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Diocese of Chicago Established in 1843

In this 21st century, the Archdiocese of Chicago looms large over the American Catholic Church. However, once upon a time (and this is no fairy tale), this huge Catholic presence was nothing more than a small village served by priests from St. Louis and Vincennes.

When the Diocese of Vincennes was created in 1834, it included the entire state of Indiana as well as the eastern half of Illinois.

The web site “The History of Catholic America” speaks of the humble beginnings of Catholicity in Chicago.

In 1833, the village of Chicago was incorporated and its first parish – St. Mary’s – was founded. At least half of the total population of two or three hundred was Catholic, being mainly of French and Jesuit-converted Indian origin. Only a few years earlier, Chicago had consisted of seven rustic cabins nestled in a wilderness on the border of Lake Michigan. Its inhabitants, trappers and traders, daily intermingled with Indians in the forests. By the time St. Mary’s Parish was one year old, Chicago was placed in the jurisdiction of the new Diocese of Vincennes. That year, Bishop Simon Brute visited the city and was amazed at its swift expansion and delighted by its unexpected ecumenism:

“Of this place the growth has been surprising, even in the west, a wonder amidst its wonders. From a few scattered houses near the fort it has become, in two or three years, a place of great promise. Its settlers sanguinely hope to see it rank as the Cincinnati of the North. Here the Catholics have a neat little church.”

“Americans, Irish, French, and Germans meet at a common altar, assembled from the most distant parts of this vast republic or come from the shores of Europe to those of our lakes. Reverend Mr. St. Cyr is their pastor. They already have their choir supported by some of the musicians of the garrison. Many of the officers and a number of the most respectable Protestants attend. The bishop on his arrival in the diocese had been invited by the Protestants as well as the Catholics of this place to fix his residence among them and felt his gratitude revived by the kind reception he now received.”

There is more at the New Advent website. The Encyclopedia of Chicago History has a section on the Church, although little is said of anything prior to the founding of the diocese. Of course, the ever present Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the formation of the diocese.


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