Sunday, February 24, 2013

By Their Church, Ye Shall Know Them

“By their affiliations, you shall know them” to restate a familiar biblical quote. Many genealogical experts urge us to look at the groups our ancestors joined to learn more about them. One of the potentially richest sources of information for genealogists is the church where our ancestor worshipped. The records created by churches sometimes include, and may go beyond, the sacramental records of baptism, communion, confirmation and marriage.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, serendipity along with the steady mining of information from a variety of sources can sometimes result in unexpected and amazing finds. Last year I became aware of the Chicago Genealogical Society On the CGS website, I clicked the publications tab and found the listing of the contents of copies of the quarterly journal of the Society, The Chicago Genealogist, going all the way back to 1969. But the best news of all is that the Newberry Library in Chicago has digitized all the copies of this journal.

It is a two-step process to find articles of interest in The Chicago Genealogist. First, you look at the list of articles on the CGS website. When you find an article of interest (be sure to note the date, volume, number), you search for it on the Newberry’s digitized collection.  From this page, you can click on “Advanced Search” at the top and search for the exact volume.

I made a list of several articles I wanted to read, including “Some Early Irish Residents of Chicago’s West Side” in vol. XI #3 Spring 1979. When I located the article in the Newberry Library's collection, I was astonished to see what it actually was: “A list of contributors to the building of the main altar at Holy Family Catholic Church during the years 1863-65.”
As I looked down the list of names of parishioners, I saw some of my target surnames (J. Carney, Patrick Kearney, J. Duffy), as well as names from their collateral families (Anthony Dinan, Bernard Cosgrove, John Cosgrove, T. Cosgrove).

This find was exciting because I had been stuck in my Irish paternal great great grandparents’generation: my great great grandfather John Carney/Kearney and my great great grandmother Mary Duffy. I had found little information about them. They are identified as my great grandmother’s (Mary Carney/Kearney Kries Lauer) parents only on her second marriage application.

I have found mention of people in John’s and Mary’s  close social circle (collateral families) on baptism records. Julia Mercer Cosgrove is listed as a baptismal sponsor for Patrick William Kearney, the son of John Kearney and Mary Duffy. In the next generation, Catherine Sweeney Brookins Dinan and her son, Charles Dinan, were baptismal sponsors for Henrietta Kries, the daughter of Mary Carney/Kearney Kries and Henry Kries.

With this list of altar contributors, I had moved back a generation. But there was more to be found in this journal article. At the very top of the first page, the transcriber, Thomas M. Cook, gave the source of this list: “…originally published in Holy Family Parish, by Bro. Thomas Mulkerins S.J., Universal Press, Chicago, 1923.” And Cook even tells his reader where to find the book: “A copy of this book can be found in the collection of the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Library.”

Another caveat to researchers that genealogy experts put forward is that if at all possible, a researcher should always go back to the original source. You never know if mistakes were made by an indexer or transcriber or if information was left out. So I needed to consult Brother Mulkerins’ book on the first parish of my Chicago ancestors.

I went to the University of Illinois Chicago Campus and searched for the book on the UIC library page. I found that there were two copies, one in Special Collections which was non-circulating and one in the stacks. I telephoned the library just to be sure the latter could be requested through Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Fortunately, I was able to obtain this treasure through my local library’s ILL program.You can also read Holy Family Parish online at 

One of the key elements of the book is the parish map that is included. I was actually able to locate the area where my great great grandparents lived (Halsted and Maxwell/Hastings) on this map.

 As I looked through the history of Holy Family Parish, I found several items of great interest to me that did not appear in the altar contributors’ list; in fact, although that list was crucial for me to identify ancestral surnames and to tie them to later generations, there was so much more to learn about the church and the community it served:
  1. What the land around Holy Family Parish looked like when the     church was built in 1857.
  2. Why so many parishioners were included as contributors to the altar society drive.
  3. What the neighborhood was like – what kinds of commercial establishments lined the streets.

When Father Arnold Damen began work on building Holy Family Church in 1857, this is what the area looked like, according to Father Mulkerins:
“…the territory allotted to the parish was a prairie during part of the year and a swamp during another with scarcely a structure worthy of the name of house in the entire parish, and only a few scattered cabins here and there.”1

But it seems that things certainly changed once the church was built:
“Even in those early days it had already become a matter of quite general knowledge that the establishment of a Catholic Church…generally had the effect of drawing people to the vicinity….In an incredibly short time there were numerous families living near the site of the church, and there were numerous additions to the industrial plants.” 2 And why was this?

“…wise business men knew well that amongst the Catholic population…there would be many who would make suitable employees.”3 

The second fact that I learned from reading Holy Family Parish was about the altar society contributors’ list itself. There were about 800 names on the list but most of the donations were only $1.00. What was this all about? Well, it seems that Father Damen preferred to make sure everyone in the parish could enjoy the blessings that came from contributing to the building of the new altar. He and his assistants went door-to-door to see that no one was overlooked. And in addition to the heavenly blessing that a donor would receive, Father Damen added as a further inducement that “each donor was to have his or her name engrossed on parchment and placed under the altar.”4 

The third piece of information I gleaned from Mulkerins’ history of Holy Family Parish is perhaps the most important. The book actually could serve as a “Fodor’s Guide” to Chicago’s Near West Side in the nineteenth century. We learn first about one of the hallmarks of poverty that still exists today: stores that sell alcohol abound in poor neighborhoods:
“Many of the grocery stores in the early days and up to the eighties (1880s), were a sort of combination of saloon and grocery….The grocery stores were very numerous everywhere in those times, and there were no department stores then as now….They were very numerous, sometimes two, three or even four on the corners of intersecting streets and possibly a few more within the block.”5  

Between pages 725 and 747, Father Mulkerins takes us on a walk through the neighborhood and describes the commercial establishments, other than grocery/saloons, including: drug stores and shoe stores, bakeries and undertakers, coal businesses and hay stores, candle manufacturers and hardware stores, house movers and dry goods stores, meat markets and ice cream stores, hatters and leather stores, and tobacco stores and livery businesses.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
 Yes, Holy Family Parish was a magnificent discovery. I learned that before my great grandparents attended St. Patrick’s Church, their parents were members of Holy Family Parish. I had the opportunity, one that is so often out of reach to genealogists, to “tour” the neighborhood where my people lived, shopped, worked and worshipped.

  1.    Thomas M. Mulkerins, Brother, Holy Family Parish, Chicago: Priests and People (Chicago, IL: Universal Press, 1923), 718.
  2.     Ibid., 719
  3.     Ibid., 719.
  4.     Ibid., 58.
  5.     Ibid., 720.
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