When I started research for my forthcoming book Chicago Católico: Making Parishes Mexican, 1920-77, historian Ellen Skerrett sagely suggested “Don’t forget the Sisters!” I gathered abundant material from Mexican parishioners and Claretian clergy at St. Francis of Assisi, a church known as Chicago’s catedral mexicana. But with Ellen’s words ringing in my ears, I contacted the Sisters of St. Francis who had staffed St. Francis School from its founding in 1867. The school had great historic importance, I realized, as Chicago’s first parochial school that served a primarily Spanish-speaking population. At the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis in Joliet, archivist Sister Marian welcomed me and shared the school convent’s annals. The monthly annals became bedrock material for two chapters of my book. These orderly, typed pages allowed me to glimpse the lost world inside the school (closed in 1964), where Euro-American sisters sometimes struggled with ethnic Mexican students and families. Moreover, the annals allowed me to see the world from the Sisters’ convent, perched on a crowded, multi-ethnic residential street. The Sisters offered straightforward reflections about ethnic transitions in the neighborhood, offering vignettes of “pantry parties” with old time German American former students, a Mexican American boy’s funeral procession, or African Americans avidly attending the parish street festival, just in front of the convent’s door.
Professor of History, Albion College