The Impossible Cause of Fr. Francis Lawlor
Sociologists interested in the impact of Democratic Party policies on U.S. cities should remember that before there was a bankrupt Detroit, there was the destruction of the Englewood and Marquette Park communities in Chicago.
The decline of Englewood and the Marquette Park neighborhood where Fr. Lawlor and his block clubs were most active is a complex phenomenon. Some argue that population decline and white flight from the neighborhoods caused the decline. Others talk about real-estate redlining and the far-reaching effect of the global economy.
Few in Chicago lay any blame for the destruction of neighborhoods on the political party that has been in power there for more than 50 years. Nevertheless, writing for American Thinker, Michael Bargo, Jr. lays blame where it belongs, "In a matter of just a few decades Chicago went from being a city that provided great opportunities for blacks to being the most racially segregated and oppressive city in America."
In spite of Democratic attempts to maintain segregation during the 1960s, the black community in Chicago was growing. Blacks had to move somewhere. Attempts to segregate them in housing projects along south State Street were no longer working. The battle for Chicago neighborhoods began.
Father Lawlor took a side in this urban struggle. He chose to fight with those who wanted to keep their neighborhoods intact. It was to be a losing battle for Fr. Lawlor and the white Catholics he represented. Regrettably, what Fr. Lawlor saw as preserving traditional and viable neighborhoods, others saw as racism.
The times they are a changin'
Francis Xavier Lawlor was born the son of a policeman on November 21, 1917 in the Bronx, New York. After ordination, he came to Chicago and started teaching at St. Rita High School on Chicago's Southwest Side in 1946.
Twenty years later the neighborhood around St. Rita High School was caught up in the throes of racial unrest. The mostly white communities west of Englewood and around St. Rita High School and Chapel were changing.
John T. McGreevy writes that, "By his own account, the 1966 marches by Martin Luther King convinced (Lawlor) that the areas on the Southwest Side of (Chicago) needed protection. Within three years, Lawlor's efforts had yielded 186 block clubs."
In 1966 Fr. Lawlor proposed that block clubs could stem the tide of destruction. Father Lawlor hoped that by organizing a coalition of block clubs in what were largely Irish, Polish, and Lithuanian neighborhoods, something could be done to integrate the large numbers of blacks who began to move into the area between Ashland and Western Avenue.
Writing in the Eugene Register-Guard (December 29, 1968) Alan Ehrenhalt recalls, "On Chicago's Southwest Side, where tidy bungalows form a red brick barrier to the nearby Negro slum, printed posters have begun to appear in doors and windows."
Pray for Fr. Lawlor" the signs say.
"Francis X. Lawlor, 50, is a white Roman Catholic priest who has defied the Chicago archdiocese... The Church hierarchy has ordered Father Lawlor to report to Tulsa, Okla. So far, he has refused to stay there."
The joined-at-the-hip relationship between the Catholic Church and Chicago Democrats would mean that Fr. Lawlor's efforts to save the southwest-side communities were doomed to fail. In Fr. Lawlor's Chicago, the will of Democrats converted easily into the will of God.
Graydon Megan writes in the Chicago Tribune that, "(Father Lawlor's) actions, and the publicity they garnered, resulted in his being relieved of his priestly duties in the Chicago area by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago."
"The Rev. Lawlor told the Tribune in 1994 that his efforts had been misunderstood and that he had been trying to stabilize the community and prevent the white flight that eventually led to large swaths of the Southwest Side becoming nearly all-black."
"Though Fr. Lawlor entered politics to aid his cause, the Daley machine neutralized him on the City Council, then steamrolled his bid for Congress. By 1976, it was over for Lawlor, and he moved to Rockford, where he spent 19 years fighting abortion and smut."
"So where's the integration?" Fr. Lawlor once asked rhetorically.
The answer to that question is that there never was any political will for integration in Chicago. There was never integration because the Democrats needed blacks segregated to keep political power in the city.
Racial integration ought to have been a Catholic objective in Chicago. Without integration, Fr. Lawlor was left to make a dire prophecy. He is on record having said that the, "Negro will destroy Chicago."
A single four year term
What are we to make of this prediction in an age of political correctness? The term "Negro" no doubt strikes many progressives as outdated, with a lingering odor of racism. Nevertheless, who will argue that Fr. Lawlor was not correct, if not in regards to the city as a whole, then at least in regards to Englewood and the neighborhoods around Harper and St. Rita High School?
A destructive segregation was the truth about Chicago 50 years ago and still is the truth today. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in Chicago went along with that segregation, just as the Church is presently going along with the destruction of neighborhoods brought about by an invasion of illegal Mexicans to Chicago.
One ex-resident of Englewood expresses the disappointment of seeing the Catholic Church abandon the south side of Chicago in these words, "So, in conclusion, what did closing nine Catholic churches and schools do to the area known as Englewood? It killed it. It killed its people, their dreams, hopes, and ideals. The Archdiocese killed Englewood. And no one will ever pay for it is the saddest part of all of this."
Postcard, 63rd and Halsted c. 1925
"Without support from local Democratic powers or his church, the Rev. Lawlor's foray into Chicago politics lasted only a single four-year term on the City Council. After announcing he would not run for re-election as alderman, (Fr. Lawlor) ran a campaign for Congress, which he lost. He moved to the Diocese of Rockford in 1976. There he was director of pro-life programs for about eight years and then became involved in anti-pornography..."
Father Lawlor's block clubs might have preserved the neighborhoods and stemmed the tide of urban destruction. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party bosses decided that some neighborhoods had to be sacrificed so that the party as a whole could keep control of the city.
Looking back, one must wonder why the Church did not support Fr. Lawlor's efforts, if not his person. Organizing block clubs on the local level fulfills the Catholic moral principle of subsidiarity. Father Lawlor's activities also called attention to the lack of a sorely needed Catholic mission to Chicago's black community.
63rd and Halsted Today (Google image)
By any measure, no one can say that what replaced the communities Fr. Lawlor tried to save is better than what came after. Harper High school, for example, located on the western boundary of Englewood, went from being one of the best high schools in Chicago to being the worst.
According to Business Insider: "Twenty-nine current and recent students of Harper High School in Chicago were shot last year (2013), of which eight died."
See what else is the result of the decisions Chicago politicians willfully made. All that was St. Rita High School and Chapel, founded in 1905 by Rev. James F. Green, O.S.A. is gone. Father Lawlor taught biology and sociology at that school for many years, but there is no wall standing that will hold his memorial plaque.
The penitents who used to come for the novenas at St. Rita Chapel no longer stretch in a line down 63rd St. to the railroad viaduct on Bell Ave. The roses handed out after the novenas are long dried to dust. St. Rita High School and Chapel are now reduced to rubble. Just as we read in Mark 13:2, not one stone upon another stone remains of the chapel where Fr. Lawlor used to say Mass.
"His intentions were never racist," said the Rev. Bernard Sciann. Father Lawlor hoped that his Church would support his cause, but it did not. Why was that an impossible hope? "He tried to keep people together instead of running away from the neighborhoods," added the Rev. Sciann.
The Rev. Lawlor, 95, died of congestive heart failure November 5, 2013, in Franciscan Village of Lemont, Illinois. A Funeral Mass was held for Fr. Lawlor at the new St. Rita of Cascia High School Shrine Chapel, 7740 S. Western Ave., Chicago, on Saturday, November 9, 2013. Saint Rita of Cascia is sometimes known as the patron saint of impossible causes.