Deborah Kanter author of Chicago Catolico: Making Catholic Parishes Mexican

Deborah Kanter just published Chicago Catolico: Making Catholic Parishes Mexican, a quintessential story of Chicago’s changing neighborhoods and how the Catholic Church adapted to the culture of their new parishioners. The back story to the book is how the author bridged being Jewish and the culture of Mexican Catholics.

Kanter grew up in Oak Park, was bat mitzvahed at West Suburban Temple Har Zion and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School.  The Mexican Roman Catholic part of her identity began in her 7th grade Spanish class at the Hatch School with a teacher named Carol Dudzik who made her “really excited about learning Spanish and interested in Mexican culture.” Dudzik went on to be a well-regarded Oak Park principal.

Kanter received a Ph.D. in history in 1993.  Her dissertation was titled Hijos del Pueblo: Family, Community and Gender in Rural Mexico, the Toluca Region, 1730-1830. She has been a professor of history at Albion College in Michigan since 1992.

Her latest book is Chicago Catolico, which the Sun-Times has called “not to be missed.”  Although based on solid research, the book is not to be missed by non-academics because it is a story of demographic change and how one institution, the Catholic Church responded in positive ways.  In these polarized times, it’s the kind of narrative that needs to be told.

The first half of Chicago Católico focuses on a church called St. Francis of Assisi in the area which is now dominated by UIC. St. Francis was one of two parishes created in the 1920s by the archdiocese to serve the thousands of Spanish speaking immigrants flooding into Chicago.  Kanter’s book described how these parishes remained centers of spiritual sustenance for Mexican Catholics until today but also became refugios, refuges where people spoke their primary language Spanish, where those Mexican immigrants could find job leads, where they could celebrate holidays like the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December, where even if they felt marginalized in their daily lives, when they were at St. Francis they were part of a community where they could feel safe and “at home.”

The second half of Chicago Católico is about what happened when the housing around what is now UIC was demolished to make way for the construction of the university campus.  Mexicans moved from what had been the single largest Latinx area in the city into other neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s.  One of the main neighborhoods to which they moved, Kanter says, was Pilsen.

What Mexicans found in Pilsen was a very Catholic neighborhood with 13 different Catholic parishes all within a mile and a half of each other.  “There was one for Lithuanians, one for Croatians, one for Czechs, one for Poles and so on, all built around ethnic and linguistic groups,” she says.

What happened over the next 20 years is that parishes either became Mexican or shut down.  The book explains this ethnic succession and to what extent integration and collaboration happened and about the ways being Catholic was really crucial to Mexicans putting down roots in the neighborhoods.

As European Americans began moving out of the old neighborhoods to the suburbs, attendance at Mass declined, but instead of resisting the invasion of these “foreigners,” the priests in many parishes not only kept the doors of their churches open, but also began looking for Spanish speaking priests who could minister to their new members, and many priests took summer courses in conversational Spanish.

The laity in these parishes who had not moved to the suburbs also welcomed the new members.  Croatians, for example would join in the procession on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexicans would participate in Croatian Catholic festivals and sometimes even sing hymns in Croatian.

“It strikes me in many ways,” Kanter says, “as being a quintessential Chicago story of changing neighborhoods, and the Catholic parishes were an essential part of this.”

What the book does not reveal, however, is what happened to Dr. Kanter while doing her research over several decades.  “I have a strong cultural association with being Jewish,” she says, “and I also have a strong cultural association with Mexicans and Catholics.”

I have felt for a very long time,” she says, “that I am an intermediary.  I’m bilingual and doing research and spending time in these Mexican Catholic parishes has made me as close to bicultural as I can be.   I want to encourage people to cross these boundaries of race and language. I feel pretty strongly that all of us in America should be spending time in places where English is not the main language   An easy way to tap into a different culture which may be more meaningful than taking people to a Mexican restaurant is taking them to a Mexican religious community.” 

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...