Holy Cross Church


Holy Cross Church, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I went to Holy Cross Church today after an absence of about thirty-plus years. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew things would be different, but I didn’t quite expect to see so many familiar sights.

Well, to begin with, the church was founded by Lithuanians in Back of the Yards In the early 1900s and they finally built their church in 1913. When I attended Holy Cross in the 1960s, most of the parishioners were Lithuanian. Mexicans were just starting to move into the neighborhood in larger numbers. Mexicans had been moving to Chicago since about the time of the Mexican Revolution around 1910, but they started moving into Back of the Yards in large numbers in the 1930s.  By the time I attended Holy Cross, there were many Mexican parishioners. However, Mexicans also had their own church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, about a half-mile away from Holy Cross.

On Sundays, we usually went to mass at Holy Cross Church, but sometimes our family went to the mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priests said the mass in Spanish. I enjoyed hearing mass in Spanish, so I never complained. Apparently, too many Mexican parishioners from Holy Cross started attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary on Sundays. Well, the priests and nuns from Holy Cross didn’t like this at all. Suddenly, we were required to attend Sunday mass at Holy Cross Church. We had to sit with our class and the nuns took attendance. If we didn’t come to Sunday mass at Holy Cross, we had to bring a note from our parents explaining where we were. This was directed at the Mexican students only. But everyone understood the rule. There was no racism involved. If you belonged to a parish and enjoyed the benefits of their Catholic education, you must attend their mass.

Imagine my surprise when I went to Holy Cross Church today and I observed that at least 99% of the people in mass were Mexican, all except the priest who I’m guessing was African and spoke fluent Spanish. The mass was said in Spanish and the children’s choir sang in Spanish to marimba music. I really didn’t expect to see any of my former teachers or classmates, and I didn’t. Well, it turns out that Holy Cross Church and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church have merged since most of the neighborhood is now Mexican.

The new Holy Cross.

I was wondering what the priests and nuns of my school days would say if they saw the church today. Well, at least the church is still alive and well. The Polish parish of Sacred Heart no longer exists. I walked there before mass and was surprised that most of the buildings were demolished and a Chicago public school stood in its place. Holy Cross School no longer exists, but the parish rents out the school building to the Chicago Public Schools. C’est la vie.

Mexico vs. Poland


Bishop Plácido Rodríguez and Pope John Paul II

A few years back, there was a soccer / football / fútbol match at Soldier Field between Mexico and Poland. The game sold out almost as soon as the tickets went on sale. Why? Well, because Chicago is the fifth largest Mexican city and Chicago is also the second largest Polish city. Chicago has a lot of people of Polish and Mexican descent living here.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had Polish friends. In Chicago, it’s just inevitable. In many Chicago neighborhoods, Mexicans and Poles live and work side by side. Despite the language barrier, they get along quite well because they have so many other things in common.

First of all, many of them have strong connection to their home country because they are either immigrants or they know recent immigrants. Most speak English as their second language. Both Poles and Mexicans are mainly Catholic and have a great devotion to the Virgin Mary. They both come from rural areas and adapt to a major city like Chicago. Both groups are known for being hard workers. So, there are many couples that are Mexican / Polish, or, if you prefer, Polish / Mexican, in Chicago. And they, too, get along just fine.

How they meet often remains a mystery since both Mexicans and Poles prefer their own people. But they have plenty of opportunities to meet each other in Chicago because they live and work together. Sometimes, only one person of the couple is a U.S. citizen. Usually, gaining U.S. citizenship has nothing to do with their becoming a couple. There is a genuine attraction between the two because they have so much in common. I’ve been to many Polish parties for baptisms, weddings, birthdays, and family gatherings, and I always felt like I was extremely welcome there. In fact, many times Poles would approach me with a friendly smile and immediately begin talking to me in Polish. I’d have to shrug and tell them that I didn’t speak Polish and that would end our conversation since they didn’t speak much English. Considering how many Polish girls I have met, I’m amazed that I’ve never had a Polish girlfriend.

Holy Cross


Holy Cross Church, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I spent a significant number of years during my coming of age at Holy Cross Church and Holy Cross School. This parish was founded in the 1890s by Lithuanian immigrants. In the 1930s, there was a large influx of Mexican immigrants to Back of the Yards, which is one of the main reasons our family moved to the neighborhood in the 1960s after having lived in Pilsen.

I attended Holy Cross School from kindergarten through eighth grade and I graduated on June 6, 1971. The study habits I developed during this time served me well the rest of my years in school, especially college. Of course, it helped that all the teachers were strict Lithuanian Catholic nuns, with exception of Mr. Hovanec the history teacher. Nothing instills healthy study habits better than the fear of being disciplined with corporal punishment by a nun wielding a yardstick and a man’s name such as Sister Joseph or Sister Bartholomew.

Of course, during the 1960s there was a movement to convert U.S. to the metric system and move away from the English system of measurement that even the English didn’t use anymore. Our nuns participated in the metric system conversion by trading in their yardsticks for meter sticks when they hit us. That meant 3.37 more inches of pain. These nuns really wanted us to learn so we would go on to excel in high school and college. The school was very strict and if the corporal punishment didn’t straighten out a student quickly, expulsion was imminent. Once the principal, Sister Cecilia, lectured us on the importance of behaving well because our school record now could affect us later as adults. Recently, she told us, a former Holy Cross student applied to become an FBI agent and the FBI came to Holy Cross to see what kind of student he was. Well, that was enough to scare me into being a good student.

At school most of my friends were either Lithuanian or Mexican. Everyone had to learn English. Everyone had to become a good American citizen. In fact, the nuns constantly reminded us that any one of us could one day grow up to become the President of the United States. We always had to study hard and be on our best behavior. But somehow someone always got in trouble. I used to get in trouble for laughing at the class clown. When the nun would ask me what was so funny, I would tell her and she didn’t understand why I would laugh at such a thing. Looking back, I see her point.

Above all, they taught us to be good Catholics. We went to church everyday before going to school. If we were late for morning mass, we were considered late for school. Back then I thought the whole world was Catholic. Everyone I knew was Catholic. My parents, my brothers, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, the nuns, our pastor, I mean everybody. Even famous people were Catholic. Mayor Richard J. Daley was Catholic and he was well-known for stopping at St. Peter’s on Madison Street to hear mass before going to City Hall. President John F. Kennedy was Catholic. The nuns would proudly remind us at every opportunity. To me, the whole world was Catholic. Even the Pope was Catholic! So why did he wear a yarmulke?

Of course, attending a private school meant paying tuition and having fundraisers. As I recall, we had one fundraiser after another all year, culminating in the parish carnival in June. We had raffles for everything. One year, the raffle prize was a brand new station wagon, and miraculously, one of the nuns had the winning ticket. There were bake sales, rummage sales, Christmas card sales, movie showings, and sometimes just outright petitions for donations for certain goals either at school or church. I remember that I liked selling the Christmas cards door to door. My brother Tato and I teamed up one year on a cold, snowy day. We carried our boxes of Christmas cards with us and didn’t have much luck selling them at first. Then, we were at one house on the icy porch of a woman who had just refused to buy a box of Christmas cards from us. As my brother started walking down the stairs, he accidentally slipped on the ice and rolled down about eight stairs all the way to the bottom. Well, the woman asked if he was okay–he was because we always bundled up in multiple layers on cold days like this. Then she bought a box of Christmas cards from us. I think she was afraid of a civil lawsuit. At the next house, the woman didn’t want any Christmas cards either, until my brother “accidentally” fell down the stairs again. This was my brother’s brilliant idea and he kept falling until we had sold all our Christmas cards!

Mexican Catholics


Mount Carmel Church, Chicago, Illinois

The Mexican stereotype is that all Mexicans are Catholics. And most of them are. However, when I met my ex-wife’s family, I was surprised, even shocked, that most of her father’s family were Mexican Protestants. And her family was Protestant in Mexico, too! Talk about culture shock. Even though I’m a Mexican Catholic, I, too, stereotype all Mexicans in Mexico as Catholics.

As a young boy I was a parishioner at a Lithuanian Catholic church, Holy Cross, where I also attended their grammar school. The church population consisted of mostly Lithuanians, but there were also a lot of Mexican families in the parish and school. We always went to mass on school days before we went to class and on Sundays we sat with our classmates and teacher for mass. All the Mexicans in the neighborhood went to mass, if not every day, at least on Sundays. My father’s family was extremely religious, so I had this image of all Mexicans being devout Catholics.

When I went to Mexico, I realized that my mother’s family wasn’t as religious as I had imagined. All of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members always said that they were Catholic. What a disgrace it would be not to be Catholic!

Anyway, once I went to Mexico to visit for a month. By the third week, I realized that we had not even gone to church even once. I wasn’t really a practicing Catholic then, but I was worried about what my family would think of me if I didn’t go to church or even suggest going to church. So I asked them if they ever went church. Immediately, my aunt told everyone to dress up nice. We were going to church! Well, we went to church and there was no one there. There were no masses scheduled for that day, on a Sunday no less. We sat in the pews for a while attempting to pray, or at least pretending to pray, and then we went home.

So now that’s how I remember Mexican Catholics. People who want everyone to think that they’re Catholic. And, I guess, I’m no exception, either. Whenever someone asks me my religion, I say, “I’m Catholic!”