Collection Spotlight: Slovenian Parishes
The parishes of St. George (Ewing Street) and St. Stephen (22nd Place) were established to serve the needs of ethnic Slovenians in the city of Chicago. They are unique because, while Slovenes settled around other parishes, neighborhoods, and suburbs, St. George and St. Stephen were the only two parishes to be specifically designated as the home for ethnic Slovenian Catholics. The two parishes share a deeply interconnected history: they were founded near the same time and shared many priests and cultural institutions between them. Both faith communities were built up by immigrants who moved to Chicago for industrial jobs and a better life for their families. This digital exhibit features highlights from the historical collections of both parishes whose records were processed at the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center in 2023.
The first Slovenian immigrants started to come to Chicago in the late 1800s. These pioneers were men searching for job opportunities in industrial work such as at the steel mills. Eventually their families came to Chicago, settling mainly in three divided pockets on the north, west, and south side. By 1897 there were 60 Slovenian families. As these communities grew, and with many Slovenes being Catholic, the demand for a church that catered to their spiritual needs became clear.
Father John Plevnik was St. Stephen’s first pastor. He had come to the United States from Slovenia to continue his theological studies at various institutions when he was ordained in June 1897. In the fall of 1897, a sick man at Cook County Hospital had requested a Slovenian priest and Father Plevnik was sent to visit him. Here he met more Slovenians than he had expected. He was thrilled that they wanted to establish a church and he decided to help them. He developed relationships with local Slovenians, attended meetings to help garner interest and organize parishioners, and requested to the Archbishop that he allow them to establish a Slovenian parish. Father Plevnik also played an integral role in encouraging South Chicago Slovenes to establish a parish of their own.
While many organizations have played a large role in the development and growth of these parishes over the years, few have left a long lasting impact as the KSKJ (Kranjsko Slovenska Katoliska Jednota, or “Carniolian Slovene Catholic Union”). It was established in 1894 as a life insurance company for Slovenian steel worker immigrants and offered fraternal fellowship and community. The first chapter of the KSKJ was the St. Stephen’s Society, No. 1. This was the namesake of St. Stephen’s parish, since the organization had been the driving force in its establishment. The KSKJ acted as a catalyst in the development of these parishes: they invited Father Plevnik to meetings, encouraged him to meet and speak with local families, assisted in the construction of both churches through generous financial support, and offered much of their own personal time and energy. This organization was a cornerstone of both parish communities for over 100 years and is still active in Joliet, IL.
Members of St. Stephen’s Society KSKJ, No. 1, are actually the reason the first church of St. Stephen’s was purchased. After being established in January 1898, the congregation did not have a physical space for mass, nor a stable pastor for many years. While on a walk the then-president of the KSKJ saw a sign that read “for sale – cheap” in front of an old, defunct Swedish church. After talking it over with other members of St. Stephen’s Society and Father Plevnik, they decided to buy the church, later nicknamed the “blacksmith shop.” Mass was celebrated there until 1904 when the city condemned the building for safety hazards.
For years the parish gathered in the school halls of other churches such as St. Procopius and St. Paul’s to celebrate mass while they raised money to build their own church. Eventually, in 1905, parishioners pledged to raise money to build a proper church, but soon after construction began, the money ran out and there was only enough to build a covered basement. Mass was held in this basement, until the church was finally completed in 1909. Despite early struggles, the parish quickly flourished hereafter. In the following years, the parish built a school, community center, and a roller rink, buying up property around the church and expanding it.
St. George was founded in 1903 on the southeast side of Chicago, nearly on the border of Indiana. Thanks to Father Plevnik’s guiding hand, St. George’s Parish was established. In the early days of St. George, before they had a church of their own, he held mass for them at a neighboring parish. He also assisted them in the purchase of land for their own church. Parishioners requested a Slovene pastor to shepherd the community to which the Archdiocese sent Father John Kranjec, also from Slovenia. He oversaw the construction of the church and contributed his own money to the cause. Initially, the church was going to be built out of wood, but in teaming up with local Catholic Croatian immigrants, the two groups were able to pool their money to fund the construction of a brick church. They broke ground on the construction in June of 1903, and on December 6th, 1903 they celebrated their first mass. For an unknown reason, the Croatians left to form their own parish in 1912.
The Slovenian Franciscan Fathers first came to the US in 1906 to New York. In the 1920s, as immigration from Slovenia grew in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, they established a church and monastery called St. Mary’s Franciscan Slovenian Catholic Mission in Lemont, IL.
Slovenian culture is a key part of the establishment of these two parishes. These Catholic immigrants were eager to create a new sense of community in a new country. One way that George Cardinal Mundelein helped facilitate this was by sending the Slovenian Franciscan Fathers to take pastoral care of the parishes. They accepted the invitation from the Archbishop to run St. Stephen’s Parish in 1919, and then St. George in 1922. They administered both until 1998.
In the early days of St. Stephen’s a monthly “Glasilo” (literally translates to “newsletter”) covered local news. This page is informing readers that these two men will be going door to door collecting donations for a new organ!
There is a popular pilgrimage for Slovene Catholics to the shrine of Marija Pomagaj (which translates to Mary, Help of Christians) in Brezje, Slovenia. In this small village there is a painting of the Marija Pomagaj that is associated with miraculous healings. People from across Slovenia and other countries make a pilgrimage to be united with her. The founding Slovene Franciscan Fathers were particularly devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and decided that Slovenian Americans deserved to participate in that devotion too. The Fathers requested a copy of the painting for their new church. A painted reproduction was sent to the USA where she was blessed and crowned. Now Slovenian Americans could make the pilgrimage to the American Marija Pomagaj. In English the monastery is called St. Mary’s, but Slovenians call it Ameriske Brezje. Parishioners from St. George and St. Stephen’s made this pilgrimage to the “American Brezje” for decades.
Additionally, in the personal library of the St. George parish we found a collection of Slovenian literature and publications among the records. Some are featured here: the first is a Slovenian book of fairytales. The inside depicts fantastical art deco style drawings. The second is a biology textbook from 1926. While this textbook would not have been used at St. George School since the school did not open until the 1950s, it provides a glimpse into Slovenian education for students in the early 20th century. There was also bound copies of the Ave Maria, a monthly newsletter published by the Slovenian Franciscan Fathers. This newsletter series features the events and activities of Slovene parishes and groups across the USA.
Throughout the years, many Slovenian shows, plays, and cultural events were held at these parishes. Starting in 1957, St. Stephen’s Parish was invited to decorate a tree at the Museum of Science and Industry for the yearly Christmas Around the World exhibit. Here they showcased Slovenian Christmas customs and traditions.
After World War II, political unrest in Yugoslavia caused there to be an influx of Slovenian migrants to Chicago, and particularly the lower west side. This led to many more cultural events being held in the 1950s through the 1980s. In order to nurture this new generation of Slovenian Americans, the parish established a Slovenian school (separate from the parochial school) to teach American-born children the Slovenian language, as well as their culture and history.
Parish Life and Community
In the early twentieth century, churches were the bedrock of a neighborhood’s social life. These parishes hosted and supported many different organizations, which in turn were the cornerstones of the churches themselves. Among St. George and St. Stephen, such groups included several chapters of the KSKJ, Holy Name Society, Married Ladies Sodality (also referred to as the Slovene Mothers Society or the Christian Mothers Society), the Young Ladies Sodality for Juniors, the Ladies Guild, the altar society, many church choirs in Slovenian, English, and Spanish, and more. Many of these organizations may sound similar, and that is because they are. While many of these groups served similar functions, they were tailored to different language and cultural demographics. For example, at St. George: the Married Ladies Sodality was for Slovene speaking mothers and ladies, while the Ladies Guild was for English speaking women. The Married Ladies Sodality had been around for longer, and the Ladies Guild appears to be an offshoot that was created in 1944.
“We organized a society with the specific purpose to work for unity among the members of our Parish, to disregard national groups completely and serve only the one common interest: the growth of our spiritual family gathered around St. George… Their sole purpose is to organize all the ladies of the congregation on a spiritual and social basis, fostering understanding and friendly cooperation among the members and give a helping hand in every enterprise of the church.”
- Ladies Guild Announcement, St. George’s Parish Almanac 1945, page 26
Another important facet of parish life at this time was the community center. In 1951, St. Stephen’s built a new parish center with a gym and a hall across the street from the church. After the war, parish life flourished. Every weekend and often weekdays were full of activity. The parish hall was used to host plays, concerts, bazaars, socials, and wrestling. Weddings, baptisms, and baby showers all took place at the community center.
With increasing enrollment in schools and attendance at mass, the parish soon found that it needed more space. St. Stephen decided to buy the Methodist church across the street in 1953. They used the first floor of the church to hold services so that the original church would not be overcrowded, and they turned the basement into a roller rink for parishioners! They built a larger roller rink next to this church in 1957, where the first floor served as an entrance. In 1961, it was decided that the old Methodist church was to be torn down. This space became a parking lot/playground for students. The roller rink served as a great meeting place in the community for many years. In the 1980s and 1990s, traffic diminished and the roller rink was only used by school students and internal organizations. The roller rink closed in 1996 when the school closed.
These spaces were incredibly important to building and sustaining community at the time:
“That is why I appreciate the underlying principles of the Community Center. It will be a Catholic outlet for the young children. The sciences, especially psychology, reminds us that the timber of manhood and womanhood is rooted in the moral upbringing of early childhood… Isn’t it more edifying to know that your children are indulging in bowling recreation during the evenings instead of “bumming” around elsewhere. The gang meets where the gangs have a chance to gather… Assuredly the spiritual element will be present when the atmosphere is centered around church activities”
- St. George’s Parish Almanac 1945, page 8
World War II
During World War II, 306 total men and women from St. Stephen’s left to serve in the war. Five men never made it home. Father Leonard Bogolin, one of the pastors at the time, left to serve as well as an army chaplain. Parishioners put a lot of time, energy, and prayer into supporting their troops. At home, many of the women volunteered their time for the Red Cross, rolling bandages and assisting in first aid. Since many parishioners had family abroad in Slovenia and Europe, efforts were organized to donate food and clothes overseas to families and those in need.
At St. George, roughly 337 people served in the war, while nine died. Parishioners were asked to knit, make bandages, and other care packages for the Red Cross. The Ladies Guild sent Christmas cards to soldiers at war in 1944. St. George, which had a significant Italian population, held canned food drives and the proceeds were sent to Italy. Even after the war ended, the parish continued to hold drives to send money and supplies to communities affected by the war in Europe.
As these parishes grew and thrived, parents of St. George and St. Stephen wanted their children to have a Catholic education. Catholic schools were a crucial vehicle for their spiritual and social development in the community.
In 1919, before St. Stephen’s parish could afford to build a school of their own, they rented out two classrooms in the nearby St. Paul’s Catholic School. In these two classrooms, two sisters taught four elementary classes. After one year, the student body grew to such a large size that one sister had 96 students while the other had 85! This was far too many for only two sisters to handle, so in 1922 a proper school was built north of the church. 276 students transferred to the new school building in November 1922. During this transition, the Slovenian School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King took over the teaching role at the school. The student body continued to grow at a rapid rate. A second floor of the school was built to create more classrooms and a school hall. By that fall there were 360 students enrolled at St. Stephen’s School. As time went on and the student body grew, a parish center with a gym and a hall was built nearby. This allowed for the upper floor of the school to become more classrooms and a library.
At St. George, there had been talk about building a school since the construction of the church in the early 1900s. There was never enough money until a fundraising campaign for a school and community center began in 1943. They were able to break ground for a school in 1949 and the school opened in the fall of 1951 for grades six and below. By fall of 1952 they taught all 8 grades and had their first graduating class in the spring of 1953. In the early years the school was entirely taught by nuns from St. Francis of Christ the King, similar to St. Stephen’s; however, by 1978 there were 164 students with 4 nuns and 4 teachers.
Not many records that detailed the activity of the school were present in this collection, but there are a plethora of photos that provide a glimpse of everyday life:
Chicago has always been a place where many cultures mix, and these parishes are no exception. Even in the early years, these parishes were never fully or exclusively Slovenian. When Father Plevnik first went to the Archbishop to request a church for Slovenians, it was initially denied. The Archbishop was hesitant because the population of Slovenians were so low at the time. He encouraged the Slovenians to partner with the Catholic Croatians to create a joint parish. Both parishes had attempted this for some time, but ultimately this arrangement did not last very long and the Croatians ended up leaving to establish their own parish elsewhere. For St. Stephen’s this partnership lasted for all of two meetings, for St. George’s it went on for 9 years.
St. Stephen’s maintained their Slovenian identity throughout the years despite the cultural changes that happened in the neighborhood around the parish. The lower west side was awash with various European ethnic groups, including Slovenians, at the turn of the 20th century. As such, many different churches were packed into one neighborhood. This allowed people of different cultural backgrounds to interact, but still maintain their identity.
However over time, the younger parishioners of St. Stephen’s and St. George, a few generations removed their parents’ homeland, were more assimilated to American culture. After World War II, many of these younger parishioners got married and had children, which grew the parish. However, eventually these couples moved to the suburbs to raise families of their own.
At the same time, as a result of political unrest in Slovenia, which had been consolidated into the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia following World War II, there was an influx of Slovenian migrants to Chicago. This exchange led to another group of young, first-generation Slovenes that brought their culture and tradition to St. Stephen’s. This revitalized the Slovenian spirit and social life of the parish. During the 1980s, there was an increase of Italians and Latinos into this neighborhood. Up to a third of the students at St. Stephen were of Latino heritage. However, the parish never held a Spanish mass because neighboring Catholic churches were already catering to that demographic.
Compared to the settlement patterns of Slovenians in the north and west side of Chicago, the Slovenian group on the southeast side was rather small. In a major city like Chicago, communities are not insulated. After a generation or two, people move to other areas and culturally shared languages are often lost when people assimilate and speak English in formal settings like school. After the Croatians left in 1912, St. George was a primarily Slovenian institution until 1939, when Father Aloysius Madic assumed the role of pastor. He is noted to have had a tolerant mindset and welcomed non-Slovenians to join the church. After that point, the demographic of St. George shifted tremendously, most notably including Italians that lived in the southeast side, and later, Latinos.
Parishioners that fought in World War II. By this time there was already a sizeable Italian population at St. George.
By 1980 the largest ethnic group at St. George was Italian and there were no longer Slovenian masses. In March of 1985, the first Spanish mass was performed, and in 1998 CCD courses were taught in English and Spanish, indicating the growing Latino population in the area. There were still Slovenian parishioners and many Slovenian organizations like KSKJ were still active, however they were much older now, while most of the younger families were Latino.
Due to continued demographic change within the south and east sides of Chicago, both parishes eventually closed, with St. Stephen offering its last mass in 2002 and St. George closing its doors in 2021. While they began as ethnic enclaves for Slovenian immigrants, the very practice of explicitly ethnic parishes was ended by Cardinal Mundelein in the 1930s. Despite their closure the two institutions left a long-lasting impact in the neighborhood and beyond the city limits. Today there is still a sizeable community of Slovenian Americans in Joliet and many Slovenian organizations are still active there. The Archives and Records Center of the Archdiocese received the historical records of these two parishes and wanted to celebrate and pay homage to the dedication and spirit displayed by so many parishioners throughout the years. These two new collections make accessible their historical legacies and offer a window into the early years of our city and Archdiocese.
From humble beginnings, these parishes grew into cornerstones of their communities: providing a space for people to celebrate their culture, thrive socially, and practice their faith. What remains in these collections showcases only a glimpse of the hub of social activity and faith that inhabited these parishes were for over 100 years.
Researched and written by Maya Cázares. Maya received her BA in Anthropology from Indiana University and will start a MLIS graduate program in the fall of 2024. She was an archives intern at the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center in the fall of 2023. She would like to express her gratitude to Charles Heinrich and Meg Hall for their guidance, support, and many revisions throughout this project.
Brunner, Emily. “Slovenes,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1153.html#:~:text=Most%20settled%20in%20South%20Chicago,because%
20of%20diminishing%20economic%20opportunities. (Accessed January 2024).
“History,” St. Mary’s Retreat House, https://www.baragasmrh.com/history (Accessed January 2024).
History Records – Historical Records – St. George Parish (Ewing Ave.). Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center (Hereafter Archives and Records Center), Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
History Records – Historical Records – St. Stephen Parish (22nd Place). Archives and Records Center, Chicago, IL.
History Records – Photographs – St. George Parish (Ewing Ave.). Archives and Records Center, Chicago, IL.
History Records – Scrapbooks – St. Stephen Parish (22nd Place). Archives and Records Center, Chicago, IL.
“Our History,” KSKJ Life. https://www.kskjlife.com/our-history/ (Accessed: January 2024).
“Slovenian Lemont” and “Marija Pomagaj”, Franciscan Fathers (Slovenian Catholic Mission). https://www.lemont-svs.org/slovenian-lemont (Accessed January 2024).
“The National Shrine Mary Help of Christians at Brezje,” Marija Pomagaj Brezje. https://marija.si/en/ (Accessed January 2024).