I grew up in St. Kilian’s parish in the Gresham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. It was like growing up in a small village, even though it happened to be smack dab in the middle of the second largest city in the nation at the time. St. Kilian’s was its own tight-knit little world, as all-encompassing as it was limiting. I was also in many ways radically different from the one we know today.
For Catholics in the Fifties, the parish defined not just the neighborhood but the entire geography of the city. You didn’t ask what neighborhood you came from, you asked what parish. This seemed to work because pretty much everyone we knew was also Catholic. The parish was at the heart of things, providing not just liturgies but schools, music, sports, dances, scouting, and social clubs, all made possible by a now-vanished army of nuns who worked for beans and took care of the school, the church, and the priests to boot. Thanks to them, I was able to take piano lessons and get some Bach and Beethoven under my fingers, play the flute in the school band, participate in music recitals, and join scouts. Along with the 3Rs, I also got a smattering of art and science (including a mind-blowing science trip to the University of Chicago). Not bad for a little South Side Irish spud.
The parish also provided sacred space, which was a real thing. The transcendent was as much a part of our lives as anything else. Churches were everywhere; steeples dominated the neighborhood skyline. They were Downtown as well, with Holy Name Cathedral, the old St. Mary’s Church on South Michigan, and Saint Peter’s on Madison marking Catholic territory.