The Italian’s 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 city.
Predominantly 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 earlier.
The church’s 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.
Since Assumption 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 Americans.
By the way, those dedicated priests of the Servants of Mary.....they’re still there.
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