There is one church in all of Chicago that looks nothing like the others. It is not architecturally ornate with spires shooting up into the sky.
Instead, this Catholic church looks like a miniature version of a California mission straight out of the 18th century. Its first altar was an ice box used to store meat, left there from when the building operated as a butcher shop near Chicago’s slaughterhouses.
On July 1, this small church, now named Immaculate Heart of Mary, will close its doors, after having served Mexican Americans in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood for 76 years. The church’s families not only worshipped there for generations; their forebearers build it.
Cardinal Blase Cupich and his Renew My Church Commission have decided to close the church, ending a story that is well worth remembering.
Chicagoans might be surprised to know that the church literally was built by hand by Mexican immigrants, mostly packinghouse workers. It allowed them to worship as loyal Catholics, but also to defeat racism, nativism and economic discrimination.
It is perhaps the only church in Chicago built by Mexican immigrants. Other Mexican Catholic churches had existed before, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe in South Chicago, founded in 1924, and St. Francis of Assisi on the Near West Side, which became a Mexican American church in 1926 after decades of serving German Americans.
Both of those churches were operated by the Claretian Missionary Fathers, who were devoted to ministering to Mexicans in the United States. They were built in traditional ways that were overseen by high-up Catholic administrators from the very start.
But La Capilla ( “The Chapel”) — as parishioners still call the Back of the Yards church in reference to its original name, Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel — was founded and built by the community from the ground up. And much of its remarkableness lies in its mere existence.
Since arriving in Chicago beginning in the 1910s to work in the stockyards, Mexican immigrants had been turned away by white Catholic churches. Mexican labor was desired in Chicago, of course, but the permanent settlement of Mexicans was not.
Founding a church of their own, Mexican immigrants knew, would help anchor their lives in a country that could be hostile and unwelcoming. So, in the 1930s, they rented storefront after storefront, hoping to create a permanent sanctuary and social gathering space.
Predatory landlords, however, exploited the situation. They would tear up rental leases once a property had been nicely improved by the handicraft work of the Mexicans. As one La Capilla parishioner told a newspaper reporter in 1941: “We’d rent a place that was in such bad repair no one else would have it. We’d fix it up and then we’d lose the lease.”
Chicago’s packinghouses were sites of strong multiracial worker solidarity during World War II, but this was hardly the reality outside the workplace. Racial discrimination was the norm in the neighborhoods where workers lived, especially for Latinos and African Americans. Mexicans usually were relegated to living east of Ashland Avenue, in overpriced and inferior houses and apartments.
By 1944, several dozen Mexican families had scraped together enough money — by organizing dances, selling tamales and pooling their funds — to buy four adjacent storefronts on South Ashland Avenue, albeit at exploitative above-market prices. One storefront held a barbershop and artist studio. A second storefront was used to sell live piglets. The other two were empty.
The new owners then adroitly handed off the properties to the Claretians, gaining the spiritual leadership needed for the entire enterprise. The Claretians converted the storefronts into a single church structure, choosing to give it a Spanish mission-style facade, and Cardinal Samuel Stritch gave the church a new name — Immaculate Heart of Mary — when he blessed it in 1945.
In founding La Capilla, Mexican immigrants openly challenged the norms of racism and nativism in their neighborhood, and the parish has been a thriving center of the Mexican community in the Back of the Yards ever since. La Capilla kick-started the economic growth of Ashland Avenue, turning a corridor of taverns notoriously known as “Whiskey Row” into a stronghold of Mexican commerce, politics and social life.
In the 1960s, the block was home to the headquarters of both the Mexican American Democratic Organization and the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, city-wide organizations that signaled growing Latino clout in Chicago.
Since its founding, La Capilla has served as a sanctuary for generations of immigrants. It has contended with the economic impacts of capital flight and unemployment, provided resources to the poorest of the poor, served as a rallying point for social causes, and fought alongside workers against the abuses of capitalism.
But parishioners now grapple with the question of how the archdiocese decided to close La Capilla, the church’s future raises issues that go beyond religious matters. What, for one, does it mean to dispossess a neighborhood of its own community center? And what constitutes a structure worth saving.
And, ultimately, whose history gets to be preserved?
La Capilla still has a lot to teach us about a community that sought to combat racism and nativism and won.
Mike Amezcua is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of “Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification”, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in January 2022.
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