A Brief History of Chicago’s Little Sicily Neighborhood
and the Saint Philip Benizi Parish
Calogero Lombardo Chicago 2013
Four sources to thank in my research for this article:
Dr. Bruce (Biagio) Zummo, for his memoir of the Little Sicily neighborhood during his life there, which was most of the 1900s. I knew Dr. Zummo via my grandmother when I was 6-11 years old. His book, Little Sicily is one of the few written on the subject of the old Mother Cabrini neighborhood and the Saint Philip Benizi parish on the Near North Side of Chicago. Although I remember his speaking Sicilian, like most Sicilians he could not write that impossible dialect.
Mr. Joseph A. LaGattuta, who in 1990 wrote his oral history of memories of life in the Saint Philip Benizi neighborhood, Reflections. Long after the parish closed, Mr. LaGattuta spoke about the life and culture of the neighborhood from the 1930s to the 1960s, when the school and Church closed. From 1978 through 1990, members of Saint Philip met periodically to exchange their stories of growing and living in Little Sicily. As with Dr. Zummo’s book, I, as a defender of the Sicilian dialect, have only one concern with Mr. LaGattuta’s wonderful memories: the translation of the impossible Sicilian dialect(s) was that of a second generation speaker. Other than that, the memories are small Sicilian treasures of the life and times.
Father Conrad Borntrager, OSM, for his invaluable documentation of Father Luigi Giambastiani, the pastor and spiritual and every other kind of guide of Saint Philip Benizi.
Julie Satzak, Assistant Research Archivist of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for her also invaluable guidance in directing me to ask the right people the right questions, and that wonderful History of the Parishes, which proved invaluable in providing names and dates and other minutiae.
Of course, I want to thank Father Luigi Giambastiani, pastor of Saint Philip, and his assistant Father Carlo Baccetti, for the guidance they instilled in me, and all those magnificent Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters of the Order of Preachers, who saw to our education and “raised” us as much as our parents did.
To all of you, living or otherwise, thank you for making this little study possible.
The history of the Sicilian neighborhood on the Near North Side of Chicago begins around the time of the Chicago Fire. Scandinavians and Germans had by then established colonies there, and were infiltrated by the Irish soon after. Italians had begun filtering in by the 1850s, but their inhabitation would not coalesce into neighborhoods, or communities, until the turn of the century. The neighborhood has been called, among other names, “Swede Town,” “The Patch,” ” Kilcullen,” and “Smoky Hollow” before “Little Hell” (dubbed when the gas refinery and industry were illuminating the night from furnaces, shooting pillars of flame and noxious fumes from the furnaces producing gas; some blame the Mafia for the name, because of the obvious satanic allusion), and ultimately, by the 20th century, Little Sicily,
The Near North neighborhood originally spread from Chicago Avenue on the south to Division on the north, with Orleans and the east shore of the Chicago River the east-west boundaries, respectively. The northern boundary expanded to North Avenue after World War II.
Little Sicily developed with the turn of the century, in the early 1900s. Migrations into the neighborhood were slow at the beginning, but there was work and the schools had no quotas. Whoever wanted a job could get one and his children an education. The Near North side was the welcoming center for Little Sicily’s new arrivals, until the Great Depression, when the reception center closed down for lack of the aforementioned jobs, jobs no one had anymore. Crime levels climbed, and housing stock plunged.
By 1929, the Marshall Field Garden Apartments on Sedgwick Street were completed. This low income housing development was the first large-scale transition between the Gold Coast and Little Sicily. One could walk the entire basement tunnel complex from north to south and east to west without ever emerging into the light. This helped children and people trying to avoid the elements, and other challenges.
Little Hell was razed during World War II, to be replaced by low-rise apartments, row houses, originally for war workers and their families, and named after Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, America’s first saint. These large town houses (in 1942 the Cabrini low-rise townhouses comprised 586 apartments in 54 buildings. Original regulations called for 75% white and 25% black occupancy.) reflected the area’s ethnic mix—poor Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, and a growing African American population migrating from the South in search of better opportunities. The Cabrini part of the Cabrini –Green homes was completed by A. Epstein and Sons in 1957. The Cabrini Homes extension, as they were called, were red brick mid- and high-rises, with 1925 units in 15 buildings. The Chicago Housing Authority further transformed the neighborhood (1958-1962 Pace Associates, architects), when it added the high-rise extensions with 1096 units, north of Division Street, and rededicated the projects as the Cabrini-Green homes (after William Green, Great Society Congressman). Of this expansive (home to 15,000 at its peak) complex—the public housing project went from W. Scott Ave., N. Larrabee St., Division, and Halsted—only a set of the original 1940s row-houses remain (S. of Oak, N. of Chicago, W. of Hudson, E. of Larrabee). By the middle of the 1960s, most of Little Sicily and all of the Saint Philip Benizi community—the spiritual soul and cultural core of the neighborhood—was gone. The few remaining Sicilians would move to the northwest. Demolition began on the high-rises on September 27, 1995; sixteen years later, in the spring of 2011, all of the high-rise buildings had been demolished.
The Great Depression was not the only time jobs were lost in the Near North Community. After World War II, unlike before World War I, when industry was hiring unskilled labor to fill its plants, many of the factories that provided the financial base closed and thousands were laid off. The city withdrew services such as police and transit, leaving the already anti-authority community more confirmed in their beliefs.
Chicago did try to revive the Lower Near North Side, the “era of bad feeling,” hanging over the Near North Side. It was more of an “era of a bad taste in one’s mouth” with jobs and services gone. The Scandinavians and the Germans left, but the Italians and Irish stayed. By the 1940s, the Sicilians outnumbered the Irish, and Little Sicily really was.
Among the most embarrassing of social stigmata was being “on relief.” No one wanted to admit to being on the welfare rolls as it was pride-reducing and shameful; mostly because you were out of work, which cut to the heart of Sicilian/Italian culture. Work was the most important facet of life except for family. It still is: Article 1 of the Italian Constitution states: Italy is a Republic founded on the principle of labor.
Sicilians settled in the Near North side between Division, Orleans, and Chicago and the river, or rather, inside that little square of America. They found work when and where there was any, or they opened their own businesses, doing what they knew—butchers cut meat, fishermen in the Old World sold fish in the New, shoemakers made shoes.
There were in this small area candy stores, drug stores, fish stores, butchers, barbers, shoemakers, bakeries, hardware stores, dry goods, a tavern, restaurant, and a nightclub (The Devil’s Rendezvous).
Besides the store owners, there were peddlers in the street, selling fruits, vegetables, fish, ice, coal, peanuts, suitcases, waffles, popcorn and hot dogs.
There was also a rags/old iron collector and a knife sharpener.
Where did they live once they emigrated from Sicily and settled into the New Sicily? The former citizens of Altavilla Milicia populated Larrabee Street, and later Cleveland Avenue, Dr. Bruce (Biagio) Zummo’s memoir, Little Sicily, instructs us. People from Alimena, Chiusa, and Caccamo moved onto Cambridge Street. The earlier inhabitants of Cleveland Avenue were from Sambuca. People from Bagheria and Burgio filled Mohawk Street. Many inhabitants of North Cambridge Avenue, Hobbie Street and Elm Street immigrated there from Corleone. On Oak Street, which was the community business district, Sicilians and mainland Italians maintained their businesses. This patchwork of small town representation (excepting Palermo) made for the one, the community, or the colony as Dr. Zummo describes it.
The Toscani inhabited Clybourn Avenue just west of the original Little Sicily confines. The Irish were from Seward Park (Orleans to Hudson, Hobbie to Division), one block north and one block east of the Saint Philip’s Church.
Moving to the New World and settling with people from your town in the Old World, most of whom you knew there, or who knew your family or ancestors, made it easier to retain your first culture as you assimilated the new culture, Americanism. Nonetheless, you called outsiders to the neighborhood, “Americani.”
The old neighborhood apartment (1920s through World War II) was typically fifty years old, had a coal burning stove, called a garbage burner, in the kitchen instead of central heat, and an oil stove in the dining room. Most families struggled though the Depression living in these poorly heated frame houses. Few houses had bath tubs, so the possibilities were limited to Jones’ Public House or the galvanized tub (baia or pila) on the kitchen floor.
The center of this cultural microcosm, this patchwork colony of different Sicilians, some wanting, some trying, to be Americans, was the Church of Saint Philip Benizi at Oak Street and Cambridge. Another Catholic Church, Saint Dominick’s at Sedgwick north of Chicago Avenue, ministered to the Irish on the east side of the colony. Other churches were San Marcello, the “little church,” Immaculate Conception, and the Wayman African Baptist Episcopal Church.
Another hub, though not as influential in or to the neighborhood was Saint Joseph’s Church, at 1107 N. Orleans. Saint Joseph was originally located at Chicago and Rush in 1846, rebuilt after the Chicago fire, completed in 1878, re-opening at Hills and Orleans. It is the third oldest parish in Chicago.
Saint Philip Benizi Church was at 988 Cambridge, the school just east across the street. It was the spiritual and cultural center of the Sicilian neighborhood.
Consecrated in 1904, it lived until about 1965. Archbishop James E. Quigley granted the Servite Fathers from Assumption, BVM Church permission to build a church for Italian Catholics living north of Chicago Avenue. The cornerstone was laid on August 14, 1904. Archbishop Quigley dedicated the church on December 128, 1904, and it remained officially a mission of Assumption BVM Church. Reverend Peregrine Giangrandi was listed as pastor in 1911, but Sasaint Philip did not become a separate religious entity with its own prior until 1915.She knew two pastors, one the aforementioned Father Giangrandi, one a major force who achieved mythic and heroic status: Father Luigi M. Giambastiani, a.k.a. Father Louis, who invested fifty-four years as spiritual leader of the parish.
The work was, predictably, most rewarding. “One of my goals was to teach immigrants a love for their new country…I think that my most rewarding mission was ministering to the poor and the humble people of the parish.”
Luigi Giambastiani was born on August 14, 1885, in Bargecchia, Massarosa (Lucca) Italy, son of Casimiro and Luigia Gemigani (sic) and entered the Servite Order (Order of the Servants of Mary—OSM) in Montesenario (Florence), Italy on August 23, 1900, made his profession of simple vows on September 8, 1901, and of solemn vows on November 1, 1904. In August 9, 1908, he was ordained at Orvieto, and soon after went to America. There he was appointed Assistant of Assumption Church in Chicago. He taught philosophy at Our Lady of Sorrows School. In 1910, he became Assistant at Saint Philip Benizi, and taught Greek and Philosophy at the House of Studies in Granville, Wisconsin. He began working on a Sunday School with Katherine McKeon as director of a staff of lay teachers. Soon after, in 1911, he went to Vancouver, British Columbia as the first Servite to bring the Servite Order to the Pacific Coast. He stayed there three years until 1916, when he was called back to Chicago and appointed Pastor of St Philip Benizi.
He began developing, or re-developing, the parish. He reorganized the Day Nursery (day-care) and Kindergarten, established the elementary parochial school in 1920, and built a new school building.
He brought the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, to teach the children and administer the school, which they did until the school closed in the early 1960s.
Best know for his love of and work with children, he would build a seminary for children, which was realized after nine years of work and prayer. In his own words, “My first ten years at Saint Philip were spent in the neighborhood streets, playgrounds and alleys, rounding up children for the Sunday school.”
The reason he wanted to keep the children off the streets was that the Servite Fathers feared for the safety of the children. In 1911 there were 9 unsolved murders in the immediate area (Oak Street and Cleveland, then called Milton)
Ascribed by some to the dubious Black Hand Movement.
In 1914, the Mantellate Sisters, Italian nuns, were given charge of the Kindergarten and Day Nursery, organized in 1911 at 858 Gault Street.
Father Giangrandi died in June, 1916, and Father Luigi was made pastor.
In 1919, with Archbishop Quigley’s backing, Father Luigi directed construction of large brick building at 515 W Oak Street. The cost upon completion was $102,000.00.
The Sisters of Saint Dominic of Sinsinawa, WI opened Saint Philip Benizi school in the fall of 1920; the Archbishop consecrated it on October 23 of that year.
The determination to keep the children off the streets was working, as the parish Sunday School had 1000 children under the direction of the Italian
Sunday School Association; Saint Juliana Falconieri Day Nursery; Lauretana Kindergarten for children under school age; and Saint Philip primary school
In 1927, he bought the Episcopalian Church of Saint John the Divine and rededicated it to Pope Saint Marcellus (San Marcello, the little church to the north at 517 W. Evergreen). This little church would be a mission of Saint Philip until 1965, when it was attached to Saint Dominic Church.
His tenure ended at the age of 76, 54 years of which he was pastor of Saint Philip. He was reassigned to Denver, where many years earlier he had met Mother, now Saint, Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first Chicago and American saint (canonized 1946). It is no accident she is the patron saint of immigrants.
Father Luigi welcomed all the nuovi arrivati into the Cabrini neighborhood, and helped them get settled. If you were new and there was a holiday, holiday, or social event, he would make sure you had food, and had people, usually from the Holy Name Society, bring bags of food to your house. They would tell you this was a customary welcome to newly arrived paisani, even though there may have been ten shopping bags full of food.
In the 1940s, the day before Thanksgiving everyone brought food to school for those less fortunate or not yet settled. The gamut of bounty ran from canned foods to live chickens and ducks.
Father Luigi was a pastor in every sense of the word—a shepherd guiding and nurturing a flock: He ministered to the sick at Columbus/Cuneo Hospital on Friday evenings; led the Holy Name Society in welcoming and settling newly arrived immigrants; baptized, married and buried many of the parishioners and celebrated the sacraments and the holydays. On Good Friday, he pronounced the Litany of the Saints, a three-hour ordeal in which all the Saints’ names are named. This ritual was done kneeling.
He also kept in touch with neighboring pastors and visited other churches frequently to exchange ideas.
Less information is available concerning his assistant, Father Carlo Baccetti, other than he lived to be 69 years old, in the early 1980s. Father Carlo directed the annual St. Philip’s Tag Day and Retreat to St. Joseph’s Seminary in St. Charles (Rte 64, North Ave and IL 31). Father Carlo always had a smile on his face and was generally well-liked by the parish.
There is a quoted historical record of Father Luigi making what are today racist statements in 1942. By 1956 these views, if he ever really espoused them, had disappeared as father worked tirelessly on behalf of black and Latino families who lived in Cabrini-Green, and was a familiar figure in the neighborhood until his retirement in 1962. By 1956, Saint Philip Grammar School was a diverse mix of Italians, African Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Guatemalans, Sicilians of more than one generation, Germans, not to mention many non-Catholics. If he was a racist, World War II must have tempered his outlook.
A repeating, recurring theme of the Sicilian neighborhood activities—the celebration of the feasts, holidays, holy days of obligation, besides the obvious religious lesson—was to pass on and preserve the customs and traditions for the enrichment of the lives of the young. Doing this without eroding the Sicilian heritage and assimilating Sicilians into Americans, maintaining their identity while assuming another, was no mean feat. In this task, the Sisters of Saint Philip were masterful in their accomplishment of this challenge. Some of them were multilingual, but it was their knowledge of the diversity of humanity that achieved that sociological and anthropological deed. They were social workers for the Sicilian colony of Saint Philip, guiding untold numbers of youth to walk the righteous path. They were the neighborhood angels, for fifty cents a month (in the 30s and 40s, according to Joseph LaGattuta (Reflections, 1978). The Sinsinawa Dominican nuns were the counselors who helped prepare Italians and Sicilians prepare for, “the big world that was full of Americans.”
Saint Philip was the hub of all celebrations: Christmas, San Giuseppe, Santa Lucia, wedding receptions in the school hall, the Feast of Maria Santissima Lauretana in September. Father Luigi and Father Carlo were the concelebrants of all these occasions, with an occasional special guest celebrant from a neighboring parish or Father Ray or Father Bagen from St. Joseph’s seminary, and the occasional guest priest from Italy. For Confirmations, either Archbishop McManus or Bishop Sheil from Saint Andrew’s would grace the church. Before that Cardinal Stritch performed them before the 1950s. They were grand celebrations, with the full choir and church full of faithful whether they had anyone being confirmed or not.
Sunday masses were geared to specific attendees:
Early mass (6+7) was attended by nuns and older women in mourning;
The 8 o’clock mass was in Italian;
9 o’clock for schoolchildren;
10 o’clock for young men and women (for socializing after church);
11 o’clock was the solemn high mass;
12 o’clock was for the stragglers.
At the time of his death at Northlake Community Hospital in Northlake, IL on January 17, 1975, Father Luigi was 89 years old and had been a member of the Servite Order 73 years. He was assigned at that time to the Servite Priory in Hillside, IL. He is buried in Queen of Heaven Cemetery, Hillside, IL.
The Near North neighborhood is again in transition. Those projects are gone and the area properties next door to the Gold Coast are being proposed for sale and profit. The old neighborhood is gone: some of the Swedes are still in Andersonville; the Irish, Italians, and Germans are dispersed throughout the north and northwest counties, with a handful of hardcore Italians still inhabiting Taylor Street near the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus. As a country of immigrants, it is important to know where we came from, what constitutes or constituted our culture, and to hold on to some portion of it to explain to our children and their children who we are or were. As the Italian poet and film director Luigi “Gigi” Magni (1928-2013) concisely said it, “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
Or where you are.
Catholic Lane Administrator http://catholiclane.com/st-philip-benizi/ 9/17/2013
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago Media of Chicago. Cabrini Green.@2005 Chicago Historical Society
Mother Cabrini Messenger, undated Golden Jubilee of the Holy Priesthood of Father Louis 1908-1958
Studenkov, Igor. Chicago’s Lost Ethnic Neighborhoods: Little Sicily. Examiner.com/article/Chicago-s-lost-ethnic-neighborhoods-ltiile-sicily 9/18/2013
Swindell, Howard, “Pastor Ends Long Service in Community” Newspaper column, 1962.
White on Arrival: The Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: University Press. 2003
Zummo, Dr. Bruce P. Little Sicily, Reminiscences and Reflections of Chicago’s Near North Side. Rosemont, IL: Near North Publishing. 2001