St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church
Backstory and Context
Before an influx of Mexican immigrants arrived in Chicago during the mid 20th century, Pilsen, which is now regarded as a cultural hub for Mexican Americans, was better known for being a port of entry for European immigrants including the Irish, Czechs and Poles. These immigrants naturally brought to the United States pieces of their cultures and traditions from the “Old Country.” For Polish immigrants in particular, the Roman Catholic faith was inseparable from their cultural identities. For some Polish Americans, one’s local parish was the extent of their Polish community in the United States. In 1874, St. Adalbert’s parish was established to serve as a spiritual, cultural and social anchor for immigrants in Pilsen’s Polonia. From 1912 to 1914, Polish immigrants worked to build the physical structure of what stands today as St. Adalbert’s Church on West 17th Street. Its architect, Henry J. Shlacks, who was one of the most prolific church architects at the time, also designed St. Paul’s on 22nd Place and Hoyne, St. Mary of the Lake on North Sheridan Road and St. Ignatius Church in Rogers Park. Shlacks was known for touring cathedrals in Europe during the summer and sketching their details, which he incorporated into his designs. Thus, St. Adalbert’s bears a striking resemblance to St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls (Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura), one of the four major ancient basilicas of Rome. The overwhelming amount of time, resources and dedication poured into the construction of the church by the parishioners themselves further reveals an immense sense of nationalism permeating Pilsen’s Polish Catholic community during the first half of the 20th century.
However, St. Adalbert’s identity as a Polish Catholic church would come into question during the 1960s and onward as waves of Mexican immigrants, who were also predominantly Catholic, continued to settle in Pilsen. In 1960, Mexicans and people of Mexican descent made up just 14% of Pilsen’s population. Ten years later, they represented a majority of Pilsen’s residents. Yet, because of the deep ties between their Roman Catholic faith and Polish immigrants’ cultural identities, some St. Adalbert’s parishioners were hesitant to accept these Mexican newcomers into their congregation. Although its two neighboring parishes, St. Pius, which was predominantly Irish, and St. Procopius, which was overwhelmingly Czech, began holding Spanish mass during the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1975 when Pilsen was already a Mexican-majority neighborhood, that St. Adalbert’s first incorporated Spanish services. Moreover, it was with Pilsen’s Polish community, much of which was associated with St. Adalbert’s, that Mexicans experienced the greatest inter-ethnic tension. Mexican youth fought with Polish gangs, and St. Adalbert’s developed a negative reputation within much of Pilsen’s Mexican community.
Yet, while these tensions existed and St. Adalbert’s was relatively slower to incorporate Spanish-speaking adults into its church membership, the parish had been enrolling Mexican children in its school since the 1950s. This trend was not unique to St. Adalbert’s; parochial schools in Chicago were mainly the creation of Catholic nuns, who were often immigrants themselves. Following its participation in Chicago’s Catholic School system, which met the education needs of children from diverse ethnic and racial groups, St. Adalbert’s eventually opened its doors to integrate Mexican adults into its parish, which ultimately developed into a Mexican-majority congregation.
Today, St. Adalbert’s falls under the jurisdiction of St. Paul Catholic Church, and both churches are led by Father Michael P. Enright. In May 2016, as part of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s “Renew My Church” program, St. Adalbert’s, along with St. Ann Catholic Church on South Leavitt Street, was merged with St. Paul’s. Later that year in October, the Archdiocese announced its plans to sell St. Adalbert’s to the Chicago Academy of Music. If the deal were to go through, St. Adalbert’s would lose its status as a consecrated site and would no longer be able to hold mass. In November, however, it was confirmed that the sale would not take place, and St. Adalbert’s would continue to belong to Chicago’s Archdiocese, at least for the time being. Organizations such as the Society of St. Adalbert’s (SOSA) have worked to preserve the church by holding meetings, communicating with the Archdiocese and reaching out to Chicago’s grander Polish American population, beyond the scope of the Catholic Church. Currently, in an attempt to increase the church’s revenue, SOSA is developing a plan to convert St. Adalbert’s convent, which at one point housed 52 nuns and 15 priests, into a retreat house. In the style of a bed and breakfast, the retreat house would ideally attract tourists visiting Pilsen, Little Village and the greater Chicago area.
Although the future of St. Adalbert’s is still in question, for now, parishioners continue to attend mass, which is offered twice each Sunday, once in English and once in Spanish. Many Polish American Catholics, whether they regularly attend St. Adalbert’s or not, also choose to attend a Polish-speaking mass held on the first Sunday of each month. Although St. Adalbert’s experienced massive demographic change during the mid to late 20th century with an increase in Mexican immigrants, the church’s elaborate twin bell towers, ornate stained-glass windows and 24 marble columns within its interior continue to serve as a reminder to the Polish community of their ancestors’ dedication to the building. The church’s significance as the last stop on Pilsen’s Via Crucis further reveals that St. Adalbert’s has also become a key element of the neighborhood’s Mexican Catholic community. While St. Adalbert’s is important to each group in a different way, the deep connection both Polish Americans and Mexican Americans maintain towards the church symbolizes the immense power immigrants -- no matter where they come from -- have to radically transform a city.
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