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.