In the Pilsen Snow


My wife and I were married at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, on the near west side of South Bend, Indiana.  I’ve written about her before, that Church, fashioned nearly two centuries ago by the hands of her first Irish and German parishioners.  Just behind her stands St. Hedwig’s, the Polish parish, whose parishioners also built her.  Why two parishes not a stone’s throw from each other?  For most of their existence, their liturgies would have been identical.  But, the everyday language of their pastors, and above all their flocks, were different.  England and German in the first, Polish in the latter.  Even now, though the Poles have slowly but entirely vacated the west side of the city, leaving it to Mexicans and other Hispanic immigrants, St. Hedwig’s maintains a slender, brown paper Polish hymnal in the pews.

The pastor of both parishes, for many years, was Fr. Leonard Chrobot, who married us.  Among Fr. Len’s many achievements was his work as a sociologist and advocate of what used to be called “the new ethnicity.”  With that term, he and others sought to capture, understand, and, finally, appreciate the way in which immigrant groups who came to America often brought with them, not simply the memory of their cultures, but the culture itself, intact and still lived out communally, even as it was integrated into and transformed by the American fabric.  The Irish of Irish America perhaps provide the best known example of this, because they constituted such a large nation within the nation, but of course the Chinese of every Chinatown from Boston and New York, to Chicago, and San Francisco do also.

Chrobot drew together his own roots in the once-Polish west side of South Bend and his academic work as pastor of Sts. Patrick’s and Hedwig’s, his homilies frequently reminding those in the pews that one of the responsibilities of their faith was to carry on, to bear, and to pass on the faith of their ancestors.  A faith strong enough to raise the Church walls was one to be revered and also to inspire the faithfulness of the present.  To Chrobot’s mind, much like his personal hero and friend, Pope John Paul II, the love of one’s nation and heritage, the love of Poland, provided a strong natural foundation for the supernatural love of Christ.  The love of both interwove, not because their objects were identical, but because in their differences they could complement and reinforce one another.

Neither religion nor culture exist privately in the heart of the individual.  Those of us who are Christians are saved in the Church, and are one body, in communion with one another.  But that is an invisible communion.  It is in the social forms of a culture, no less intrinsically communal than the Church, that the sacred order becomes visible in everyday life; those visible cultural forms point beyond themselves to their source and foundation in the sacred order, reminding us of what we might otherwise dare to forget and on which every natural thing depends for its being.  The hands of the faithful build the Church.  Natural stone rises up and, at its steeple, points as sign and even as incarnation of what transcends it.

I was moved to think of these things, this morning, far though I am from the downtrodden neighborhood where St. Patrick’s stands, while reading Philip C. Kolin’s fine little book, Pilsen Snow.  Kolin writes of growing up in that small and, as it turns out, ephemeral Czech village, Pilsen, on the Southwest side of Chicago, where it flourished for just over half a century.  Kolin’s poems recount his childhood on the toiling and ashen streets of Chicago, where the snow never stayed white very long.  He depicts the Chicago where the workers Carl Sandburg elegized came home to rest from their labors:


At foundries and packing houses

men and women wore their work home

in aprons, caps, collars, overall, and long skirts;

flecks of cast iron and processed hides and hooves

snuck under their fingernails, silted through their hair,

seeping into bood-bleared eyes—

the perfume of this new Czech Eden.


Their quotidian lives bore out many of the observations Chrobot made about many American immigrant communities, including of course the way in which the shape of their lives had remained largely intact in the new, bare and mutable, landscape of Illinois prairie:


They lived in two worlds at once

but not at the same time.

Their homeland was real;

America demanded

an act of imagination.


They never left the old country

behind. They packed it into

suitcases . . .


The Czech speech came packed in their mouths, the language in their Bibles, and of course a whole way of life came with the cookery.  Kolin, like Michael Novak before him (in The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1973)), recognizes the way not only food, but the stifling smells of tenement kitchens, defined the alien and imported qualities of Pilsen and places like it.  “Kalaches,” Kolin writes, “with large fruit-filled eyes / more than made up for America’s / doughnut holes.”  Later, in a compelling poem about young love, he writes of inviting little Shelley Pecarek to dinner:


How I wish my mother had served

a more romantic meal than


pigs in the blanket, folded strips

of beef with stale onions inside.


Our unventilated apartment smelled

like an unwashed peddler’s cart.


Two dimensions of Kolin’s account of Pilsen bear particular reflection.  First, his account of what has become of Pilsen since his Czech Chicago childhood, and, second, his dramatization of one of the most singularly colorful and ambiguous phenomena in the history of American immigration, the habits and attitudes of Chicago Catholicism.

Several of Kolin’s poems record what has become of Czech Pilsen, which is much the same as what happened to the west side of South Bend, not to mention in my mother’s own corner of Pilsen, where our Polish ancestors settled more than a century ago.  The architecture of the place was constructed to give form to its Czech Catholic people, especially the Churches:


Their saints sailed with them—

Ludmila, Procopius, Vitus—

to be enshrined in copper tower churches

confirming that God was born in Bohemia.


In the later twentieth century, however,


The new Mexican Los Santos

turned their Slavic homes

into Casa Juan Diego or Casa Rafael,

painting murals over Czech walls and on roofs.


This is the note on which the book ends: a new wave of immigrants comes to occupy the architectural forms of the old one.  Kolin speaks of “Czech Hieroglyphics,” by way of which we learn another way to see “two worlds” present in the same place and time, but this time the worlds are the real and the still-present remembered, rather than a real one carried from afar and a present one that still has to be imagined:


The sunlight no longer speaks

with a Slavic accent in Pilsen,

but it still highlights the buildings

where the Czechs left behind

their future plans in hieroglyphics.


He details those plans, including, “Etched on school lintels Komensky and Jurka / recall[ing] the age of heroes.”

Here Kolin joins such writers as Thomas Hardy and James Joyce in viewing place always in terms of the metaphysics of the historical imagination.  The place a people has lived comes to bear, to retain, the footprints, the indelible marks, of those who lived there, so that it becomes the memory for a people otherwise forgotten.  Kolin’s language is generally flat and prosaic, docile in recording the past, but on this point he becomes especially lyrical:


The old apartment buildings in Pilsen

spoke Czech for most of their life—

the voices of their ghosts are still

hidden in the walls and down

the hallways . . .


Cities are built to outlast the generation that constructed them, and one of the consequences of this is the way a place becomes not just a poem but an elegy, bearing the “hieroglyphics” of one age through the course of another, sometimes like an inassimilable fragment, and sometimes as part of a “palimpsest,” a surface that is written and overwritten in an uneven but evocative mixture.

When one leaves such places, they tend to appear haunted ever after, because, to revisit a place after many years is always to have the old memories rise up from the earth, unmediated.  How much different, and how much better, it is to live in a place one’s whole life, where the past remains present, but where it does not rush at one like a ghost, because the place has accompanied one through life.  It does not remain a suspended yet present spirit, but grows with time and interweaves with one’s own growth.

Years ago, I visited the tavern my family owned in Pilsen for just over a century.  My last surviving great-aunt, Lulu, maintained ownership of it even in her infirm old age, before letting it pass into the hands of the Godchildren who had run it for many years.  I sat at the bar my great-grandfather had built and tended.  The regulars in the bar were mostly Mexican, as was the population of the neighborhood.  But, my great-aunt came in—close to midnight, if I recall—helped along by her Godchildren.  She had been out playing bingo, but hurried over to say hello, when she’d heard I’d shown up.  Her sister, my grandmother, had just died the year before; I could see the face and character of the woman I’d known and loved in the face of Lulu, and it was a kind of blessing, a chance to commune with the departed.  Great Aunt Lulu bought me a beer.

Kolin’s most amusing memory in the book comes in “First Confessions,” where he recounts all the curious superstitions the children of St. Pius V invented regarding the curtained confessional.  Was it, for instance, the “Pope’s phone booth / where he could call God”?  All those imaginative errors, so far flung, silly, and clever, Kolin suggests, makes the heresies Pius XII admonished in Humani generis look tame by comparison.

The vast separation of actual Catholic Doctrine and theology from the quotidian sacraments of the confessional constitute one of the ambiguous qualities of modern Catholicism in general and, in a particular way, the Catholicism of Chicago.

Precisely because of Chicago’s Catholic ethnic neighborhoods, it has always been a city, divided linguistically and culturally like a quilt, but with an apparent unity to be found in its Churches—one that strides visibly across the city sky from steeple top to steeple top.  I’ve reflected on the positive dimensions of this elsewhere.  The Church is always precisely local, as concrete and sensible as the smell of sauerkraut, even as it is the universal body of Christ calling everyone to its peace.  But, Chicago’s history reveals the negative potencies of this character as well.  The Church becomes a feature of culture, a part, as it were, of one’s Irish, or Polish, or Czech heritage, and as one assimilates, as one learns English and begins to scale the ladder from poverty to prosperity, what one is to do with that odd part becomes less and less clear.

The Catholic faith by its nature makes claims up us, the whole of ourselves, our bodies, minds, and spirits.  It demands to be the foundation and the apex that gives form to and orders the social order.  It demands to re-form every Christian in the image of Christ.  That is why the desire to possess oneself, which is pride, is the foundation of all sin.

As Kolin’s poem suggests, Chicago Catholicism is, or at least once was, beautifully threaded through its various cultural expressions and that works well, when those cultures are healthy and are taken primarily as mediating the sacred order in the social order.  But, when those cultures come to appear as absolutes in themselves, or, as has in effect happened, when they come to appear as just one fine dimension expressive of one’s individual identity, which has itself become an absolute, then the harmonious cooperation of the sacred and the social becomes corrupted and destroys itself.

Father Andrew Greeley, the priest, sociologist, and novelist eloquently revealed both this beauty and corruption, and did so in a way that reflected the larger circumstances of his native Chicago.  In brief, Chicago Catholicism has long since become an element in the patchwork ethnic identities that define the culture of what Carl Sandburg praised as the “Hog Butcher for the world,” the “City of the big shoulders.”  It is a harsh, raw, and demotic culture reflective even now of the struggle for existence that characterized immigrant life in a sprawling city where gangsters and politicians were hard to tell apart.  Like the children in Kolin’s poem, such religion has its great stories, its rituals and habits and traditions.  It has also its inventive flights of imagination and superstition, but all these subsist as if oblivious to the authoritative truths of the Church.  Daily life and the doctrine of the faith that saves simply came to occupy different worlds, one real the other scarcely even imagined.

As religion becomes just a part of culture, subject to the little absolute of our own identities, its claims to authority turn incomprehensible and finally noxious.  At first, what the Church teaches is ignored as something to be tolerated as an element in one’s culture; it is paid the homage of hypocrisy.  In the end, however, it comes to appear as an attack on one’s autonomy.  For the lay Catholic, but, in Chicago, for no small number of priests and nuns, too.

Culture itself, of course, is impoverished by this: it becomes not the social expression of sacred truths but a possession to be embraced or discarded at will by the autonomous individual; it ceases to function as a real culture.  Someone once asked Greeley why he remained a Catholic—an odd question to pose to a priest, one would think.  His answer made it seem not so odd.  “For the stories,” he said.  There are many like him still in Chicago: faithful to the old neighborhood, but unsure how far into the core of one’s existence, where God dwells, such a commitment goes.

This attenuated “cultural Catholicism” certainly provides, even now, a patina of righteous zeal for what is left of Chicago’s old ethnic politics.  That politics once served as fierce advocate for its various tribes of working-class immigrant families, but now mostly serves as a voice for the disfranchised wards of the welfare state who are at once the clients and victims of Chicago’s incompetent and corrupt city government.  But even this, for all its occasional anger, is “for the stories,” in the sense that the language of this kind of Catholic-tinted left-wing politics looks nostalgically back to a time when the parish hall and the union hall were united in staking a claim on the Democratic Party and, finally, the American dream.

This becomes most clear when one considers that, while the priest or politically engaged lay Catholic would once have been speaking directly for, and have been an integral part of, this or that particular ethnic neighborhood among the many in Chicago, he now is often a Catholic attempting to serve the mostly non-Catholic African American neighborhoods in the city.  He speaks no longer for a people to whom he is united in culture and religion, but for those who have been left behind since the Poles and Czechs and so many else moved on–and out, to the suburbs.  That may well be a good thing, but it is a different thing, its connection with the older ethnic politics more tenuous because bridged entirely by sentiment and memory rather than a more organic connection.

This last set of questions is far from the focus of Kolin’s poems about Pilsen.  They elegize a way of life the author left with his childhood and they look upon the present neighborhood as a place that remains but is no longer what it once was.  But, along the way of reminiscence, they remind us of the tremendous power of culture to give visible form to the life of the spirit.  When I become nostalgic for the old neighborhoods and hometowns my family has known, I feel that power pulsing still.  They also remind me—at least—of the failure of that power, about the way in which the cultures whole tribes brought to these shores were reduced to mere residues as they lost their connection to the faith that constituted, governed, and shaped them.  I hope that someday the promise of what Chrobat described as the “new ethnicity” might be realized, that the visible faith of our ancestors that had the strength of stone may reassert its authority to give our country, or rather the many neighborhoods of our country, their proper order and spiritual purpose once more.  In the meantime, we have at least the memorials our ancestors built to stand against the Pilsen snow.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. I was a little nervous at first about where this article was going, but it did a fine job of analyzing the tension between the local aspects of our culture and the universal nature of the church. It might be worth rereading some time.

    I’m annoyed, though, that I no longer get e-mail notifications of new articles, so didn’t learn of this one until three days after it was posted when I thought to check FPR to see if there was anything new.

    • John,

      We were unable to send our weekly updates because of funding issues, and the lack of personnel. We are hoping to resume the practice soon, but its actually a bit of a logistical problem. Stay tuned.


      • If you’re looking for volunteer help on the WordPress backend, maybe I could be of some help. If it’s something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to send me mail at my address which I presume is accessible to you. There are some WordPress things I could help with, and some for which I wouldn’t be much use, or wouldn’t be able to do efficiently. But maybe you don’t need more fingers in the pie.

        I’d like to see FPR prosper!

  2. Well now I devote time to learning the history of places and enjoyed the essay but reading I was thinking culturally – Marilynne Robinson wrote “The argument could be made we are living among the relics or even the ruins of the Reformation”. Concerned as ever with the vernacular, the cloth and dress of thought – she writes in the same essay “The most persistent and fruitful tradition of American literature from Emily Dickinson to Wallace Stevens is the mediation on the given…” That churches were raised speaks to an affinity, then. And longing.

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