The Catholic Cross-Over: a historical Analysis of St. Thomas More Parish, 1950 to 2006

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"The Catholic Cross-Over: A Historical Analysis


St. Thomas More Parish, 1950 to 2006."
By Alice Holohan
The parish of St. Thomas More was founded in 1947 on the southwest side of Chicago in Ashburn and became a fundamental component of the Wrightwood neighborhood. The church was founded to accommodate the growing Irish-Catholic southside population which resulted from the availability of Post World War II job opportunities. The aftermath of World War II also brought another group to the south side of Chicago; these were African-Americans who emigrated from the South to the urban north during the second wave of the Great Migration from 1945 to 1970. In 1948, racial covenants were dismantled that had previously legalized the segregation of black and white communities in the Ashburn area. Consequently, the St. Thomas More parish became an area of racial strife as both communities competed for resources of housing and employment. This project employs the use of a content analysis of St. Thomas More parish bulletins from 1958 to 2000 in order to determine how the Catholic Church dealt with racial and class issues during the aftermath of World War II and the liberal ideas generated from the Civil Rights Movement and Vatican II. It assesses whether the Church encouraged the Catholic white flight to the suburbs or whether it embraced its new African-American parishioners and remained a Wrightwood community anchor.

"The Catholic Cross-Over: A Historical Analysis


St. Thomas More Parish, 1950 to 2006."

Catholic priests inherit a religious tradition whose goal it is to seek out members of all faiths and proclaim the Word of God. In order to fulfill this goal, Catholic parishes were established with distinct urban boundaries that defined a priest’s evangelical limits. At the turn of the 20th century these limits also encompassed racial and class barriers as parishes were generally set up in communities of a homogeneous race and income level. This homogeneity was threatened as minorities, mostly African-Americans, arrived in the urban north after World War II. Suddenly the mission to evangelize to “all” held different connotations for Catholic priests. Influenced by the egalitarian ideals spread by Vatican II, in the 1960s, the Catholic Church became a promoter of the interracial harmony advocated by Civil Rights supporters. Yet Vatican II ideals caused rifts within the Church as parishioners became divided over racial issues. Some conservative parishioners left urban neighborhoods in search of suburban churches which promoted pre-Vatican II ideals, some chose to stay in order to defend their Catholic turf, while others remained indifferent as the liberalism of Vatican II decreased the importance of the parish as a community anchor.

The initial Catholic white flight of the conservatives pre-empted much change within urban communities. As white families began to leave, African-American families could move into the neighborhood where they found acceptance with their pastor but resistance from their defensive white neighbors. Given the limited research on the association between religious and residential segregation, the purpose of this project is to assess the Church’s reaction to its incoming African-American parishioners. Due to the change in racial composition from an Irish-American parish to a predominantly African-American parish, a content analysis of the weekly church bulletins of St. Thomas More in the Wrightwood neighborhood of Ashburn, Chicago is employed.
The socio-historical analysis of ethnic enclaves is essential for tracking demographic change across urban environments. Waves of immigration permanently altered the face of American cities as multiple ethnicities challenged America’s ideal of “whiteness” (Smith 1966). Certain immigrant groups integrated easily into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture while the other groups remained marginalized and inassimilable. Immigrant groups often lived in ethnically homogeneous enclaves supported by a religious foundation. Catholic immigrants established “national parishes” in these enclaves built with the immigrants’ voluntary contributions of labor and money. Church services in national parishes were spoken in the native language and parish traditions were based on Old World culture. These parishes were a unique agent of socialization in the late 19th century since they preserved ethnic heritage yet exposed parishioners to the American practices of initiative and individualism (Skerrett, Kantowicz & Avella 1993).

A sort of racial stratification occurred due to immigration thereby separating desirable immigrants from undesirable ones (Bashi and McDaniel 1997). A unique situation emerged with the juxtaposition of two undesirable ethnic groups: Irish-American Catholics and African-Americans. By the late 19th century, Irish-Americans had created a stable and permanent urban community through the Catholic parish system since they were ostracized by WASP society. Irish-American ethnic identity became tied more with Catholicism as opposed to Irish nationalism since Catholicism humanized the harsh conditions of urban lifestyle into forms of religious sacrifice (Skerrett, Kantowicz & Avella 1993). Whereas Protestants valued a strong work ethic, Catholics embraced the value of large families which led to most Catholic neighborhoods to be working class. In order to encourage stability for large working class families, Catholic pastors, during weekly sermons, encouraged their parishioners to own homes as opposed to renting housing in the area. Therefore the Catholic “exit cost” of leaving a community was much higher than those of other faiths who may have not owned homes so Catholic pastors were almost guaranteed parishioners for life (Gamm1999). Consequently, the establishment of a Catholic church increased the neighboring property value due to the high amount of home ownership in an area. Parishes accelerated the integration of immigrants and their children into American life and provided working-class Irish with American models of middle-class behavior.

Irish-Americans also imitated the American education model and created a system of parochial schools since the public school system in the decades leading up to the 20th century was Protestant-oriented. By 1890, the Chicago Catholic school system was a quarter of the size of the entire public school system and set the same academic standards as public schools (Skerrett, Kantowicz & Avella 1993). Catholic schools were used as a tool to assimilate the immigrant and to be a springboard for upward social mobility (Miller and Kavanagh 1975).

These urban schools were, however, only open to white students even though a major change in the face of urbanization was simultaneously occurring, the Great Migration. The emigration of 3.5 million African-Americans (Collins 1997) from the rural south to the urban north from 1914 to 1950 had a major impact upon Irish-Americans’ territorial parish system throughout the North. Gamm (1999: 27) labels this time period as the “urban crisis” of the 1920s. While white Protestant, middle-class communities could flee to the suburbs during the arrival of African-Americans, Irish Catholics remained rooted to their parish in urban areas. The 1920s for the Protestant white middle class was a time of urban removal, for Irish-Catholics the 1920s were years of racial resistance against African-Americans. The two socially-disadvantaged groups were forced to compete for the same limited employment opportunities and housing availability (Onkey 1999). However, in order to gain entry into “white privilege,” Irish-Americans distanced themselves socially from the African-American population mostly through the use of violence and other forms of racial hostility (Ignatiev 1995). Racial restrictive covenants further widened the distance between the two groups since these covenants legally permitted racial housing segregation (Jones-Correa 2000).

The emphasis of Catholic loyalty encouraged parishioners to not allow neighborhoods to “fall” to African-Americans. Catholics treated African-Americans as a form of missionary work by establishing specific religious orders to cater to the spiritual and educational needs of the black community (Miller and Kavanagh 1975). Archbishop Mudelein of Chicago purposely encouraged black isolation within the Church from 1915 until 1939 since he felt powerless to accommodate the racial changes in his diocese (Curry 1977). Parishes were never in direct competition with one another therefore the Catholic diocesan system also gave priests who were struggling with interracial parishes more money and support if need be (Gamm 1999). Overcrowded parishes were allowed to build new churches in neighboring areas thereby establishing more predominantly white neighborhoods, as is the case with St. Thomas More in 1947.

St. Thomas More was established during the post World War II era, a time of four intertwining social movements that significantly impacted black and white relations: the population boom that spurred suburban growth, the demise of restrictive covenants in the 1940s and 50s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s (Avella 1992). Since St. Thomas More was established due to overcrowding in an older parish, most of its parishioners were already of middle class stature. Yet the arrival of poorer African-Americans from the south left the church in a precarious disposition of whether to accept and incorporate these newcomers into their lifestyle or maintain the parish as a fortress to protect the Irish-American population.

Racial Theology Theory

Previous research on the development of the 20th century Roman Catholic Church in the United States and its parishes illustrate two major trends that have drastically changed the Church’s structure: the transition of the Church from an urban immigrant base to a middle and upper class suburban base and, second, a change from a “narrow defensive church” to an “informal, voluntaristic, open-ended” church which resulted from the values instilled after the Second Vatican Council (Greeley 1979: 91). In the article “The Sociology of American Catholics” (1979), Greeley described a “new Catholicism” resulted from these two trends. Using his theory of Catholic pluralism, Greeley viewed these trends as necessary for the Church’s survival; the Church needed to be flexible and accept parishioners of multiple ethnicities, classes, and viewpoints.

Greeley’s theory of pluralism provides insight, but if both trends are combined, the logical result for the Catholic Church in the late 20th century should be an open, extensive, voluntaristic, mid to upper class suburban church. However, this new form of Catholicism is itself not inclusive to all racial, ethnic, or socio-economic class groups. Since Catholic parishes’ missions are to serve the community within its immediate vicinity, the definition of the new mid to upper class suburban church excludes working class or low income urban communities. If Greeley’s definition of pluralism is applicable today, then how can this new church be “open” when members of other classes and races are neglected?

Some scholars credit the exclusion of these members to the rise of secularism after the Second Vatican Council. In What Parish Are You From? A Chicago Irish Community and Race Relations, McMahon (1995) stated that the Church split in half after the Second Vatican Council when those seeking the churches that promoted the “new Catholicism” moved to suburban areas. The remaining parishioners were those left in the lower income urban neighborhoods and who maintained Tridentine (traditional) Catholicism. However, Breault (1989) challenges this argument since conservative religious groups like Catholicism are in general not rapidly altered by secularism. According to Breault (1989: p.1051), “religiously conservative denominations are less vulnerable to the effects of pluralism and secular society.” Therefore, the “new Catholicism” of the 1960s cannot be fully understood by these two theories of secularism and pluralism for the rapid change in Church demographics must be ascribed to some other social force.

In Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the 20th Century, McGreevy (1996, p.162) credits this social force as the “crucial junction of the Second Vatican Council and the Civil Rights Movement.” His theory of racial theological change encompasses the previously noted theories of pluralism and secularism yet expands on them through a focus on Catholic interracialism. Instead of simply stating that there is a difference between the Church of the early 20th century and the Church of the present, McGreevy’s theory explains how and why this change happened.

McGreevy (1996: 79) argues that Catholic interracialism developed due to the Church’s system of urban territorial parishes. Catholics, if they wished, had the ability to remain in a Catholic enclave due to the establishment of Catholic schools, hospitals, libraries, and legal associations in the parish working-class community. The post World War II economic surge propelled many Catholics out of the working class and into an income bracket higher than the national average. However, due to the territorial parish system, the majority of Catholics did not move to the suburbs with the rest of the middle class. Additionally, demographic changes in the area were impacted by the high Catholic birth rate which was 40% greater than white urban Protestants and Jews (McGreevy 1996: 83). Therefore, as Protestant and Jewish whites were leaving urban areas, Catholics were still creating and maintaining white urban neighborhoods.

In the early 1950s, the homogeneous urban parish underwent change due to the new laws forbidding racial restrictive covenants. The change to a once racially and economically homogenous parish initially caused hostility by white Catholics towards minorities, particularly toward African-Americans. McGreevy argues that the hostility remained between white and African-American Catholics until the 1960s when the intertwining of the Catholic idea of the “Mystical Body of Christ” and the Civil Rights ideal of “equality for all” significantly impacted the Catholic populace. The “Mystical Body of Christ” mirrored the Civil Rights notion of equality by explaining that every man, regardless of race or class, was equal in the eyes of God.

McGreevy supports McMahon’s theory of the importance of the Second Vatican Council in establishing three main themes of racial theological change. The first is that the Church was re-described as “the people of God” which promotes an “intimate union with God and all mankind.” Second, the Church was re-defined as one which places its concern on “those who are especially lowly, poor and weak… weighed down with hunger, misery, and lack of knowledge.” Third, the Church was instructed to place as its most important task to “be alert to the signs of the times… as the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties…[of the] poor or in any way afflicted are the same of the followers of Christ” (1996: 160). These themes shifted the focus from an authoritarian church to a servant church; one committed to social justice, including the issues of racism and urban poverty.

According to McGreevy (1996: 161), the Church’s new mission fit well with the aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement. Catholic involvement with the Civil Rights Movement’s call for the eradication of racial inequality was coined as “applied Christianity.” Church leaders encouraged African-American participation in the parish community arguing that “inner city convert-making constituted the special mark of their apostolate” (McGreevy 1996: p. 162). Priests’ and nuns’ habits became a “kind of ‘skin coloring’ [where] any prejudices and stereotypes” were broken down before any interracial interaction (McGreevy 1996: p. 167).

While the clergy was invigorated by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, their white parishioners were wary of the African-American autonomy created by the Civil Rights Movement. These parishioners credited the Civil Rights Movement as leading to the breakup of Catholic unity. Parishes were divided between the minority liberals who supported racial equality and those who sought a new parish due to the influx of African-American parishioners. Urban parishes increased the liberal ideas about racial issues leading to conservative parishioners leaving while the liberal parishioners who did embrace racial equality simultaneously did not see the need to remain tied to their parish (Curry 1977). McGreevy (1996: p. 261) states that parish neighborhoods began to deteriorate as conservative white parishioners “shopped for a parish whose liturgy and programs matched their own inclinations.” These new-found parishes were located in suburban areas, therefore, urban parish pastors had to deal with declining membership. Church support was found among African-American newcomers and elderly white parishioners who had “held out” in the city. As the elderly population dwindled, African-Americans became the majority in these urban parish neighborhoods.

McGreevy’s theory of racial theological change offers a broad framework for analyzing how religion and race became intertwined in the 20th century, thereby changing the face of many urban neighborhoods. Chicago is a city which was greatly affected by parish boundaries as many inhabitants would state their location/residence in relation to different parishes as opposed to intersections or neighborhoods (McMahon 1995). The parish of St. Thomas More on the southwest side of Chicago provides a case study of the issue of race relations in the 20th century. St. Thomas More began as a homogeneous Irish-American parish in the mid 20th century yet it gradually evolved into a racially and socio-economically heterogeneous parish by the beginning of the 21st century. Using McGreevy’s theory as framework, the transformation of St. Thomas More’s parish can be accredited to not only a rise of secularism and religious pluralism but also to the social conditions that created a “white flight” to suburban parishes, therefore leading to an increase in African-American autonomy and acceptance in urban neighborhoods.


This project is a longitudinal case study of St. Thomas More Parish in the Wrightwood neighborhood of Ashburn, Chicago. By employing historical content analysis of parish archival bulletins, the data will be analyzed for longitudinal demographic changes in the parish. Additional information will be obtained from the 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census Bureau particular to the Ashburn area and for some years, unique to census tract 7005, the Wrightwood neighborhood.

Church bulletins are publications printed each week that give accounts of parish news and events. Each one contained on average 3 to 5 separate columns pertaining to various church topics. Columns ranged from full page letters to one sentence notices. Due to the abundance of information in each bulletin, a convenience sampling of particular bulletins was used. Bulletins from the same year were bound together in a book and in all, 14 books (i.e. 14 years from 1958 to 2000) were coded. A convenience sampling had to be used to due what was available in the parish archives. Some years were completely missing while other years contained only a few months’ worth of bulletins. In all 2,229 columns were coded, approximately 160 per year and 480 per decade.

The text was analyzed before the coding scheme was established in order to “capture key thoughts and concepts… in order to achieve immersion and a sense of the whole” (Heisgh and Shannon 2005). After this initial analysis, eight categories were established: St. Thomas More Religious Events, St. Thomas More Non-religious Events, Neighboring Parish Events, Catholic Doctrine, Elderly, Irish Culture, Community Awareness, and Employment Opportunities. The first three columns are self-explanatory: St. Thomas More Religious Events were those columns relating to church masses, retreats, first communions and any other event with a religious foundation or some Catholic sacrament involved; STM Non-religious Events were categorized as those columns pertaining to events held within the parish that related to social activities, school events, or fundraising activities; and Neighboring Parish Events were columns pertaining to religious or non-religious events held at surrounding parishes. Catholic Doctrine columns were those columns, generally written by the pastor, to explain church teachings or teach some sort of moral behavior. These columns could appear as letters, poems, short stories or excerpts from Catholic doctrine materials. Elderly columns were events or notes from the pastor specifically pertaining to the senior citizen population. Irish Culture columns were any sources of information about Irish events (i.e. the Irish St. Patick’s Day Parade) or information about Ireland. Community Awareness columns included any column that conveyed information and problems about the community to the parishioners and generally offered help and advice. Community issues ranged from vandalism, drug abuse, psychological problems, homelessness, and health problems. Finally, Employment Opportunities were columns that listed any types of job openings in the Wrightwood area.

This method of historical sociology intends to “capture historical process and to integrate an analysis of culture and human agency into a macrostructural analysis of social change” (Trimberger 1984: 211). However like all projects that use archival data, there has to be some room for error. Church bulletins are generally written by only two to three parishioners, including the priests of the parish. Views expressed in the bulletins therefore come from a view narrow segment of the community. The parish bulletins are fairly accessible to the community, therefore pages could have been taken out intentionally so a completely thorough analysis cannot be proved.

St. Thomas More Parish was chosen due to its unique physical location on Chicago’s southwest side. The parish is located in an area where previous parishes were so full that St. Thomas More was built to accommodate a growing Catholic population in 1947. In its early years, St. Thomas More was located in a predominant Irish-American community but it rapidly became a predominantly African-American parish by the end of the 20th century.

The data collected from the St. Thomas More bulletins illustrates that the Catholic Church evolves with its community, no matter who the parishioners. In the Wrightwood neighborhood, where St. Thomas More is located, the parish remained relatively homogeneous until the late 20th century. The data collected from the bulletins reveals that the St. Thomas More parish consisted of white, middle class neighborhood families of mostly Irish-American heritage in the first decades of its history. While African-American families became a significant proportion of the Wrightwood population in the 1970s and 80s, it was not until the 1990s when it became apparent that the previously homogenous community was now actively responding to different racial and socio-economic populations.

Table 1. Percentage of Bulletin Column Topics By Year







STM religious events






STM non-religious events






Neighboring Parish Events


















Irish Culture






Community Awareness






Employment Opportunities






Table 1 divides the proportion of different St. Thomas More bulletin topics by decade. The frequency of each topic is a reflection of the demographics of parishioners of the specific time period. With 72% of all columns in the 1958 bulletins relating to St. Thomas More (religious and non-religious) parish events, the church appeared to have been a close-knit community that held events that kept parishioners within parish boundaries. Church members did not have to go far to find emotional support, social activities, and religious instruction. A 1964 bulletin described the word “parish” as a “family because Christ calls the people of a particular neighborhood to come together to join with him and with each other to worship the Father.”1

The St. Thomas More family at this time was rapidly growing as church parishioners had more children. This is apparent in the church bulletins by the number of advertisements for children’s clothing and toys2 and the complaint by the pastor about the parish registration forms not keeping up to date with the rapid birth rate3. The data in Table 1 reflects a focus on a younger community as only .7 to 8% of the bulletin columns specifically pertained to an elderly population in the first three decades of the parish’s history. Census data of the area also reaffirms this demographic trend as only 7% of the population was over 65 when the 1970 census was taken.

From the church bulletins, it appears that the families living in the area were mostly middle class or at least more well off when compared to other community members. For example, church activities in 1956 included a fur fashion show, a raffling off of a mink stole, and a spring luncheon at the South Shore County Club.4 Bulletin advertising reflected parishioner income by running full page advertisements for Danaher’s, a company that sold custom built “finer home furnishings.”5 Parishioners were repeatedly asked to donate to various charitable organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul Society6 thereby fulfilling Catholic social duty. The St. Thomas More pastor reminded his parishioners in 1969 that,

In our age of relative comfort, prosperity, and organized social programs, we still have many sick, many poor, many unloved and many unwanted children. What can we do to help them? This is a question that all of us must ask. God will help us to answer it.7 (STM 7/13/69)
Therefore, there was clearly recognition of the differences between certain members of the community; however, the poorer members were always defined as “the other,” never an integrated part of St. Thomas More early parish life. This separation was considered a serious matter as early as 1956 since separation implied the sinfulness of the parishioners. The St. Thomas More pastor chastised his parishioners by saying, “In our archdiocese we are doing so little to bring outsiders into the Household of Faith. By our worldliness we are keeping them out.”8 It should be noted that the reason why certain people were considered outsiders in the community was never defined in the early days of the parish.

Racial “otherness” was never explicitly defined until 1958 when parishioners were encouraged to “Learn to like people, even though many of them may be as different from you as a Chinese.”9 The specific use of the “Chinese” race still distanced the problem since 1970 Census data reveals that Asian-Americans represented less than .2% of the area’s population.10 Yet the prevalent use of Catholic Church doctrine (as noted in Table I.) constantly reaffirmed the Church’s availability to all people, regardless of race. In 1960, the word Catholic was defined as a church that “brings together all races and nations in the worship of one true God.”11 Church parishioners were encouraged to, “never be in the state of spreading prejudice and hate, but to love one another, each and everyone, as our brother.”12 Racial tolerance was considered a virtue by 1960 as those who upheld it were destined for heaven.13

The Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) had a profound effect on the parish of St. Thomas More. While many parishioners were wary of the changes the Council implemented14 and the time period was considered to be “days of great tension in the Church,”15 the New Mass was employed to unify and to adapt to the particular needs of each community. After the Council, priests had to ask themselves a series of questions pertaining to their parishioners before every Mass. These questions included:

What is the age, sex, ethnic or socio-economic background, occupational or vocational background of the group? What is the present state of mind of the group gathered here together, in light of what is happening in the world here and now or in terms of their personal experiences, or the reason they are gathered together at this particular moment? What are the needs of the group in terms of their present relationship either to God or to others?16

Parishioners also had to take into account the changing demographic situation and were recommended to reflect
upon their own behavior about dealing with these new faces by asking questions of themselves such as:

Have I been guilty of stony silence or the snub in dealing with people I fancied were my inferior? Have I in my speech manifested something of contempt for other people who are less educated, social inferiors, or people of different races?17

Nation-wide, Catholic churches reflected on their segregative behavior as a vicious circle which led to few Catholic African-American converts and, therefore, even fewer African-American priests.18 The Chicago Church Dialogues of 1969 attempted to ease this segregation by hosting forums dealing with racial relations. One forum was announced in the bulletin, titled: “Chicago area people against racism speaking on the theme ‘institutional racism.’”19

All these efforts to produce racial equality during the 1960s had some affect upon the Ashburn community. U.S. Census data reveals that census tract 7005, the Wrightwood block, had a significantly higher African-American population than the rest of the census tracts in the Ashburn area. Table 2 shows that in the 1980 and 1990 censuses, Wrightwood has a black population proportion three times the size of the Ashburn’s overall

Table 2. U.S. Census Data of the Ashburn Racial Demographics from 1960 – 2000.20








































black population. Despite these significant changes in racial demographics, references to race in the bulletins

ceased throughout the 1970s and 80s. The parish mainly adapted to its changing community by addressing issues of age and class. Changes were visible in the age of the population as Table I. shows that events solely catering to the elderly doubled from 4 to 8% of the bulletin’s columns. The most significant change was the direction of parishioners to other parishes as surrounding parish events took up a quarter of bulletin columns in 1980. The declining middle-class income level was apparent as notice of employment opportunities for low wage jobs such as child care or manual labor made its first appearance in a 1980 bulletin.

Race was addressed once again in 1990 as a St. Martin de Porres21 corner was introduced to the bulletin to address “Catholic Church teachings on inter-racial harmony.”22 Each week parishioners were introduced to multiple stories about different African saints and they were encouraged to create a “fraternal society” with their African-American brethren.23 By 2000, the fraternal society was something that had to occur whether parishioners liked it or not due to the major decline in parish activity. Cultural events such as a commemoration to the 22 Catholic Ugandans who were martyrs in 1885,24 choral performances of African-American song,25 and the “Archdiocese Black Catholics Celebration of Marriage”26 began to be advertised alongside Irish-American events.

Table 1 shows how other churches’ events were predominantly displayed in the 2000 bulletins (a third of all columns) so the main thing that St. Thomas More could contribute was a facilitation of community awareness. Church collections were taken up for the elderly poor of the parish, child foster programs, homeless families, and abused women. Programs for women who had had abortions,27 prayer services for single parents,28 support groups for families of drug abusers29, and foster homes for youth in unstable home environments30 were advertised monthly. However unlike previous decades, these populations were not people from parishes miles away, they were people within the parish boundaries. The St. Thomas More pastor reminded his parishioners of this by saying: “wherever you live in our parish, there are poor families in walking distance of your home. When in need, they ring the rectory bell, they are in effect ringing your door bell.”31
Throughout the early 20th century, the Catholic Church was used as a source of social mobility for the immigrant masses. Since these immigrants lived in enclaves of European ethnicity, the Church was labeled as racist against non-white communities. While white church parishioners gained a sense of community within their all-white parish, minority groups on the perimeter felt neglected. However, with the unique juxtaposition of the Civil Rights Movement and the Second Vatican Council, this paper finds evidence that the Church truly embraced its definition of catholic meaning “universal to all,” in the second half of the century. The St. Thomas More bulletins show that throughout the 1960s, the church made many efforts to incorporate racial and ethnic diversity into its liturgy, however it was outside forces that predominantly caused the Catholic white flight to the suburbs.

The liberal message of Vatican II caused three separate reactions among parishioners. The first reaction was from the conservative parishioners who did not accept Vatican II’s form of Catholicism. This is the group that McGreevy (1996) described as “shoppers” for their own form of Catholicism. With the establishment of 48 Chicago suburban churches in 1948 (Avella 1992), this conservative group had much to choose from in the suburbs. The St. Thomas More bulletins show the parish’s reaction to this group by encouraging the notions of “parish as a family” and multiple community social events in order to make this group want to stay in the early 1960s. As this group left, parish property values decreased thereby allowing more room for African-American families. Census tract data from 1980 shows that out of all the census blocks in the Ashburn tract, the Wrightwood block had the most African-Americans.32 The second reaction came from the liberal contingent of the parish. As they saw the conservatives flee for different parishes and the community began to deteriorate, they saw no need to remain in the community as well since they were not tied to the parish church and school. Their reason for leaving had more to do with economic reasons as opposed to a search for religious fulfillment.

The third reaction, despite their conservative stance, is completely opposite from the first fleeing group. This conservative group upheld the traditional Catholic notion of a “parish as a fortress” and was determined to protect their parish from racial minorities. They reacted to the incoming African-Americans by discriminating or behaving violently33. The parish bulletins address this group by encouraging them to reflect upon their actions and be aware of the vicious cycle created by racism.34 However, these recommendations ceased during the 1970s and 1980s when significant numbers of African-Americans were moving into Wrightwood. This group began to age therefore the parish was comprised of two separate communities in the late 20th century: the elderly population and the incoming African-American families. Parish bulletins reflected this by addressing the needs of an aging population while simultaneously offering events that catered to African-Americans. In 1990, Father Brankin, the pastor of St. Thomas More commented on the unique circumstances of their community in a Sunday homily:

What is our village? A cohesive people, a people bound to each other by blood, by faith, by birth, and by choice. No the rest of the city and certainly the suburbs, DO NOT understand this phenomenon of our area. They don’t understand block parties with black and white families getting along so easily and well. They don’t understand stability and strong family life and tenacious parish loyalties – things they give up for the sake of a subdivision. Give me a flesh and blood neighborhood with brothers and sisters and cousins…A neighborhood with good friends and new acquaintances. Give me a neighborhood proud of its past and confident in its future – a neighborhood that dares to have its Mass on the grass to offer Almighty God for having given to us this precious village.

The stable village was devastated just three years later when its two community groups clashed. In April of 1993, two white senior citizens were robbed at gunpoint by two African-American youth in Wrightwood. One elderly man was killed and his murderer was charged with life in prison (Perez 1998). This event was the tipping point that caused the most demographic change in the Wrightwood history. In 1993, only 10 houses were sold in the Wrightwood block. However in the 1994 post-shooting Wrightwood, 46 houses were sold (Perez 1998). By the late 1990s, what had previously been labeled as “outside” racial or class communities became the norm in the St. Thomas More parish as 83.9% of the Wrightwood block was African-American.

The parish completely shifted its behavior in all forms by addressing the needs of this new community. Instead of hosting expensive parish activities and lectures on parish doctrine, St. Thomas More offered food and clothing drives for its parishioners and forums dealing with difficult life issues such as single parenthood, alcoholism and drug abuse, and life after abortion. While it cannot yet be determined whether or not the parish can act as a springboard for social mobility for its new African-American parishioners, what needs to be analyzed is the stabilizing factor for these communities. Obviously Wrightwood was not very stable as a single shooting quadrupled for-sale signs in the neighborhood. Clearly as society secularizes and parish lifestyles are not as influential as they were for previous generations, there is a pressing need for community anchors. As urban areas decay and consequently suburban areas spread outward, there are fewer resources available for those “left behind.” Churches of all denominations have been used for generations as agents of social change and aid, yet as their parishioners leave for affluent suburban areas, so does the church income. As the urban church shifts its attention from focusing on the spiritual needs of its parishioners to the basic needs of food and clothing, more money is needed now than ever to support these endeavors. That money is now channeled into suburban churches, following Andrew Greeley’s theory of the new Catholicism based in the suburbs.

Will religious institutions today be added to the list of social factors like employment, stable housing, and good education, which flow to where the money goes? This seems to be the case. Unfortunately, many Catholic churches today are trying to revert their practices back to pre-Vatican II standards. This not only includes the establishment of the Latin Mass, but it also deemphasizes Vatican II’s acceptance of all Catholic parishioners, regardless of race, ethnicity, or class. Therefore, even an institution like the Catholic Church may adapt some forms of favoritism towards white middle class suburbanites since this group has the ability to fund parish operations and keep the church open. For example, in 2005 the St. Thomas More parish school was closed by the archdiocese despite a 114% enrollment increase in the late 1990s (Pardo 1998); what previously had been an agent of social mobility for Irish-Americans is no longer available for the African-American population in Wrightwood.

The use of black churches as an agent for social action is becoming more frequent (Pattillo-McCoy 1998). These churches culturally unite black middle and lower classes through the push for social action. The political, social, and economic views of the African-American community are shaped and reinforced by black churches thereby creating a distinct black culture. Black churches are working to create a distinct African-American identity separate from WASP society. This is reminiscent of the “national parishes” that were established by immigrants when they first arrived in America which upheld the native language and cultural traditions. Catholic African-American parishes promote an African-American identity by addressing topics such as black history, affirmative action, civil rights issues, poverty and racism. Unfortunately, some black churches are shunned by the rest of the Catholic community since their traditions may not coincide with all of Catholic teaching.35 Despite their full pews every Sunday morning, these churches are in danger of being shut down whenever the Archdiocese seems fit.36

Further research needs to be done on the stabilizing components of modern ethnic enclaves, the neighborhoods of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. Are we witnessing the same trend which had happened to inner-city schools currently happening to inner-city churches? As some scholars argue that Brown v. Board of Education created more segregation within the public school system (Orfield and Lee 2004), did the ideals of Vatican II also backfire and commence a religious re-segregation? During the time of Vatican II, desegregation took place in urban neighborhoods yet a form of de facto re-segregation has occurred after Vatican II as Catholic parishioners looked to the suburbs for not only religious fulfillment but also economic opportunities. Parishes which had initially welcomed African-American families currently do not have the resources to support them. Like inner-city schools, urban churches are deteriorating yet society may not realize the economic opportunities that Catholic churches and their schools had once provided so therefore church deterioration is only viewed as a religious loss as opposed to an economic loss as well. Greeley’s view of American Catholicism (1979) as a white, middle class religion is becoming a reality day after day as urban churches’ doors close indefinitely. They are not only closing down religious enrichment, but they are also closing possibilities for social mobility and community strength, major components of the immigrant churches from one hundred years ago. Further research is needed to determine what means, if any, that minority communities today are using to obtain this social mobility and a sense of neighborhood stability.


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Pardo, Natalie. 1998. “Blacks Dominate Neighborhood Schools.” The Chicago Reporter, April 1998. Retrieved Oct. 14, 2006.


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1 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 8/2/64.

2 March 3, 1958 Bulletin Advertising Section: 4 advertisements for children: 1. “Baby Deer – All New Merchandise in Infant’s and Children’s Wear – Free Candy to the Kiddies.” 2. “Margaret’s Lingerie and Children’s Wear” 3. “The Green Door – Toys, School supplies.” 4. “Larry’s Shoes – Men, Women, and Children’s Shoes.”

3 “As you yourselves very well realize, your parish is growing, not by many families moving in but by God’s most precious gift to husband and wife – children. The rapid increase of our parish in the last 4 or 5 years has left our registration file in an undesirable state.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 4/6/58.

4 April 1, 1956 Bulletin: “Fur Fashion Show – part of the 3rd Annual Card Party by the Mothers’ Group.”

April 15, 1956: “Spring Luncheon at South Shore Country Club”

April 29, 1956: Mink stole auctioned off by Mother’s Group.”

5 Advertisement: “Finer Home Furnishings – custom built and nationally advertised. Danaher’s.” 4/8/56

6 “Would you like to help a poor child whose home is in St. Vincent’s Orphanage? We are holding a baby shower for the orphanage– please bring bibs, towels, blankets, safety pins, baby oil, etc.” 12/30/56

7 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 7/13/69.

8 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 2/19/56.

9 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 10/12/58.

10 1970 Census data for the Ashburn area: Total Population – 47,161; Asian-Pacific Persons (including Hispanic Asian-Pacific Persons) – 73. As a Percentage of the Population - .154%

11 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 7/24/60.

12 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 11/6/60.

13 “A t the final hour, if I have shown love for the poor, the weak, the suffering, of any race or color, Christ will say to me: Come take possession of the kingdom prepared for you.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 7/10/60.

14 “Change is a necessary element of life. Change always brings with it a certain amount of tension; this too is a part of the process of growth. Change in the church causes a certain amount of uneasiness or tension - for some more than others. This does not mean we should withdraw or panic in the face of changes.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 11/16/69.

15 “We don’t need to be told that these are days of great tension in the Church.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 10/26/69.

16 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 2/1/70.

17 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 1/21/64.

18 “It’s a circle. A lack of toleration among Catholics is one of the promoters of segregation. This leads to few Catholic Negroes which in turn produces few vocations. Combined result means a decrease in the number of Catholics and a continuing decrease in the vocation rate.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 11/1/64.

19 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 7/14/69.

20 Data obtained from the Chicago Area Housing Website: http//

21 St. Martin de Porres is the patron saint of Inter-racial Social Justice. St. Thomas More Bulletin, 3/4/90.

22 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 3/4/90.

23 “The goal is to promote the Church’s vision of inclusivity, hope, and fairness for all people. This vision of our Church seeks to further multiracial and multicultural harmony.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 7/8/90.

24 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 6/3/90.

25 “The Lira Singers – A Special Choral Performance of African-American song.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 1/30/00.

26 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 8/13/00.

27 “Hurting from abortion? Call Project Rachel, an archdiocesan post-abortion and reconciliation and healing facility. Confidential and compassionate.” St. Thomas More Bulletin column advertised all through 1999.

28 “A Prayer for Single Parents: ‘My hope and my dream was that I would have a partner to sustain me and share the gift of parenthood. Since that is not to be, I rely upon you God to send me the grace to parent alone. I know you will not abandon me.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 7/23/00.

29 “Families Anonymous – a support group for family and friends of drug abusers.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 3/4/90.

30 “Foster Care is an investment in the Future – The old saying, ‘Our children are our future!’ is true today than ever before. As more children are removed from their homes, the need for foster parents becomes more and more critical. Persons of all religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds are welcome.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 7/23/00.

31 St. Thomas More Bulletin, 10/3/99.

32 Table 2 shows that Wrightwood had a 9.8% African-American population while the average for the whole Ashburn area was only 2.7% in the 1980 census.

33 In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. was hit in the head with a brick thrown by a Wrightwood community member during a parade. In 1987, an African-American school teacher’s home was firebombed by 4 white teenagers. Throughout the 1980s, Ashburn realtors were charged in federal lawsuits for racial steering and panic peddling (Perez 1998).

34 Column titled: For the Love of one Another: “If people would only become conscious of the devastation and alienation that racism has caused and is causing. Freedom for the victims of racism is a right to life issue…and the heart of all we have tried to write is the command given to Jesus to love one another, even when love seems impossible.” St. Thomas More Bulletin, 4/29/90.

35 In 2001, St. Sabina’s, an African-American Catholic church in Chicago, was denied enrollment into its area’s Catholic school athletic league. The league cites safety concerns as their reasoning while the pastor at St. Sabina’s cried racism. In 2003, the same pastor received criticism from the Archbishop of Chicago by scheduling presenters such as African-American politician Al Sharpton. The pastor not only received hundreds of emails of ‘hate mail’ but also a suggestion from the Archbishop for a career change. St. Sabina church services have also received criticism by being described by a white Catholic as a service where “they were jumping up and down singing like it was some kind of charismatic revival meeting” (Maurer 2003).

36 In 1990 alone, 35 Catholic churches and 18 schools were closed in Chicago (Fisher 2004).

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