My Chicago Catholic Bubble

Memories (Some Accurate) of a Catholic Girlhood

Many people have written about Chicago and Chicago childhoods. For example, my college classmate Stuart Dybek churns out short stories in which forlorn children scrape out their ethnic existences against the city's infinite western horizon and bone-cold winters. Not quite as grim as the life of Studs Lonigan, James Farrell's hapless Irish-American protagonist, lost in a haze of violence, sin, sex, and gin, but grim nonetheless.

All fictions, of course, unlike the story I am about to tell. Still, Dybek and Farrell raise a real question: Did Chicago kids ever have happy childhoods? Did the sun ever shine? Did the snow ever melt? Before a certain year, say 1960, the answer to “happy childhoods?” was: That's the wrong question. Maybe you were happy, maybe you weren't. Maybe your parents loved you, maybe they didn't. So what?

The important question was: Did your tribe accept you? Not by vote, of course, but by taking what came when you came along, and by the regular and steady process of instilling the tribal ethos. Informal, even subconscious, this process tutored children in deference and respect—first to your mother and father, and then to grandparents, aunts and uncles, then to God, then to nuns and priests (in that order), then to the Democratic Party, then your father's union, and then to every other adult known to your parents. Loyalty to that code gave you protection. Failure to observe it—talking back, not doing what you were told when you were told, etc.—could over time lead to your exclusion from the tribe, until, sure enough, you wound up in juvenile detention, which led to the Big House in Statesville (you saw how that works in The Blues Brothers).

The shortcomings of a Catholic childhood have likewise been widely retold in novels, plays, movies, and TV tantrums—and, of course, in real life. But real life tells many stories. Here's one of them: the story of how I became an adult Catholic.

I grew up in the now lamented ghetto of a Catholic subculture. Of course, I didn't know that I was growing up in a Catholic subculture until well into adult life when people started mourning its demise. How could we have known, cosseted as we were in a divine cocoon? In fact, ours was a very secure world, religiously secure, but also familiarly secure (no divorces) and communally secure (no one ever moved). Life was comprehensible and coherent. (I set aside here the fear of nuclear annihilation, so common an anxiety in those days.) Think of it as the Chicago Catholic bubble.

My Catholic identity was shaped in the 1940s and '50s by what has been called a thick culture: a Catholic family, Catholic neighborhood, Catholic grammar school, Catholic sidewalks, and Catholic streetcars. That identity was subtly reshaped in a Catholic high school by an enlightened group of Benedictine sisters. And then it was reoriented by a Catholic Jesuit university, Loyola Chicago, where I was given the beginnings of an adult faith.

In the heady days of the early '60s, when the aura of the Beatniks hadn't yet been overrun by the clash of political protests, Chicago's Near North Side, a few blocks from Loyola, had a magnetic pull for all of us nonbohemians in our neat shirtwaist dresses or corduroy pants and plaid shirts. Without much money or sophistication, college students could wander through the annual art fair and hang out in coffeehouses listening to plaintive folk music, imagining a life far from the city's ubiquitous bungalows and the blustery winds of winter. Intimations of another kind of life—poet, novelist, musician, nothing practical—lit up the conversation until it was time to get on the El and go home to face an undone term paper—so you could graduate and become a teacher or get a job at ComEd, the telephone company, or with Mayor Richard J. Daly's empire at City Hall (all of these your parents' idea of a good job and a steady income).

Was the Near North the first place I heard comedian Lenny Bruce's phrase, “the The Church, the one, the only true church”? Or was it on WFMT Radio's “The Midnight Special”? It must have been a quote because back then no one would have allowed his obscenities on the air. Whenever or wherever I first heard the phrase, I recollect that lovely Catholic sensation of smug triumphalism. When even a manifest enemy of the church acknowledges its authority, why not savor the sense of belonging to the best, the Catholic Church, the The Church.

Whatever the state of alienation or unbelief, of skepticism or disillusion besetting the larger world, it hardly existed in this Chicago landscape, with its sense of impregnable wholeness. Loyola University was the place where my religious faith came of age, and my Catholic self had a thorough makeover. Three stories can help illustrate that condition.

I was a history major at Loyola, class of 1963. At first, the facts of history classes and history books more or less reinforced the seamless story I had heard from childhood: Bible stories and the progress of the Jewish people; Jesus and the invention of Catholicism; the story of the New World and American progress across the continent; the story of Catholics in America—more progress: FDR and the New Deal, Democrats and Chicago, unions and working men. Progress, progress, progress, except for the Depression, but thank God for FDR. And thank God for FDR again. These loomed large in the story that we had been told, and that we told ourselves, of being the best: the best family, parish, school, city, church, country—the best of everything.

Gradually those college history books and those teachers posed questions and raised doubts. The unexpected, the random, the elusive, and the previously unspoken came with new stories that did not fit into the old form of progress and better and better. For example, there were different versions of history. What was Abraham Lincoln all about? Preserving the United States? Freeing the slaves? Saving capitalism by abetting the march of industrialism? Did we really have to analyze Dickens's protagonists; couldn't we just read and love him? No, you could not! Adam and Eve—in what sense was their story—transgression and exile—true? Snakes and apples? Sex? Original sin? Sweat of the brow? Was it a story remembered orally through generations from the beginning of human history? Or a story told by rabbis to explain snakes and hard work, pain in childbirth? Was Pearl Harbor really a surprise? Or did FDR encourage war with Japan? My seamless version of history began to fray.

At the beginning of the new school year in 1961 (I was a sophomore), my first Jesuit professor ever stood at the front of the classroom in his single-breasted, drab black serge suit topped by a white collar that seemed to hold him upright and taut. His face was deeply etched with a monoform expression from mouth to eyes. He looked a bit like Charlie McCarthy, the puppet. His body was straight, almost rigid. He bent at the waist as he raised his arms from the elbows and brought his fingers together, bowing slightly. Idiosyncratic he was! John L. McKenzie, SJ, greeted an ignorant lot of undergraduates. He had never taught the likes of us. But he launched the course: The Old Testament and Early Israel (Hist. 308). Such a course is perhaps more commonplace now than it was then. JEPD, the key codes to the literary strands of the Old Testament that he punched like a safecracker, revealed to us the multiauthored, contradictory, overlapping, many-versioned biblical stories of the people of ancient Israel. Stories we thought we knew.

As part of that course, we were introduced to mythopoetic thought: A unitary sense of the world and knowledge characteristic of the cultures of the ancient tribes of Israel, Canaan, Philistia, etc. An enchanted world: Bushes burned but were not consumed. Rocks talked. Rods became snakes. The world was full of a divine presence. As I read Henri Frankfort's Before Philosophy, I asked myself how far was this from my Chicago Catholic bubble, from my web of seamless stories? Really, not that far.

But that's not all: there was a theatrical/performative element to our education. McKenzie was a learned man who interlarded his vast array of knowledge with a sardonic comment, or a cutting glance, its intent at first lost on most of us. But slowly we began to grasp his pedagogic style and his persona. We took to him. Compared to the Jesuit seminarians he once taught at West Baden, Indiana, we were lively, moderately skeptical, perfectly ignorant, and not afraid to speak up, however naively, “Well, what about Adam and Eve? Did they really exist?” He understood the challenging questions as an intellectual rather than theological problem; our simplistic ideas of the Old Testament and its history were being reoriented.

Dealing with the “disenchantment of the world,” Max Weber's apt phrase, was McKenzie's stock in trade. No doubt he had had his own bouts of disenchantment, and about more than Hebrew Scripture. For us, he did not hesitate to deal with wit and intelligence. He was not out to debunk anyone's religious faith. But he expected us to take our own quandaries seriously. We couldn't get away with a question meant to show off, and then not pursue it when his answer raised more questions.

Several friends and I ultimately found in McKenzie an amiable mentor prepared to share a smoke, a drink (verboten to us minors), a critique of our limited worldview. Like many Jesuits who then ate most of their meals in refectories, McKenzie was a master raconteur with endless anecdotes, stories, and one-liners. From these accounts, we came to another turn in the story: McKenzie's autobiography, which brought a more contemporary form of historical consciousness.

A first-rate scholar of the Old Testament, McKenzie was a practitioner of the historical-critical method. Out of favor with Pope Pius XII, the method was, ipso facto, out of favor with McKenzie's Jesuit superiors, who kept him under wraps at the Jesuit novitiate in West Baden. When, at the age of fifty, he came to teach undergraduates at Loyola, the theology department refused him a place, which turned out to be a blessing for the history department.

McKenzie was probably born antiauthoritarian; but certainly West Baden soured his view of authority. There were students at Loyola who claimed anarchist politics, but his was the first true anarchist mind I had actually encountered. He thought that the Davidic kingdom (1055-1015 BC) was the downfall of Israel. All institutions had been or would be the downfall of people who put their faith in them, who clung to them and their practices, including the Roman Catholic Church. Not a serene state of mind for a man vowed to obedience in a religious community that prided itself on clicking its heels and doing what it was ordered to do. Another lesson emerged from this.

One absorbed at Loyola in those years—and I suspect at every other Jesuit institution—the vivid sense that vows of obedience could be at cross-purposes with the serious pursuit of scholarly work. I initially took McKenzie's views of authority to be his own. But over time I recognized that while McKenzie may have been the most forthright and others more discrete, there was a leitmotif among the Jesuits of criticism-not of authority as such, but of unpersuasive arguments from authority and idiotic demands for blind obedience. (I wondered in later years if the revolutionaries of Central America and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua with their Jesuit educations hadn't absorbed the same lessons about authority and blind obedience.) Whether a latent goal of our education or not, this attitude was obviously connected to its explicit mission. Faith and reason, as we were frequently told, were not contradictory. From the fund of his learning, John McKenzie showed us by example that, in fact, they were not contradictory. Nonetheless, balancing faith and reason required, if not blind obedience, real knowledge and attention to the arguments that kept them in balance. You had to think, think hard, learning to live and to believe with a certain ambiguity. Lesson learned.

I began to see how the questions you ask of history affect the answers you get. Historical consciousness began to seep into my way of seeing my Catholicism, my country, my culture, my Chicago bubble. My religious beliefs and identity began to grow beyond their childhood foundations. Critical reasoning entered into my Catholic identity.

This first crack in the egg when the yolk of authority began to leak was not, or not only, a crack in the Catholic subculture. It was also a crack in the über-culture. That leakage began with the civil-rights movement in the late 1950s and the war in Vietnam later on. In both, America's claim to exceptionalism was put to the test.

Chicago has been called the most segregated city in America; not a title anyone (white) owned up to in my youth, but one they were content to live with. In fact, in some parts of the city's sprawling neighborhoods that racial fact was actively maintained by “parish boundaries,” as described in historian John McGreevy's telling study by that name, and by local political arrangements between white and black Democratic politicians that worked to keep people in their own neighborhoods.

Despite containment and truces, race was a contentious subject in many Chicago neighborhoods, but not the one in which I lived. Irish and Swedish, Catholics and Lutherans, we were a white neighborhood on the North Side surrounded by other white neighborhoods and by Lake Michigan. In 1950 our parish and parish school had faced and passed the test of welcoming a “Negro” family and the son who joined my fourth-grade class at St. Ita's. The pastor, old Monsignor Picard, had made it clear they were there and they were staying, and they did. Matter settled.

Loyola University then had a small number of “Negro” students. The basketball team, the Ramblers, would never have won the 1963 NCAA championship without the black players from Pearl River, Tennessee, and the Bronx. At that time, there were a few “Negroes” from the Catholic parishes that had been welcoming to them and congenial to their aspirations for education and economic security. The complex, half-hidden arrangements that actually governed race relations sprang into the open at Loyola in the spring of 1963.

There was a swimming pool on the seventeenth floor of Lewis Towers. The university occupied the first twelve floors. Mrs. Frank J. Lewis, the widow of the man who had given Loyola the lower floors, maintained the quarters of the Illinois Club for Catholic Women on the upper floors, including the pool. This pool was open to women students—white only. That fact seems to have been known to a number of Chicago Catholics, some of whom had tried, over the years, to change the policy of segregation, without success. In 1963, the civil-rights movement was up and running; the NAACP was having its annual meeting in Chicago that July; and Martin Luther King Jr. was preaching his call for us to be good Americans and to observe the Constitution, the law of the land.

Loyola students were alert to the changing landscape, especially the lunch-counter sit-ins, but probably not prepared to do much about the situation, until...Mrs. Lewis's pool became a test case. The ICCW failed the test, turning away our classmate Micki Leaner (black), but welcoming another, Nancy Amidei (white). The student newspaper, the Loyola News (where Peter Steinfels and Barry Hillenbrand were editors and I a reporter—the Lois Lane of the operation), was on the case. There are various account of how matters proceeded after the tests were made and reported to other students. Barry and Nancy were following the issue with Micki and another black student, Warren Bracey.

The short version is that student demonstrations gradually built up, while Mrs. Lewis resisted the urgings of many prominent Catholics to change her policy. Finally on July 1, 1963, the matter was settled (sort of) when seven Franciscan sisters in habits showed up on the picket line, and were pictured on the front pages of all four Chicago newspapers and in national magazines. Mrs. Lewis, after expressing her great disappointment with the nuns to whom she had been so generous, agreed to open the club to black women.

We who were on the Loyola News have looked back on that as a victory for student agitation and student newspapers (albeit with the help of picketing nuns). We remembered and absorbed this as a white victory. Of course, there was a larger context to the event. Catholics were all over the map. Some favored integration; some opposed picketing nuns; some were against Mrs. Lewis's policy but sympathetic to her situation—after all, she was an old lady. Imagine the university president watching the Lewis family's future contributions going down the drain. It was a defining moment for some of the students. Some learned that they could effect change; some were put off by the university's “neutral” stance; some understood that institutions will always be slow to change; some were just happy they hadn't been expelled. This has resided as a happy event in my memory bank, and proof that many whites favored integration before it became the law of the land.

Forty-four years later, the Loyola News crew was asked to reconstruct the events of 1963 for a history of Loyola University. Presumably the university now takes pride in the event. Even more lessons were learned in this effort. We (Barry and I, with Peter's memory bank) went to work on the story; a revisionist account emerged, showing the elusiveness of memory. The archives of the Catholic Interracial Council (CIC), then under the leadership of John McDermott, had the good fortune to land intact in the Chicago Historical Society. So, too, the archives of Friendship House, an interracial workshop that had tutored the Franciscan nuns and many other Chicagoans. (Ellen Skerrett, who edited the Loyola history and invited our participation, is also a brilliant researcher. She dug in many archives to give us what we needed to bring the story together; she also uncovered Peter's lengthy account of it in New City—an essay he had long forgotten.)

These archival records showed how ardently the two organizations (both were integrated) had worked on this and far more egregious cases of discrimination and inequality. Significantly, relevant copies of the Loyola News were missing from the university archives. Micki Leaner (baptismal name G. Marie Leaner), who had tested the policy, turns out to have been the force behind the protest. Her godfather, a vice president of the AFL-CIO, was a member of the CIC. Pressing against segregation and discriminatory practices were things her family knew a great deal about. There had been many earlier efforts by Catholic organizations to loosen up the pool rules; Holy Name Cathedral's grammar school, with black children among its students, was a few short blocks away. Could the students there use the pool—only little children after all? Mrs. Lewis had been firmly opposed. All of this was virtually unknown to Loyola students, perhaps to the Loyola administrators as well. But it was well known in Chicago's black Catholic community. Most white people didn't see it, couldn't see it. The Loyola protest changed that.

The archives also turned up evidence of the tightrope that the university and its Jesuit president walked. The Lewis family was an important donor. There were other donors, Chicago Catholics, not happy about student demonstrations, or the public effort to change the policy of one very small organization by embarrassing an old lady. Both lay and Jesuit faculty, including McKenzie, were sympathetic to the students; but the academic dean who wrote the official university statement defended the university by arguing that it was not responsible for the students' actions; we were private citizens expressing our personal views (let us not ask where the students had learned about racial injustice—probably not from their parents). Yet even the dean seemed to understand that this was not a battle that the university could, or should, win. And oh yes, Micki Leaner reports that she never did learn to swim because the pool was closed down for repairs and never reopened in her remaining time at the university.

The majority of Chicago Catholics were certainly content to live with the racial status quo. There were other Catholics who wanted to do the right thing, the just thing—people who knew better than the students the complexity of Chicago's racial and racist politics. They favored dialogue and discussion, but were not at all enthusiastic about picketing and demonstrations. Nonetheless, they threw their support behind the students.

Lessons learned: social change, even in a bastion of liberal education and with clear church teaching about structures of injustice, is change that comes only with imagination, uncharacteristically emboldened students, and a willingness to push the envelope. Nonetheless, the immediate, if partial, success of the protest rested on higher authority—nuns picketing in habits!

I graduated from Loyola in June 1963 and, in keeping with the custom of the time, did not attend commencement exercises. Marriage and a move to New York City were on the horizon. And now my final story. There was an end-of-school-year party. For departing seniors it was the end of college, time for juniors to ascend to the heights of seniordom. Juniors and seniors, friends and enemies, we gathered in a well-tended yard somewhere on the foreign southwest side of the city, perhaps even beyond Chicago, at the fuzzy edge where it tapered off into farmland and downstate Illinois. I had graduated and was busy working, ready to leave Chicago for New York. The adventure to come outshone the party at hand, but not the company: departures and arrivals, acceptances and rejections, comings and goings of those present and those absent—talk was a bit too cheerful. Back then, no one would admit a disappointment or a less-than-positive outcome to a graduate school application or job interview.

The good cheer aside, the evening has lingered long in my psyche—a reminder of invincible ignorance and how truly vincible it can come to seem over time. I uttered a phrase, a consolation to a friend: “You'll get over it.” As far as I knew, that was true, but as I've learned over many years, it was not. “You'll get over it” comes back to haunt me. Sitting in the half-darkness of the summer evening, having drunk very little myself, I was chatting with a classmate who had drunk a great deal. My move to New York focused the conversation; that was what he wanted. A talented member of Loyola's theater group, he was looking forward to life as a Broadway star.

“Why not finish school first?” I asked. Then he'd have a degree and could always get a teaching job (my parents' expected cash-out of my four years in college). His own distant parents had no expectations. He circled that subject morosely and then turned to what must have been really gnawing at him: a teacher, a high-school teacher, a priest, sex. My friend said he was a homosexual. Did he actually used the word “faggot” about himself? For me this was unknown territory, a foreign language. His words existed at the edge of meaning, or at least of my knowledge. What could I say? We were sitting across from one another on lawn chairs. He may have been in tears. Did I pat him on the arm? I can't remember. But I clearly remember offering the consolation: “You'll get over it.”

Did I even know what it was he would get over? Teacher, priest, sex, faggot: the words didn't track. I was at a loss. My adolescent conventions were limited to heterosexual romances. “You'll get over it” might have been appropriate and true when those ended, leaving one or both partners unhappy. In fact, they would get over it. Another romance was just over the horizon. But what my friend had described was not a romance-or had it been? What had it been? What was it that he was going to get over?

So there you have it: the Chicago bubble. In 1963 at age twenty-two, all of this and much, much more had shaped and formed me. I left it behind, and with it my father's melancholy summing up of life, a song he often sang in a croony Perry Como voice.

I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere,
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.