Part III – St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission
Part III – St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission
Chicago ’s Chinese Immigrants – Beginning of St. Therese
After the decline of labor demands for the California gold rush and construction of the Transcontinental railroad, many Chinese immigrants moved east to Chicago . The first Chinese district in Chicago was established around Harrison and Clark. Many of these immigrants worked for small import-export businesses and service manufacturers. Most of the early Chinese settlers came from Taishan, a county in the southern province of Kwangtung , and the majority could be characterized as practicing some form of Buddhism or Taoism. Around 1912, they began to inhabit the present-day Chinatown area.
Although St. Therese Chinese Mission was not canonically established until October of 1947, the work of organizing and converting Chicago ’s Chinese Catholics began much earlier. During the 1920’s, the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Franciscan Priests from St. Peter’s Church began to teach catechism to the Chinese children. But efforts to establish a Chinese Catholic community, although noble, were not fruitful until Reverend John T.S. Mao appeared in 1940. Fr. Mao, a native of Nanking , China , established instruction classes in the rectory of Old St. John’s Church , and on August 25, 1940 , Archbishop Samuel A. Stritch baptized 24 Chinese children at this location.
On September 11, 1940 , Fr. Mao rented a store on 2302 S. Wentworth and opened the first Chinese Catholic Church in Chicago . It was named St. Therese, after the patron saint of the missions, as a culmination of earlier efforts to establish a Chinese Catholic community in the city. In 1941, a Chinese social center followed at 2311 S. Wentworth to serve the fast-growing Chinese community. It provided essential services to those who could not communicate in English. The new center was located close to Santa Maria Incoronata Parish.
Formal Dedication of St. Therese Chinese Mission
After Fr. Mao returned to China as procurator of the Nanking diocese, the Maryknoll Fathers were placed in charge of St. Therese. Reverend Martin Burke became pastor on May 14, 1944 . Fr. Burke was uniquely qualified to lead St. Therese because he had spent 10 years as a missionary in South China and was fluent in four Cantonese dialects. Under Fr. Burke’s leadership, St. Therese Chinese Mission was relocated to the building at 2311 S. Wentworth, and the chapel in this structure was dedicated on April 8, 1945.
On October 18, 1947 , St. Therese Chinese Mission was formally erected by Cardinal Stritch through a special faculty from the Holy See as a national parish for the Chinese community in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The need for this was substantiated when Chinese immigrants started fleeing from communist China to Chicago . Once they arrived, St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission assisted these new immigrants by providing free education to their children at St. Therese School and addressing their other basic essential needs. During the era of the 1940s through the mid-1960s, St. Therese Chinese Mission served as the refuge for many Chinese immigrants as they struggled to survive in a harsh and discriminatory environment, and Fr. Michael McKiernan, pastor of St. Therese, and many Maryknoll Sisters played very significant roles in this important ministry.
St. Therese School
One other very important contribution by St. Therese Chinese Mission to the Chinatown community was the establishment of St. Therese School . After the formation of St. Therese Mission in September of 1940, in 1941 Fr. Mao opened a Catholic grade school in the On Leong Merchants’ Association Building , popularly known as Chinese City Hall , at the corner of 22nd Place and Wentworth. This was significant in two respects: One, no longer did the children have to commute long distances for spiritual enlightenment; and two, this was a clear indication of local community acceptance and support by the space provided in the On Leong Building. Faculty for the school was provided by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The first diplomas were awarded on June 14, 1942.
By the 1950’s the Maryknoll Sisters had assumed responsibility for the school, and the classrooms had become overcrowded and nearly half of the student body had to travel by bus to attend classes at St. Paul’s school about 6 miles west of Chinatown. In 1956, Reverend Frederick J. Becka was appointed pastor of St. Therese Mission, and he focused his attention on obtaining a single school building for St. Therese School . Through a major donation by benefactor Mr. Frank C. Callahan, support by the Chinatown merchants, and the earnest fundraising efforts of the students who sold raffle tickets door-to-door in the wealthy neighborhoods of Chicago, this vision was realized. A site was chosen for the new school – its current location, 247 W. 23rd Street . Construction began in 1959, and His Eminence, Cardinal Stritch dedicated the new school on April 30, 1961.
Uniting Two Cultures
The last Mass in St. Therese Chinese Mission at 2311 S. Wentworth was celebrated on August 28, 1960 , 15 years after the chapel was dedicated. As the Chinese Catholic population grew, it needed more room to worship. The Italian community of the near south side, through the Reverend Florian Girometta, offered to share the rectory and basement auditorium of Santa Maria Incoronata with the Chinese Catholics in the area. On September 4, 1960 , Chinese Catholics officially attended a Chinese Mass in the Italian church.
In 1963, Santa Maria Incoronata was consolidated with the mission of Santa Lucia at 3022 S. Wells, and the Santa Maria Incoronata building was passed on to St. Therese Chinese Mission. It was a sad time for many of the Italian parishioners who used to worship at the Alexander location, but today both groups still regularly worship side-by-side. Whereas the Italians used to host the Chinese at Santa Maria Incoronata, now the Chinese host the Italians at St. Therese, and even large Italian club milestones like St. Rocco’s 75thanniversary and Santa Maria Incoronata’s 100th were celebrated here in the Chinese community.