In Cicero, a Roman Catholic church founded by Polish immigrants welcomes the undocumented

St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish has transformed to a majority-Latino parish – and they say they’re stronger for it

January 16, 2013

Lewis Wallace and Andrew Gill

(WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
The Black Madonna at St. Mary of Czestochowa

Cicero is known for its political turmoil.

In the early 1960s, Cicero’s residents violently chased civil rights marchers out of town, effectively putting a cap on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts in the area. And in the early 2000s, long-time Cicero Mayor Betty Loren-Maltese was arrested on corruption charges and landed in federal prison for nearly seven years.

But another story has been unfolding a little more gradually in the sizeable suburb just west of Chicago.

That story can be summed up with a statistic: In 1960, Cicero was 99.9 percent white. Now it’s 87 percent Latino.

A 120-year-old Polish Catholic church just across the border with Chicago is adapting to the changes - and it’s welcoming a group of immigrants from federal detention into their former convent.

St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish has been in Cicero since 1895, when this was a boomtown filled with first-generation Europeans. The parish is named for the biggest pilgrimage site in Poland, Czestochowa, the location of a mystical Black Madonna, or dark-skinned image of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose roots go deep into medieval European Catholicism.

Inside St. Mary of Czestochowa’s towering neo-Gothic church, images of the Black Madonna with child are everywhere.

But among the church’s nine Virgin Mary images, the Virgin of Guadalupe also has a prominent place.

That’s because St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish, once a go-to place for the region’s Polish Catholics, is now over 60 percent Latino.

And the space behind the church, once a convent, is being renovated to host asylum seekers and others without papers who need temporary housing while they wait for hearings.

“Cicero is basically kind of an immigrant community,” said Mary Warchol, who’s helping set up the former convent for the newcomers. “I think that people have to see, well, they were immigrants when they came here. So what about the people here?”

Warchol is a retired schoolteacher who was baptized in the parish, and now lives two doors down. As she and her cousin walked the empty halls of the convent taking pictures, she said the changes over the years are just a part of life in Cicero. The city has long been a stepping stone between Chicago and the suburbs, and a hotspot for immigrants and first-time home buyers.

With the support of the parish, a Chicago group called the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants (ICDI) plans to rent out the old convent starting in February.

Father Waldemar, a Polish priest who came from Bolivia to head the Cicero parish, said welcoming immigrants is part of what keeps the parish alive.

“We have many groups in our parish who are very dedicated to work in this parish...they feel here like it’s home,” he said.

ICDI was started by two prominent Chicago nuns to help people who are released from federal detention. The group takes calls and drives to local jails to pick up people who have been released and need help.

“People are being released and they’re being released to the streets,” said Brother Michael Gosch, a teacher who’s leading the House of Hospitality effort for ICDI.

In many cases, asylum seekers have to wait years in limbo before a hearing; others who have been caught without papers may have to wait for documentation from their home countries before they can be deported.

No matter the case, people coming out of detention are released to the streets and often find themselves with nowhere to go. They may be in Chicago from as far away as Kentucky, because the regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) headquarters is here. Or they may have arrived at O’Hare airport as refugees and been taken to jail.

“Our whole goal with this House of Hospitality on the one hand is to provide accompaniment and hospitality for people who have nowhere to go,” said Brother Michael. “But on the other hand, it’s also about systemic change. Putting them in jail facilities, manacling them when you transport them, it’s not humane and it’s not just.”