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.
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.
I don’t often go to church, but when I don’t, I don’t feel guilty at all. When I was in grade school at Holy Cross, I went to church at least six times per week. So, now, I don’t feel any real need to attend church.If I average out my church attendance over the span of my life, I’ve gone to mass more times than many people who claim to be Catholic. Of course, I still go several times a year. This year, I’ve gone every time my son Alex went to mass before his football game. Last spring, I went to my second cousin’s confirmation. Last week, I went to my cousin Shirley’s funeral. But other than that, I haven’t gone to church. I’m not against going to church, but I never think of going on my own without any compelling reason for going.
I suppose the real question for me to answer is, “Do I believe in God?” Well, the answer is, “Once upon a time, I used to.” I was baptized a Catholic and I was confirmed by the time I was three months old. At one time when I was about twelve, I believed in God so much that I really wanted to become a priest. But then I saw the light. I realized that many Catholics were hypocrites, clergy included, and my faith in God was shaken.
When I was in the Marines, I used to go talk to the Catholic chaplain on a regular basis. I’ll be honest: I went to get out of my work detail, rather than discussing any true critical religious crisis. So I figured I had better make it good. I told the chaplain that I no longer believed in God. Which I didn’t at the time. And I still don’t. But I still feel Catholic. Since I was baptized and raised a Catholic, I plan to remain a Catholic and I will never convert to another religion. I’ve known Catholics who converted and became fanatical about their new religion.
I even baptized my sons as Catholics and sent them to a Catholic school. I’ve had friends ask me why I would do that if I’m not really Catholic. I like the sense of tradition.Two of my friends from Spain once grilled me about my Catholicism. “Are you Catholic?” “Yes.” “Do you go to church every Sunday?” “No.” “Then you’re not Catholic!” “I was baptized a Catholic!” “Are your sons Catholic?” “They were baptized Catholic.” “But you’re not Catholic! Why did you baptize them?” “If nothing else, we have something in common.” They were dumbfounded by my logic.
This morning I took my son Alex to his football mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church. I remembered most of the prayers, but there were some new ones. My mind drifted away from the mass several times. I recalled how mass used to be when I was a boy. Things were so different now. When I was an altar boy, only males were allowed near the altar during mass. Today, there were no altar boys. Only altar girls. And about half of the Eucharist ministers were women. And the dress code is no longer the stringent dress shirt with a tie and dress pants for males and nice dresses for females with their heads covered. I was shocked to see worshipers coming to mass wearing jeans, shorts, gym shoes, flip flops, and t-shirts. On the other hand, the church was fairly full and most people participated in the prayers and hymns. Overall, I got the feeling that they were true believers.
After we moved from Pilsen, our family moved to Back of the Yards where my tío Simón and tía Mari lived. They lived at 4546 S. Marshfield and we moved to 4545 S. Hermitage. Back of the Yards was named thus because it was literally located behind the International Union Stockyards if you headed southwest from downtown. They were made famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. In grade school, the Lithuanian nuns always mentioned the novel proudly because the protagonist was Lithuanian. They always talked about the man who drowned in the unpaved street and when I finally read the novel I convinced myself that I had deduced exactly where he drowned. The Stockyards where ever-present in our consciousness because many of our parents worked there in one of the meat-packing plants, we had to drive past them to go downtown or to the lakefront, or mainly, because of the pungent odors produced by a fertilizer company ironically named Darling and Co. The stench produced in the fertilizer-making process was inevitable if the wind blew in the direction of our neighborhood–even if we were indoors. My friend Patrick McDonnell used to take me there to play because it was the ideal playground for boys with over-active imaginations. But we had to look out for security guards, Patrick told me, and run if we saw them in order to avoid getting shot by their pepper guns. Luckily, we never saw any. One day Patrick told where there was a swimming hole and we went swimming there. It was dirty, smelly water, but Patrick talked me into jumping in. The next day when I told one of our neighbors where I had gone swimming, he laughed uproariously. He finally told me we swam in the pool that they used to wash the pigs before they were slaughtered! Well, we never swam there again.
Our neighborhood was typical of any Chicago neighborhood in that there was a surplus of neighborhood bars. There was at least one bar on every corner. But there were some corners that actually had two or three bars. And usually there was at least one or two bars in the middle of the block. The whole theory behind having so many bars was that if the man of house went out to tipple a few beers, everyone would know where to find him. Every payday, I had to make the rounds of the bars within a two-block radius to find my father before he spent too much of his salary before he got home. Later, I got the brilliant idea of taking my shoeshine box with me when I looked for my father in the bars. I would first go to the bars where I absolutely knew my father would not be and ask for him. Some of bar patrons whom I thought were surely upright citizens would see my shoeshine box and then ask me for a shoeshine. I made some pretty good spending money this way. One day, my father didn’t recognize me because I didn’t get to him in time and he paid me for a shoeshine. And he gave me a generous tip, which I dutifully gave to my mother when we returned home.
The neighborhood served as a port of entry for many ethnic groups. When we moved there in the 1960s, the Mexicans were just starting to move in, but there were plenty of us to go around. I had friends who were Lithuanian, Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and of course, Mexican. I remember going to many a friend’s house and not hearing any of their parents speaking very much English. In my neighborhood, there were three parishes within four blocks of my house. I attended Holy Cross Church because they also had a grade school. There was also Sacred Heart of Joseph that was the Polish parish also with its own school. Immaculate Heart of Mary was the Mexican parish, but they didn’t have their own school, which is why we attended Holy Cross. The main reason I attended Holy Cross School was because it was the closest Catholic school in the neighborhood. In fact, we lived right across the street from the school.
I remember my first day at Kindergarten. My tía Mari and her daughters Lourdes and Jane came for my mother and me and we all walked to school together. After school, I went out to the schoolyard with my cousin Jane who was in my class. We saw her mother, but my mother wasn’t there for me and I started crying. How would I get home, I wondered, even though I only lived across the street. My tía Mari told me not to cry. My mother showed up a few minutes later. She said that she had forgotten all about picking me up and I started crying again. The next morning, my mother woke me up to go to school. I was surprised. I said, “I have to go again?” I didn’t realize that Kindergarten would get so involved. But I agreed to go only if my mother remembered to pick me up this time.
Back then, no one sent their children to a Chicago public school if they could afford to send them to a private school. Holy Cross had Lithuanian nuns and they were very strict, but it was an education that lasted me a lifetime. I remember we had to go to mass everyday before we went to school. Back then the masses were still in Latin, but I liked the old masses better. Of course, I rarely go to mass now, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to be Catholic. I still feel guilty if I even think of committing a sin. Anyway, some of the Holy Cross students, namely the Mexicans, began attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priest said the mass in Spanish. Well, this didn’t go over well with our Lithuanian nuns. They insisted that we attend mass at Holy Cross and started taking attendance at mass by keeping track of the envelopes that we gave during the offering at mass. We had to sit with our class at the 9:00 a.m. mass. Attendance was mandatory! Unless we could bring documentation that we were hospitalized or that something more serious had occurred to us. Because of this new rule, I often went to mass twice on Sundays. My mother would send me off to mass at Holy Cross and when I returned home, we would all pile into the car, go to Immaculate Heart for the Spanish mass, and then do our Sunday visits.
Our neighborhood was very territorial. Everyone knew where everyone belonged. Territorial transgressions where sometimes retaliated with physical violence. I remember once during our school lunch, my brother and I went to the candy store that was more or less between Holy Cross School and Sacred Heart School. He left the store before me. When I went out, I noticed my brother was crying. It so happened that two students from Sacred Heart had beat him up. As the older brother it was my moral obligation to defend my little brother. So I chased the two kids and I started punching them and telling them never to hit my brother again. Just then, a nun from Sacred Heart grabs me by the collar because I’m a stranger in a strange land. They take my brother and I to their principal’s office. One phone call to my school and my brother and I are in really big trouble so I try to be polite to the nuns. Luckily, I didn’t accidentally punch the nun who grabbed me. All we got was a lecture! But not a very good one. The principal, also a nun, said my brother and I reminded her of Cain and Abel. I couldn’t help it, but I absolutely had to correct her. I told her, “Cain killed his brother. I was defending my brother!” They principal told me not to talk back and she released us.