St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church

August 12th, 2010by John RussickFiled under: Exhibitions

Father Michael Davitti, pastor of St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church in Chicago’s Chinatown.

In 1904, a community of Italian Americans on Chicago’s near South Side built the Church of Santa Maria Incoronata at 218 West Alexander Street near the intersection of 22nd Street (now Cermak Road) and Wentworth Avenue. Today, that neighborhood is called Chinatown and that church is called St Therese Chinese Christian Mission.

Entrance to the rectory of St. Therese Church.

Around 1910, Chicago’s Chinese Americans started to move from downtown (near Clark and Van Buren Streets) into this densely populated Italian American neighborhood. As increasingly large numbers of Chinese Americans of Christian faith settled there they founded St Therese Chinese Mission at 2311 South Wentworth. By 1963, due to lower immigration rates and the draw of suburbia, the number of Italian Americans in the neighborhood dwindled. Because the community was now dominated by ethnically Chinese Christians, the Church of Santa Maria Incoronata became the new home of the St Therese Chinese Mission.

These shifts in the church and in the neighborhood occurred with some difficulty. When I interviewed Father Michael Davitti, the Italian-born pastor of St Therese Church, he explained that:

“The feelings were very high between the Italians and the Chinese, very high because the Italians had the feeling that they were kicked out of their own place, and they could not understand the Chinese, who in turn [did] very little to make themselves understood. So, this tension and the division in the community brought this community close to the point of closing down.”

Despite these challenges, today the Italians and the Chinese in Chinatown share St Therese. The church building contains symbols of both cultures: a poem composed by The Sacred Heart Ladies is written in Chinese on the arches of the knave of the church, a wooden statue of Mother Mary near the altar is a replica of a statue displayed in Italy, and the shrine of Santa Maria Incoronata is still located at St Therese. Father Davitti believes that it is this ability for the Chinese and Italian communities (along with other people of different ethnic origins) to live, worship, and grow together that make the St Therese parish strong. He states:

“The miracle of St. Therese is not the building nor the language, but the community that is very much alive, the community that is open, a community that tries to break down barriers, a community that is aware that they have something to offer.”

Father Davitti’s story is just one interview in a large collection of oral histories recently collected in Chinatown by the Chicago History Museum staff and housed at the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History.

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