Segregating the Altar: Jim Crow Comes to Catholic Chicago

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Timothy B. Neary, Salve Regina University
In 1917, as Chicago’s African American population swelled due to the weekly arrival of hundreds of migrants to the Midwest metropolis from the U.S. South, Archbishop George Mundelein introduced the color line into the city’s Catholic Church by adopting an official policy of racial segregation. Even as he sought to break apart national parishes based on Euro-American ethnic affiliations, Mundelein declared St. Monica’s, a historically African American parish in the heart of the city’s Black Belt, off-limits to white Catholics. In the 1890s, the nation’s first recognized African American priest, Father Augustus Tolton, led St. Monica’s as its pastor. By the 1920s, however, white priests trained to work as missionaries in Africa and Asia ran the parish, and white nuns staffed the parish school. Hurt and angered that their loyalty to the faith was met with disloyalty from the institutional church, parishioners protested the decision. “The children of the bond woman shall no longer kneel at the altar with the heirs of the free,” they wrote in a petition to Mundelein. Under the new policy, African Americans, they lamented, “alone shall enter into the sanctuary over whose portals is written in blazing letters of shame ‘SEGREGATED.’” This paper will assess the legacy of Mundelein’s decision on the city’s African American Catholic population during the interwar period and beyond. The relationship between the black Catholic faithful and the near exclusively white clergy and white religious sisters was complex. On the one hand, the Archdiocese upheld and protected the institutional racism dominant in the city. On the other hand, many African American Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, found comfort, guidance, and allies in some white priests and sisters. Crossing parish boundaries to enter into communion with lay white Catholics, however, proved more difficult, as it still does today.
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