FIRST ITALIAN CHURCH
first came to Chicago in the late eighteen hundreds, first a slow trickle,
then eventually a steady stream. When
they arrived, those aliens from Italia settled into neighborhoods occupied by
their fellow Europeans primarily on the Near North and Near West sides of the
Roman Catholic, their primary goal was to connect with a church of their
denomination. But where were the
Italian Catholic churches? None
were to be found. These early
Italian settlers did not find compatibility with churches whose composition
was Irish, Polish, German, Lithuanian, French, or Czech.
They desired their own church. Finally,
by the late 1870's, after expressing their desire to the Chicago hierarchy, an
Italian Servite priest by the name of Sosteneus Moretti offered his time and
energy to locating a site for a
future church to serve the growing population of Chicago Italians.
Eventually, in 1880, a parcel of land at 323 W. Illinois Street near
Market Street North of the Chicago River was purchased.
The following year, the basement foundation was completed. In 1883, the
church services commenced there. Later it would serve as the church hall.
During the next
several years, the Italians donated their nickels and dimes so the main church
structure could rise above the existing foundation. In 1883, a rectory was
added to the project and finally in 1886, the church rose above the
foundation. On the feast of the
Assumption, August 15, 1886, the Corinthian style architectural structure was
dedicated appropriately as the Assumption Church, Chicago’s first Italian
Catholic Church. The Italians
called it “Assunta” and left no doubt in everyone’s mind this was
“their church”. The first
pastor was the same Fr. Moretti O.S.M. who spearheaded the effort six years
main exterior feature is the stately 78 foot high bell tower. Extensive use of
stained glass windows are featured throughout the church.
Above the main altar, a window portrays the Assumption of Our Lady with
twenty three angels. Paintings, mosaics and murals also are very prominent
including on the church ceiling. The altar rail contained five different types
of Italian marble. Statues
adorned the church on three sides and numbered a dozen.
was not only Chicago’s first Italian Catholic Church, and the only Italian
church, it attracted Italians from not only the adjacent Near North
neighborhood, but also from the
other scattered “Little Italy’s” in Chicago.
It soon became the center for a variety of Italian activities.
The neighborhood surrounding the church was comprised mainly of
Northern Italians, the first group to arrive in Chicago. They were immigrants from Genoa and Tuscany.
A parish school
was founded in 1899 by the Italian Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
The Mother General
of this order was no less than Francis Xavier Cabrini.
Since land was not available adjacent to the church or rectory, space was
purchased a short distance away, at 317 W. Erie Street.
The school was overcrowded when it opened with 900 children.
Mother Carbini also taught catechism every Sunday to 600 children who
attended public schools.
The parish had a
population of 20,000 Italian emigrants and their families. Seven Servite priests
staffed Assumption to meet the spiritual needs of so many.
At times, as many as 32 babies were baptized on a Sunday afternoon. The
number of weddings and funerals grew to an astounding number. But as time
passed, circumstances began to change at Assumption.
The neighborhood began to become industrial and with it, a loss of
parishioners. By 1945 the school,
once bursting at the seams, closed it’s doors forever. But not once during the
46 years did it charge even one student tuition.
Today, 115 years
later, the Assumption Church still stands as a pillar of spirituality for the
Near North Side community, now called River North, though it no longer is an
Italian church. Many decades ago,
the original settlers died off and their descendants moved away.
Now, the parish consists of a melting pot of generic nationalities, many
of which are referred to as yuppies. Rather
than a beacon of visibility in a poor neighborhood of homes and businesses, the
church today is almost invisible in a canyon of glass, steel and concrete high
rises virtually unnoticed in the shadow the grandiose Merchandise Mart. Despite
it’s lack of prominence and the loss of it’s Italian identity, the spirit of
Assumption remains in the minds, hearts and souls of countless Italian
By the way, those
dedicated priests of the Servants of Mary.....they’re still there.
© PIP Chapter 1, 2003 ~ Webmaster: LPRoots@yahoo.com ~ page last updated on Tuesday, April 22, 2003