Chicago's Southeast Side
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Cultural Institutions: A Community of Churches

The theme of this project is to explore the methods by which various ethnic groups transmit their culture and traditions to succeeding generations. The project developed from participation of the Southeast Historical Museum in the Cultural Connections Program sponsored by the Field Museum of Chicago. The program is a partnership of museums and cultural centers located in and around Chicago. The purpose of the Cultural Connections Program is to explore the rich cultural diversity which exists in Chicago and, while exploring the cultural differences among various groups, to look at the "connections" between groups. How do various ethnic groups respond to common concerns? In many situations, despite large differences of language, tradition, history, and customs there are similarities in the ways that these groups respond to problems and often, as many similarities among groups as differences. The theme of the Cultural Connections Program is "common concerns, different responses." 

This is the case on Chicago's Southeast Side. Numerous ethnic and religious groups were drawn to the region by the jobs offered by heavy industry after the Civil War. Beginning with the opening of the Joseph H. Brown Steel Mill in 1875, wave after wave of various ethnic groups came to the area. Most did not speak tha language and most were not welcomed with open arms. How did they cope? How did they maintain their customs and traditions while simultaneously adapting to life in their new surroundings? Ethnic groups in Chicago have established institutions such as churches, schools, museums, cultural centers, historical societies, athletic teams, and social clubs to maintain, share, and transmit their cultural heritage and reinforce community ties. This booklet focuses on the cultural institutions in the neighborhoods of Chicago's Southeast Side - South Chicago, South Deering, the East Side, and Hegewisch. It emphasizes the many churches founded by the various ethnic groups which settled there. The phrase "Smokestacks and Steeples" was often used to describe the neighborhood skyline. Many of the smokestacks have disappeared in the post industrial era but the steeples remain. They may not be occupied by the same groups that built the church but the steeples remain. 

As the various groups arrived they brought their culture, customs, and churches. Each succeeding group added to the rich mosaic of multi-ethnic diversity which existed in the area. The groups did not always get along with one another but they learned to live and work together making this one of the most interesting and diverse communities in Chicago. 

The area was originally settled by Irish, Germans, Swedes and other northern and western Europeans. During the golden era of immigration to the United States, waves of Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Croatians, Slovenians, Italians, Greeks, Serbians and others came to the region. In the twentieth century, when European immigration was limited by quota laws, Mexicans and African Americans came to the area to fill the jobs in the mills. In more recent years Puerto Ricans, Arabs, Ethiopeans, Haitians, and others have arrived. 

The churches of the Southeast Side tell the story of ethnic succession which occurred in the community. The church was the most important institution in maintaining the language and cultural traditions of the "old country" in a foreign land. Immigrants, who may have had difficulty making ends meet, donated time and money and built churches which stand as monuments to their devotion and spirit. The churches were symbols of ethnic and religious pride and were usually the most impressive structures in the neighborhoods. They were more than houses of worship. They were a link to the old country and centers of social activities and community life. Most had schools or Sunday schools where the traditions and language of their homeland were taught and maintained. The churches show where the groups settled in the community and the changes which have occurred in the community as it has changed. 

Yet ethnic groups did ultimately assimilate or adapt to the new land. Some did it more quickly and more completely than others. Other groups tried to maintain the traditions of the country of their ancestors. But change did occur and this booklet would be remiss if it did not mention, however briefly, those places and institutions in the new land which created changes in many ethnic groups. Multiple ethnic groups mixed and mingled in the workplace, in unions, in the military, and in other groups and organizations which did not focus on a single ethnicity. 

The Early Years 1850 - 1880
South Chicago, the oldest of the four Southeast Chicago communities dates its origins to 1836. Speculators bought land in anticipation of a canal which would connect the Calumet River and the Mississippi River system. The canal, the Cal sag Channel, was not built until the twentieth century. As a result early development slowed until the coming of the steel industry to the area after the Civil War. The earliest ethnic groups to come to the Southeast Side were English, Irish, German, and Swedish. This reflects the common immigration patterns in American history at this time. Before the Civil War the area grew slowly and the first church was not founded until 1857. This first area church was St. Patrick's Catholic Church.

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