Chicago neighborhoods are constantly changing. But the River North area has seen more radical change than most in that twice its residents have been dramatically and fully displaced. First, with the 1950’s-60’s razing of the existing neighborhood to create the huge public housing project that was Cabrini-Green. Then starting in the 1990’s, the demolition of the same.
In the midst of all this change, sits evidence of a much earlier era. Looking forlorn in a sea of empty lots, the handsome red brick, dual-towered, century-old church of St. Dominic remains. On this site since 1905 and closed now for nearly a quarter century, its demise is certain. The building has been sold and the lot rezoned. In its place will soon rise a 7-story, 40-unit condo building.
The new neighborhood is shaping up to be very shiny and fancy, but with the loss of this old church, it will lose a tangible link to the area’s past – a link that connects so many other Chicago neighborhoods to soul and story.
By the early 20th century, this run down, industrial Near North neighborhood was home to many groups: immigrant Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, and Swedes, as well as African Americans. The poverty, crime, and suffering in the area were so bad it went by the name of “Little Hell.” With such an acute need for the Catholic Church’s services, St. Dominic’s parish was spun off from Holy Name parish in the Gold Coast.
Here on the corner of Sedgwick and Locust, Reverend E.M. Griffin and his new congregation erected their handsome Romanesque church. Designed by architect William J. Brinkman the building was consecrated in 1906 by Bishop Muldoon during a lavish high mass with dozens of dignitaries whose names fill the column of a contemporary news account. A rectory, school, and convent were also built.
The church rose as a beacon of hope for the area’s poor. Its large size was built to handle 1,000 – mostly Italian – faithful “comfortably.” Its architectural style may have reminded Italian immigrants of their homeland, while its beautiful pressed brick work and Bedford limestone trim undoubtedly impressed. The new church was modern, too: outfitted with steam heat and electric light, it was touted as fireproof.
By the early 1940’s, Little Hell became the focus of the Chicago Housing Authority’s slum clearance plans. In place of dilapidated houses, the Frances Cabrini Homes were built. Low-rise apartment buildings with nearly 600 units intended for war workers, they were named for the first American saint. The high-rise Cabrini Extension followed in 1958, and then the high-rise William Green Homes in 1962. After the war and through the 1950’s, the project’s ethnic mix echoed the previous neighborhood, but by the early 1960’s, Cabrini Green was racially segregated.
St. Dominic’s parish changed with the times. From ministering to Italian immigrants, the church evolved into the spiritual home for Cabrini Green Catholics — probably only a small percentage of the project’s 10,000 residents. For a time in the late 1960’s, the Black Panthers ran a free breakfast program at the church.
St. Dominic’s survived tumultuous decades surrounded by poverty, crime, despair, and violence right on its doorstep. But archdiocese-wide changes inevitably spelled doom for the parish.
The Catholic Church in Chicago grew out of its original immigrant parish model, with ethnic churches located all over the city within blocks of one another. Neighborhood changes meant changes for the neighborhood houses of worship. With fewer priests, some greatly diminished congregations, and huge, expensive church buildings to maintain, the archdiocese made some difficult financial choices.
From the 1950 through the 1970’s, 26 Catholic churches were closed or merged due to disappearing membership. In the 1980’s alone, 16 additional churches were closed. More cuts came in 1990 as Cardinal Bernardin called for the closure of another 13 churches, while 40 more parishes were chosen to decide among themselves which would close and which would consolidate.
St. Dominic’s was one of those parishes. A February 2, 1990 Chicago Tribune article states that the parish was, “reduced from parish to mission status.” Ordinarily, when a church becomes a mission, it is overseen and supported by a larger, healthier parish; usually this occurs at the beginning of parish life. But it seems that St. Dominic’s mission status did not occur or did not last long, because the church closed that same year for good.
Today, within a one mile radius of St. Dominic’s are at least half a dozen other Catholic churches. Some, like nearby St. Joseph’s, have merged with other churches and remain vital parishes. And while some continue to struggle, others are benefiting from the global resurgence in membership in the Roman Catholic church. So while the neighborhood still known as Cabrini Green reinvents itself once again, there will be plenty of options for Catholics.
But one of the last physical ties to the original immigrant neighborhood will be gone.