“On this Rock I will Build my Church” – Catholics, Churches, and the Localization of Politics


The word of the LORD came to Solomon: As to this house you are building—if you walk in my statutes, carry out my ordinances, and observe all my commands, walking in them, I will fulfill toward you my word which I spoke to David your father. 1 Kings 6:11-12

(opening Note: Church architecture is one of my favorite things the concept of building a church is a very vivid aspect of my spiritual life. In honor of this post: I will share a fitting Catholic hymn.)

In her introduction to Catholicism, Chicago Style, Ellen Skerret writes that Chicago’s Catholicism is identifiable by its diversity. Visiting churches throughout the city has demonstrated that this is still the case in modern Chicago. I was unfortunately unable to partake in Open House Chicago with the other Ramonat Scholars because I led a retreat for new leaders in the Alternative Break Immersion program. In lieu of the traditional class activity, I visited two churches and am going to connect my experience at these places of worship with three other churches I have visited throughout my life. This entire experience has demonstrated that Chicago’s Catholicism and their politics are demonstrated in a peculiar way. While parishes focus on national issues, they tackle them in local ways. This is in line with Andrew Gelman’s argument in All Politics is Local? In which he argues that politics have increasingly become more national. The twist in Catholic parishioners is that they attempt to tackle these larger issues in smaller ways affecting their local communities.

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Many ethnic groups live in specific neighborhoods. This segregation was on some level intentional. For example, some black communities were specifically separated from other communities through red lining and highway construction. The specific process of highway construction is detailed in “Daley’s City” in Chicago: a Biography by Dominic Pacyga. While these decisions are morally fraught, it was closed tied to the creation of specific parishes for specific communities. John D. Buenker writes in his article on ethnic politics in Chicago that immigrants considered preserving their ethnic heritage to be one of their most important goals. Most of the churches discussed in this article attempted to represent and celebrate the heritages that make up their communities. This idea and the ways these churches were involved in politics is explored throughout this article.

The first church I visited was Holy Name Cathedral in the Gold Coast neighborhood. The cathedral was built in the the late 19th century to replace the original cathedral which was destroyed by the Chicago fire. Unlike the other churches described in this blog, Holy Name Cathedral was not home to one specific ethnic group. It was the seat of the bishop of Chicago and is subsequently home to Catholics of every background. Because of this, the church is lacking the artwork commonly found in churches of specific ethnic group. It may be important to note that all of the cathedral’s masses are in English. Churches that are important to certain ethnic groups usually have a mass in their language.

holy Name mass.jpeg
Mass at Holy Name Cathedral


In regards to politics at Holy Name, the only political issue that was specifically mentioned is the abortion debate. During the prayers of the faithful, the part of the mass where the priest and congregation pray for various intentions, the reader on the altar prayed for “those considering an abortion”. These intentions are typically written out before the mass. In the space of the mass, Holy Name cathedral was tackling the national issue of abortion through the local means of communal prayer. Following praying for those considering abortion, the community also prayed for those suffering from addiction. One can read this prayer as a way to discuss the American drug crisis. While this is how the specific cathedral tackles political issues, it is important to understand that Holy Name is the seat of the archdiocese. The archdiocese also tackles issues that are local, but which have national repercussions. For example, Blaise Cardinal Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, often speaks out against gun violence in Chicago. Cupich is also one of the greatest advocates for humane treatment of migrants. Holy Name cathedral is an interesting nexus of the Chicago political world where the local and national politics intersect.

The ceiling of Holy Name Cathedral depicting the Most Holy Name of Jesus – One of my favorite Devotions


The second church I visited was St. Stanislaus Kostka. While Holy Name does not focus on a specific ethnic group, St. Stanislaus Kostka is covered in signs which point to its Polish past. The stations of the cross in the church are in Polish. The altar is also flanked by a rendition of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the interpretation of the Blessed Virgin popular in Poland. The Church also has one mass a weekend in Polish. The Church was founded in the 19th century and quickly grew to be the center of Polish Catholic life in Chicago. While the church was rooted in Polish soil, there are signs of demographic change in the Church. On the other side of the altar, is Our Lady of Guadalupe which is venerated by the Mexican Catholic community. While the church only has one Polish mass on sundays, it has two masses in Spanish. St. Stanislaus Kostka is a microcosm of demographic change in Chicago. There are signs that there may be more changes in the future. The church was conducting a parish census the weekend I visited. One of the questions asked was “what languages do you speak at home.” Depending on the responses, there might be more changes in the languages used to say mass. It is important to note that there are signs of a traditionalist streak in the St. Stanislaus Kostka community. The mass that I attended was said ad Orientem where the priest says the mass facing away from the congregation. A remnant of the old Latin mass, this is form of saying mass is typically seen as a throwback to a forgotten era of Catholic life.

Polish Corner
The Corner of Polish devotions at St. Stanislaus Kostka
Our Lady of Guadeloupe at St. Stanislaus Kostka 

This church also follows the established pattern of tackling national issues locally. The church was hosting a “baby bottle drive” where parishioners filled baby bottles with donations which would go to crisis pregnancy centers. Obviously connected the church’s anti-abortion stance, this drive demonstrates a local way to tackle a greater issue. This drive is not special to this community. My home parish in a Chicago suburb also partakes in this fundraisers. Even though the fund raiser is spread throughout the Chicagoland area, it is still acting locally in that it is asking local parishes to donate to the cause. The fundraiser is acting locally at the local parish level. Regardless of the parish’s rising Mexican population, there are no signs of political advocacy for Latino interests. This may change as the demographics continue to change.

Baby Bottles.jpeg
Baby Bottle Drive at St. Stanislaus Kostka – Notice the flyers in three languages

These two churches are interesting when compared to St. John Cantius. Cantius is unlike other churches in the city because it is not home to a specific ethnic group or community. It is the home of a very specific minority in the Catholic world; traditional Catholics. It is one of the only churches in the archdiocese which offers the traditional pre-vatican II tridentine Latin language liturgy. I attended one of these masses in the summer. As a practicing Catholic who is very familiar with the liturgy, I found it difficult to follow along. While I could follow the general outline of the mass, the whole liturgy felt different than my familiar English language mass. One can understand the frustrations that some traditionalists have with the post-vatican II rite when one visits this church. The church exists as a rallying point for those who do not agree with all of the post Vatican II changes in the church. While the liturgy is different, there is something ancient about it which calls to centuries of Christian tradition.

The politics of the parishioners is also on display at the church. While I was searching for the church’s bathroom, I saw many posters for “Lifeapalooza” which was an event supporting pro-life initiatives. These are political positions traditionally held by conservative Catholics. If one sees traditional Catholics as a group identity with its own political goals and aspirations, one can understand that they would be advocating for political positions that they deem important to the their group. This event is local in the sense that it brought the local community of St. John Cantius together to discuss a national issue. The church also has two pro-life groups, “Crusaders for Life” and “Respect Life Committee”. The Respect Life committee’s webpage states that they follow legislation in Illinois relating to abortion. One sees a similar pattern established in the other churches mentioned, parishes attempt to tackle political issues in the local way they can.



St. John Brebeuf – My Spiritual Home



The tendency for a church to reflect the culture of its parishioners extends to the suburbs. My home parish is St. John Brebeuf in Niles, Illinois. Built in the 1950’s, the parish reflects the community’s heavy Polish community. There are numerous masses in Polish and the parish school hosts a Polish school. Throughout the Ramonat seminar, I have learned how ethnic groups attempted to construct parishes that reflected their heritage. Until now, we have only discussed this in an urban context. St. John Brebeuf stands as an example of how this tendency expands to the suburbs. Wherever people settle, they wish to be able to worship in their own language. In regards to politics, my home parish tackles larger issues on the local level in line with the other churches mentioned. The parish partakes in the same baby bottle fundraiser as St, Stanislaus Kostka. From my personal memory, very few other political issues were specifically mentioned. One can argue that by not mentioning a plethora of political issues, they were stating their political positions by being silent. Regardless, St. John Brebeuf continues the tradition of creating alcoves for specific groups.

Madonna della Strada chapel at Loyola University Chicago can be placed as a counterpoint to the more traditional churches mentioned above. The chapel was completed in the early 1940’s and is a combination of traditional Catholic church architecture and Art Deco. With Loyola being one of Chicagoland’s Catholic universities, the chapel reflects the large Catholic populations. Similar to St. Stanislaus Kostka, Madonna della Strada features a rendition of Our Lady of Czestochowa and Our Lady of Guadalupe. This reflects Chicago’s two large Catholic ethnic groups. Representation of Chicago’s Irish population is surprisingly missing.

Madonna Mass.jpeg
Mass about to start at Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University Chicago

In contrast to the other churches discussed, Madonna della Strada tackles political issues from a liberal angle. During my most recent mass, the prayers of the faithful prayed for those suffering from human trafficking and for the reunification of families separated by the Trump administration. Abortion and other such issues are rarely mentioned. One can argue that this is a reflection of Loyola Chicago’s more diverse and liberal student body. What is interesting regarding Madonna della Strada is that they are tackling these issues through the same local ways. One way is through prayer during the mass. The collection that is taken up during the mass also sometimes goes towards Catholic Relief Services. The faith community of Loyola University Chicago uses small and local ways to change the large social problems affecting our society.

Lady of Czechova.jpeg
Polish Devotions at Loyola
Guadelupe at Madonna
Our Lady of Guadeloupe at Loyola Chicago

A common thread throughout these churches that they rarely involve themselves in politics at the parish level. Joe Merton touches upon this topic in his article “Rethinking the Politics of White Ethnicity” where he states that parish organizations became anachronistic and were replaced by secular activist groups. This is not to say that the Catholic church does not involve itself in the political system. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops advocate for many political issues. This occurs on a larger scale than the parish level. There are also exceptions to this tendency. St. Sabina constituents fights for racial equality in the Chicagoland area. While this is to be admired, most parishes involve themselves in the political arena through Baby Bottle drives and prayers during the mass. The diversity of Chicago Catholicism is as vibrant today as it was decades ago. My personal journey through these churches was an amazing experience which taught me that my faith is a diverse one with many approaches to the spiritual life and the political life.

Learn More:

Holy Name Cathedral: https://holynamecathedral.org/

St. Stanislaus Kostka: http://www.ststanschurch.org/

St. John Cantius: http://www.cantius.org/

St. John Brebeuf http://www.sjbrebeuf.org/

Madonna della Strada https://www.luc.edu/campusministry/sacramental_life/mds-chapel/index.shtml

All Politics Local?:  https://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/03/all-politics-is-local-the-debate-and-the-graphs/

Archbishop Cardinal Cupich:  http://legacy.archchicago.org/person/blase-j-cupich/biography

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s