ was an old Lithuanian named Julius, who was joined by his wife Paulina, who was a soprano. As times changed in Back of the Yards, most of the Lithuanians who started the parish had either died or moved several miles away to Marquette Park, but they still returned to the old church in Back of the Yards to attend Mass on Sunday morning, which was said in Lithuanian and which featured Julius and Paulina doing the old hymns in the mother tongue.

The Lithuanian population continued to dwindle, with the Lithuanians being replaced by a growing, lively Mexican population. They were members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, and attended Masses in both English and Spanish at a small mission church not far from Holy Cross. When IHM was founded, a number of Mexican families in the neighborhood, many of whom had grown up there and had been members of Holy Cross, started attending weekly Mass there, and soon, with the Mexican population replacing the Lithuanians in Back of the Yards, they discussed building a larger church.

The idea was presented to Cardinal Cody, the Archbishop of Chicago, who was aware of the situation in Back of the Yards and how Holy Cross was practically empty on Sunday morning while, over at IHM, they were running Masses practically all day Sunday to accommodate all of their parishoners. This was becoming a common thing in Chicago, so he decided that, rather than build another large church in a neighborhood that already had four of them, he would merge Holy Cross and Immaculate Heart of Mary Parishes and create Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, which would be staffed by the order of priests that had staffed IHM, sending Father Vyto, who had been the pastor at Holy Cross for most of his adult life, to a parish in Marquette Park, perhaps hoping that his presence there would encourage the Lithuanians who lived in Marquette Park to start going to Mass in Marquette Park and to forgo what had become a weekly ritual of packing the kids and the old folks into cars and driving to Back of the Yards to attend Holy Cross. The money that had been saved to build a new Immaculate Heart of Mary Church would be used instead to renovate Holy Cross.

Now, as you can imagine, this went over with the parishoners of both parishes like a lead balloon. Various delegations from both parishes went to see His Eminence to plead their cases. They were told, in the most pastoral way possible, “Tough shit, I’ve made up my mind. I don’t care if you don’t like each other, we can’t afford to support both parishes. You don’t like it, go somewhere else. You’re now one parish, deal with it.”

So, we set about doing just that. In the evaluation of what should be done to fix Holy Cross Church up, the subject of repairs to the organ, which was at least 70 years old at the time, came up. When they learned how much it would cost to overhaul it, they decided instead to invest in a brand new electronic organ.

When Julius heard that his organ wouldn’t be part of the renovations, he reacted the way you would expect a man in his 70’s would: He pitched a fit. “You not fix organ, I fix myself!” And, to his credit, he kept the old instrument in good enough working order that he was able to play it for the Lithuanian Mass once a week. Eventually, though, it needed more repair than he was capable of doing, and he went to the pastor demanding that someone be hired to overhaul it. And he was told, “Nuh-uh. We have a brand new organ, play that one.”

I think he sulked for a couple of weeks until enough of the old-timers convinced him that he should swallow his pride and play the new organ, and before long, he and Paulina were back, sounding just as bad as they ever did.


Stream of Consciousness Saturday is brought to you each week by Linda Hill and this station. Now a word about The Budding Beauty Vanity and the Big Bruiser tow truck, new from Marx!

Toilet water… huh huh…

20 thoughts on “Parish Life in the Old Neighborhood #socs

  1. I absolutely loved this story! About the time you wrote …went over like a lead balloon I was saying awwww why did his Eminence go and do that? Practical reasons of course but change is hard. And I have obviously never met Julius but I can picture him and feel as if I know him. What a treat it would have been to hear him play that old organ.

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    1. Julius was not really all that good, and you couldn’t understand Paulina even when she was singing in English. But what they lacked in talent they made up for in their faithfulness and dedication, and in the end that’s really what it’s all about.

      Change is hard, but it’s needed to adapt to new realities. The generation that built those churches (our grandparents) are long gone, the generations since have married and moved away, leaving behind a dwindling population of old-timers who are the last connection those parishes had to the communities. The bishops have to figure out how to make the most of what they have, which is barely enough to keep a few of them going. At the same time, you have immigrant populations arriving who want to have their kids receive the Sacraments and religious education but can’t donate the way the old-timers did. It’s a challenge.

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      1. Yes sometimes it is more about passion than talent.

        St Margaret Mary’s my childhood parish is in a similar boat. There was once a thriving parish school which shuttered its’ doors this year. The church itself is barely hanging on with contributions from the archdiocese to keep it afloat. It’s inner city and folks have moved to the suburbs. Who would’ve thought that A once booming parish would come to this. In its’ heyday the church was spectacular in many ways not just the architecture. Definitely a challenge.

        It makes me sad and sentimental. Yet it also makes me feel blessed for having had the experience that is no more.

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        1. We also had a parish named St. Margaret Mary’s near us. Is it possible we grew up in the same area? In other words, did you grow up in Chicago on the Far North Side in Rogers Park? (I’m sure you would have said something by now…)

          We held Mom’s funeral in our old parish in Chicago (St. Ignatius), and one of my cousins was so impressed with it that she decided to hold her wedding there. The Jesuits are no longer handling it, but they left the paintings of the life of St. Ignatius Loyola (frescoes, really) on the ceiling. It was, and still is, a magnificent place, and evidently in no danger of closing. At least, it had better not…

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          1. My St Margaret Mary’s is in San Antonio Texas. Not to be confused with the St. Mary’s which is downtown and is the 2nd oldest church in San Antonio right after San Fernando. So many beautiful churches close by. Makes me want to road trip it to St Hedwig, Panna Maria, Praha. If I ever make it to Chicago (bucket list) I’d love to see St. Ignatius up close. The frescos alone 💕

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  2. Love the story about the battling churches but that, in the end, it all worked out even though the voices were not like the Von Trap Family. The church I had to go to when I was young was painful to listen to when the choir would sing because they were all off key

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    1. We have an expression: “Pray, pay, and obey.” In the end, much as we might not like it, the only decision we can make is to change parishes, so we set our faces like flint and resign ourselves to making the best of it. There were still skirmishes and differences of opinion, and probably still are today, but that’s life in any parish.

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  3. Great story, John. This type of situation is still going on around the Chicago area; churches being combined and nobody liking it. You captured the Chicago catholic attitude of Cardinal Cody perfectly. He was a dictatorial kind of guy. You may recall he came to us from New Orleans and he was referred to irreverently as Louisiana Fats.

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    1. Were it up to Louisiana Fats, Mom and Tex would have been married in secret with no one in attendance, not even the three of us. Mom showed him, didn’t she?

      It’s a fact of life in this day and age that the descendants of the people who founded those parishes are leaving the neighborhoods and churches behind. Sad, true, but times change and we have to change with them. Where we were in Back of the Yards, there were six churches within walking distance and not enough money in the neighborhood to keep more than a couple going. Parish mergers are a survival tool, more than anything. People don’t like it, but what can they do?

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  4. I love this story too. I don’t know how things are in Atlanta, but this situation is going on all over the Atchdiocese if Chicago in both churches and schools. Many churches are being combined and catholic schools also, mainly because the old guard is dying out and the younger generation are not attending. When you mentioned the organist I immediately thought of St. Ignatius and Professor Erst. Do you remember the big organ in the choir loft. I got to play it once – Yikes!! Thanks again for sharing your wonderful memories! Jinx

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    1. That was a pretty amazing organ at St. Ignatius. There was a woman that played on Sundays when I was there, and she could really make the walls shake.

      I remember Professor Erst’s daughter, Sister Anna Marie, who taught me math and with whom I more-or-less stayed in touch. I remember Mom telling the story of being happy that he fell ill because he couldn’t play her wedding.

      As I understand it, HC-IHM was the first case of parishes merging in Chicago. I guess we were the beta test. It makes sense, but to have that dropped on you is disconcerting. In our case, the Lithuanians were furious that the Cardinal was giving away “their” church, and the Mexicans were just as furious that the money they raised to build “their” church was being taken and used to renovate another church. And the sad thing is, from what Mary tells me, there was always a significant Mexican population in the neighborhood, and many of them had received their sacraments at Holy Cross and graduated from the school. Meanwhile, the Lithuanians who had built Holy Cross were abandoning ship in Back of the Yards, selling their houses and moving to Marquette Park, but still demanding that Holy Cross accommodate them on Sundays. We felt like we were stuck in the middle.

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  5. I grew up in the Catholic church and never could grow to love the organ music. It was always too loud and — well — clomp-y for me. I prefer the piano. One of our churches used that instrument more and I loved those songs (the ones that came out of the movement in the 70s, you know what I mean?). It influences my faith music to this day.

    Great post, John!

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    1. Music ministry has changed to where the organ is rarely used anymore. Our church has an electronic keyboard that can sound like both a piano and an organ, and another church bought a grand piano and did away with the organ in the last round of renovations. Current liturgical music in the Catholic church borrows heavily from contemporary Christian music, with its use of guitars, drums, percussion and electronic keyboards. It’s excellent, but I sometimes miss the good old Catholic drinking songs accompanied by a full organ…

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  6. I enjoyed this story very much with it’s rich history and imagining how His Eminence told them, “Tough shit,” in the most pastoral way possible. Our organist plays traditional Episcopal hymns but he’s going on vacation next week and has put me in charge of picking music I can play on my guitar. “Morning Has Broken” is in the hymnal, so there’s one I can do with just a hint of Cat Stevens 🙂 Change can be good.

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  7. An interesting tale. Familiar with the scenario as old churches here must combine as well. It’s such a paradox, people divided over this and that at church. People are people everywhere.
    That last line, though, stellar!

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