This past week, we had many wonderful discussions about Catholics and their involvement in various unionization movements, as well as the different racial and ethnic identities that Catholics have held since their immigration to the United States of America.
The class readings as well as our off-campus scavenger hunt opened my eyes to just how deeply Catholicism is woven into American history as well as Chicago’s history, from the Founding to present day. The Declaration of Independence is interwoven with biblical sentiments of property rights taken from the writing of renowned Protestant and incredibly anti-Catholic philosopher John Locke, but despite this, the largely Protestant founding fathers were not shy about hiding their anti-Catholic sentiments. The narrative of Catholics as dangerous and wicked has been perpetuated since the American founding, and I believe that this is what has caused the massive roadblock that has prevented Catholics from being seen as real citizens up until present day.
Despite Irish Catholic immigrants playing an integral role in building up American cities from 1840-1890, Nativist hostility towards Irish Catholics largely excluded them from public life and prevented them from becoming full citizens with well-paying jobs and peaceful lives. This hostility forced the Irish to unionize and organize around their own rights, developing organizations and defense strategies in order to fight back against rampant Anti-Catholicism, which was even perpetuated by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was himself a wealthy Protestant, and his vigorous campaign of Americanization.
Immigration has played a crucial role in the spread of Catholicism, and the influx of Irish Catholic and other Catholic Eastern European immigrants has helped shape the city that we know today, with its customs and villages devoted to being homes for Ukrainians, Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Irish folk. These niche communities have allowed ethnic and religious minorities to thrive and build their own associations, while resisting the intense urge to Americanize and relinquish their old traditions, whether those be attending Catholic mass in their native language every Sunday or buying traditional staples at their local corner store. Nowadays, the word “Catholic” does not carry the same stigma that it used to– one can easily walk into a Catholic Church and attend mass without fear of being ostracized by society, and American Catholics span a wide variety of ethnicities and have widely differing racial backgrounds, which allows them full citizenship and full ability to participate in American society.
My off-campus scavenger hunt around the city brought me to a number of different places that had ties to immigrant communities and union movements throughout the city. My favorite of the four locations that I visited was the Hull House, which in itself was a place that nurtured immigrants in the Near West Side and provided them with public services such as baths and kitchens as well as opportunities to engage in the fine arts through theatre, pottery, music, and classic literature. Addams and the other residents of the Hull House worked tirelessly to serve the immigrant communities of the nineteenth ward and not only provide those in need with a place to stay but also provide them with access to art and music as well as the resources they needed in order to effectively organize around issues in their communities. Because Jane Addams had an FBI file due to her radical efforts in women’s rights, she undoubtedly had the skills to teach immigrants how to unionize, and thus provided them with knowledge and resources far greater than any school could have taught. (please see photos at the top of page for examples of pottery and other art by the residents of Hull House)
The Haymarket Memorial was another interesting place that I visited on my scavenger hunt, a memorial honoring the tragedy that occurred in Haymarket Square on May 4th, 1886, a tragedy that likely involved many American immigrant Catholics who were working class laborers. I found it very interesting that the placards across the bottom of the statue included messages of solidarity from Sweden, Iraq, Mexico, Germany, and the NCTU. I feel as though these plaques emphasize the global nature of class struggle and show that “solidarity forever” means solidarity across borders with all workers who are being mistreated . These plaques were unique to me, and they really seemed to emphasize the fact that all forms of injustice are interconnected, even when occurring across borders.
The final sites that I visited were Union Park and Plumbers Union Hall. Union Park was a beautiful sprawling green space in the city, complete with a flower garden and baseball diamond, which was a welcoming sight for someone who is surrounded by brick apartment buildings all day. Although it took me quite some time to find the statue of James Connolly that I was supposed to find, I appreciated the opportunity to just wander. The statue of James Connolly, the powerful Irish Socialist Republican Party organizer. The statue stood imposingly in a very sunny section of the park and reminded me that Union Park is indeed in a very special area of Chicago, which is home to the union offices of many other organizations, one of which is the Plumbers Union. The Union’s red sign boasts the message “The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation,” which is incredibly true and seems to be something that has been taken for granted in today’s age. The plumber does indeed protect the nation’s water and overall sanitation, and it saddened me greatly to see how increasingly gentrified the surrounding area is becoming. There were a block of new apartments being remodeled as I was arriving at the site, and hundreds of fancy shopping centers and restaurants just a few streets over. I worry that although the Union itself is a very beautiful and new building, that the surrounding gentrification will push inwards and suffocate the building as fewer people seek trade jobs. Even my father told me that he used to buy his meat from a small family-owned business a few blocks away from the Plumbers Union, and that now the butcher is gone, and although this modernization surely had good intentions, I am sure that it has displaced hundred more mom and pop businesses across the country.
All in all, I am incredibly grateful to be given the opportunity to travel around the city and experience these places, which I had not been to before, and I will cherish the memories that I got to make on this trip.