After abandoning Austin, whites mourn their church

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter


A Catholic church in the Austin neighborhood was closed after a final mass on Mother's Day and Rev. Andrew Greeley is feeling badly. He wrote about it in his Sun-Times column last week. It was, to me, a lovely and moving piece until the end when my mind and his words came out at the same troubled place.

Why did this church have to close? Why did its community fall away? What, then, is the place of sentiment in all this?

St. Angela's, you see, was Greeley's home parish. He said his first mass at St. Angela's in 1954. It was where his family married and died, where newborns were welcomed and teens confirmed as "soldiers of Christ."

Beyond those sacraments, though, Greeley remembered St. Angela's as the center of an Austin neighborhood, especially in those years after the war ended and the 1950s opened with promise for what he called curiously "The Big Change." Prosperity, he wrote, "was no longer just around the corner, it was now right there among us."  

Catholics, Austin Catholics, he wrote are "a communal and sacramental people." The parish was the center of life and in those post-war years of good jobs on the West Side and the Catholic multiplication of kids, St. Angela's hummed with a parish school and softball leagues and May Crownings and all the pageantry and, I assume, politics of any congregation.

If in 1952, when the "new church" was opened, the future seemed endless and secured, that was what it meant to be Catholic and white and Irish on Chicago's great West Side. But the real "Big Change" was coming and it had little to do with prosperity and everything to do with race and fanned fears. For by the late 1960s Austin was "changing" with an African-American influx from Garfield Park and Lawndale that started south at the expressway and moved steadily north toward St. Angela's near North Avenue.

Greeley notes the movement though he pulls his punches in deference, perhaps, to his kin and kinship. "We value our communities and our sacred places. ... We mourn when they end, even though in the changing demographics and real estate markets of a city, some of them must inevitably end."

Greeley, rightly known for straight talk, allows for inevitable ends. He didn't have the heart to talk about massive white flight, profiteering blockbusting, evil or weak politics, the utter failure of churches and most every other institution to hold true, to talk about the total throwing over of community by the people who claimed then and still claim to celebrate it.

At the Mother's Day mass for alumni (read West Cook and DuPage County residents) Greeley says his sister "reported a sense of betrayal among the people with whom she spoke. Who had betrayed us? The archdiocese, of course?#34;who else?"

The West Side was betrayed by white people. By Catholics who knelt in pews a final time as they lined up moving trucks headed to Westchester and Glen Ellyn. They had their community and they gave it away because they were afraid and stupid and racist.

So much for sentiment.

Greeley knows it. "We no longer live there. We left of our own free will," he writes near closing.

The abrupt disconnection of this greatest generation from its Austin roots may have caused psychic pain to those who departed. It has caused real pain to those who came in their befuddled wake.

Austin survives and, maybe, even, 30 years into its next life as an African-American community, it even has begun to thrive in places. It is no thanks to the lost parishioners of St. Angela's who now mourn what true and welcoming community might have meant. 

Reader Comments

12 Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Joel A. Schoenmeyer  

Posted: June 2nd, 2015 8:44 AM

Very excited to hear that the Wednesday Journal is moving its offices to Austin!

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: June 1st, 2015 7:06 PM

Phil, I believe the Brach's factory closed when the company moved it's operations to Mexico. Cheaper labor costs and lower sugar prices are likely the reasons for the relocation. A number of American candy manufacturers now produce their products in Mexico.

Phil Honaker  

Posted: June 1st, 2015 1:08 PM

My family moved to Austin in March of 1970. My father bought the building soon after and then the exodus started. We stayed 12 years. What was once a thriving neighborhood turned into a crime infested hell hole. I was shot at twice right on the street where I lived (Ferdinand) my 8 year old brother was hit in the head with a brick. My garage was set on fire. The windshield on my car was shattered.... Google the intersection of Cicero & Ferdinand and see all of the empty lots were homes and businesses stood for decades. Look at the giant hole where Brach's candy factory used to be. Was it really the whites that were stupid and racist? We have been gone for a long time now so who really killed Austin and why is it a wasteland today? Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and search for the truth even if it hurts.

Winter Skye  

Posted: January 4th, 2015 1:23 PM

Who dredged this up from a decade ago and why? In any case, BLACKBLACKBLACKBLACKBLACKBLACKBLACKBLACK Dan Haley, why are you afraid of writing BLACK in this article? You have no problem with WHITE so what is it about BLACK that is so shameful that it has to be danced around! Black is beautiful!

Joanne from Florida  

Posted: January 4th, 2015 10:55 AM

The 'hood was "changing" certainly after the 60's. And I was a part of a different movement. In the early 70's, my parents emigrated from the Philippines to Austin. I was born and raised there, a part of a vibrant St. Angela parish & school. There was a strong Filipino presence in the community through the late 80's, many leaving ONLY with concerns of safety for their families. We fought for and contributed to Austin, thanks to St Angela leadership who didn't leave when everyone else did.

joe from south oak park  

Posted: August 26th, 2014 7:07 AM

any particular reason a post from 2005 that hasn't been commented on in over a year is being resurrected?


Posted: August 26th, 2014 5:15 AM

It's just common sense to flee in 1968 due to the MLK riots. It has nothing to do with race excepting the people doing the rioting were all the same color. So the church existed for a short 16 years before the riots, shorter than most roof warranties. 46 years later the neighborhoods still suffer. I think as we head into the 5th decade of blight, this is not longer a white flight issue is it?


Posted: August 26th, 2014 1:26 AM

I just came upon your comment about those who abandoned St. Angela's Parish and our Beautiful neighborhood. I especially was taken aback by Family that moved to Glen Ellyn and I am very curious about who you are speaking of?

Bob from Oak Paark  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 10:03 PM

Clyde you have your conspiracy theories confused. It was the boogyman not Saul that caused the problems. Or perhaps it was God because he only loves rich people who live in the burbs.

Clyde from Chicago  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 4:37 PM

The truth is we now know that the atheist, anti Catholic radical Saul Alinsky and his organization had a hand in the destruction of St Angela.

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 30th, 2013 5:22 PM

When the schools went, the community left. The riots and destruction after the murder of Martin Luther King had a devastating impact on the community and further degraded racial tensions.

Tom Malone  

Posted: June 29th, 2013 7:50 PM

A lot of it was lack of leadership, social, political, and religious. But it is not accurate to judge things that happened in 1968 by how the world is in 2013.

Facebook Connect