Looking to the northwest, you can see the steeple of St. Michael’s Church, a Polish Catholic church dedicated in 1896, and due west, Church of the Immaculate Conception, established in 1882. Just as these churches loom over Steelworkers Park, religion has played an important role to the culture of Southeast Chicago from its beginnings of immigration waves to the removal of the steel industry. When the first waves of Southeast Chicago immigration came from Western Europe, they brought along their cultural histories, including their religion. Churches were founded early and largely maintained homogeneity through the tradition of parishes. For example, Southeast Chicago has a strong claim to the oldest public building in Chicago with Old St. Patrick’s Church, whose temple was dedicated in 1856. This claim is largely due to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which took down the older buildings in central Chicago. Other churches and temples formed in this era included Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1924, a foothold for Mexican immigrants, and the synagogue Agudath Achim (now Agudath Achim-Bikur Cholim) in 1902. Increasing immigration from the success of steel brought more diversity in the region’s religious structure, which created friction when combined with the ethnic integration. This included immigrants not only from other parts of Europe, but also Mexicans and even African-American migrants from the South. Some churches tolerated and promoted segregation of whites and blacks, Serbians, and Mexicans. Others discouraged anti-integration sentiments, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe public outcries on segregation riots. Despite this divisiveness, religion became a cohesive force in the wake of Southeast Chicago’s worst period: the removal of steel. Churches after the region’s economic decline saw themselves become more inclusive, as all people suffered from these events. They became community hubs, and even transformed into places for action. The Calumet region’s religious leaders, which included Southeast Chicago, formed the Calumet Religious Conference on the Steel Crisis to address relief efforts. In 1985, this body formed a South Chicago group called the Developing Communities Project, and they hired a young Columbia University graduate named Barack Obama. Regardless of the events with which religion has participated, it has been a strong force for this community. One resident in the documentary, Wrapped in Steel, had this to say:[Look] at how many churches we have, look at how well they’re attended, and look how well they’re taken care of by the people. The same people who don’t have free money or leisure money still donate to the church, still believe in the church . . . Church is a savior; it’s a place to give them that lift again, too.”
When a lot of people on the Southeast Side think about religion, they also think about women. This is because their wives, mothers, and daughters played a crucial role in religious organizations and, thus, in building the community. The most common place for women was in the home, but we shouldn’t think of them as powerless. In performing homemaker duties, women were responsible for running the lives of most members of the community. Women got the children off to school, formed social groups, and planned events for the religious, civic, and ethnic organizations that made up the core of community life. When men worked long hours, community life on the Southeast Side centered around women. Listen as one interviewee reminds us: we shouldn’t think that women at home didn’t work.
Many women also went to work to provide supplementary income for their households. In the workforce, they were mostly limited to doing work that was “suitable” for women. Many women entered other households and performed the same domestic labor that they did for their own families, like cooking and cleaning. Working women also filled roles in the service economy, entering bars, restaurants, and shops. The boom of the steel industry created other economic sectors that were necessary to accommodate growth of the neighborhood. In filling the jobs created by these secondary industries, women were integral in the economic community of the Southeast Side. When women went to work, they didn’t abandon their roles as homemakers, but they did have much less time to care for their households. This strained many families, particularly as men grappled with losing their jobs in the mills. Some women were able to find work that was only a short distance from their home, but most were not so lucky. Most jobs existed outside of the community and residents had to travel long distances in order to make a living. Being forced to enter the workplace generated different reactions from different women: some were disappointed at the change in their lives while some, as one interviewee put it, were excited to get the chance to “do something different” and gain their independence, as one interviewee comments in the following recording.
Now, I want to tell you about an exceptional woman named Alice Peurala, one of the few female steelworkers in Southeast Chicago and the first woman to ever head a basic-steel local. She fought against issues like discriminatory hiring practices and unsanitary conditions for women within the steel mills. She was also a mother who worked in the mill for 5 months during her pregnancy and went back to work 2 months after her baby was born. She, like many other women in the community, rushed back and forth from her workplace to her home to care for her child.
As you can see, women and religion have played a complex but crucial role in shaping the community on the Southeast Side. The next stop will talk about work life, focusing on labor and labor unions.