The identity of Little Village has undergone periods of subtle transformation, as the neighborhood has shifted from being defined by Irish, Eastern-European, Polish, to Mexican immigrants. The richness of the history is not obvious, as with each wave of immigrants the facade of the area has evolved to accommodate a new culture. It is for this reason that the European-style church on Central Avenue—a side street off of hectic 26th Street—is so magnificent and unexpected. With an ornate bell tower and luminous stained glass windows, the church evokes another era entirely. St. Agnes of Bohemia, now more commonly called Santa Inés de Bohemia, was built in 1904 by Czech immigrants. Lined with pews, the inside of the church is richly decorated with various statues and gold detailing. As Catholicism is such a vital part of Latin American culture, the church has become a center of the community, and its priests, com- munity leaders. The pastor of St. Inés de Bohemia is Father Don Nevins, an Irish American and Chicagoan with perfect Spanish. Sitting in a bare conference room with images of saints and other religious symbols hung neatly on the walls, Father Don Nevins tells me about his experiences as a priest and as a leader within the Little Village and Pilsen communities.
I grew up in Des Plaines, so I’m a Chicagoan basically. Went straight from high school to seminary. What made me want to become a priest? It was the example of some of the priests I knew growing up. I kind of had an inkling about it. When I was in sixth grade I had rheumatic fe- ver and in those days, the only cure was complete bed rest. It’s basically a heart murmur, and so I was in bed for about five months. I wasn’t even able to sit up in bed, just be in bed, and the idea was your heart would cure itself. So, my pastor, who was kind of a gruff old guy, he would come every week and bring me communion and talk to me and talk to my mother and I got to see a whole other side of him that just made me know that that’s what I wanted to do.
It was three or four of us that got involved in studying some Spanish and then one summer we talked the rector into sending us down to Mexico to one of those language programs. We went there for a summer and when I came back I got in- volved in working in some Hispanic parishes.
One of my first big challenges as a priest was in St. Francis over in Pilsen. St. Francis at Roosevelt and Halsted is com- pletely surrounded by UIC, but it’s a par- ish that’s been there for 160 years now or so, and it was one of the very first parishes to reach out and administer to the His- panic community. In the nineties though, St. Francis closed. It just caused all sorts of problems and people were protesting all the time. The cardinal realized that that just wasn’t going to work. He asked me to do a study because the diocese was going to knock down the church of St. Francis and sell the land to UIC. I made a recommendation at the end of the study that there were a lot of problems with this closing, and if there was a way to reopen it, I thought that would be the best.
So, he agreed and told me I would be the pastor there. I kind of thought it would all be great, that people would be happy. Well, most of the people were very happy, but some were just—they kind of figured that they should be the ones that should direct where the church was go- ing. So my beginning there was very, very difficult. They had protests, they went to the cardinal’s house. The church had been closed up for a year and a half and nobody had checked on it. It was basically a big vacant building. I was in charge and we eventually got the church restored, got the cardinal to come out for the dedica- tion mass, and I invited the former pastor, the guy who had been very angry and said a lot of bad things about me. As we were walking out at the end, he tapped me on the shoulder and says, “You must be a ge- nius, how could you do this? How did you manage to get this all restored?” And you know, that’s kind of nice.
I had been there for twelve years, you know, that’s a normal term, and the bishop decided to move me somewhere else. And then one of the guys who was very vociferous against my coming, he said to me, “I don’t think this is a good idea, I think we need to form some kind of protest to keep you here.”
I said, “Jesus, you were one of the ones leading the protest against my com- ing, now you want to protest against my leaving.” And he just kind of laughed and said, “Yeah.” So that felt good. That kind of said, okay, some of the wounds have healed. Things are moving forward.
I’ve been in Little Village for six years. I think that one of the things that is key with our parish is, how do you keep yourself going, and how do you raise the money? How do you keep the school going? And so it becomes kind of an issue, because people are not used to, in Mexico, having to support the church. There’s no goose with one leg that’s going to drop it someplace and take care of all of our mon- ey problems. We have to do it ourselves.
There are people here who have lived here for a long time, but the nature of the community has changed… A lot of the times the parents want to keep the tradi- tions and for the kids, if it’s to their advan- tage, they do it, and if it’s not, they don’t do it. We have a lot of girls here who were born and raised here who want to have a quinceañera. There are others though, whose families realize that they can’t af- ford this.
A lot of the adults want to be a part of that Mexican tradition because it ties them back to their parents and their grandparents. The kids are more disconnected from that. The parents don’t know English and work all day, which puts a strain on family life. In some ways I think that the church, because it ties many of the traditions that people are maybe looking for, or they bring, is a part of the life here that gives people a sense of belonging. Maybe a little bit more than the community does some- times.
In Little Village, we’ve had some sad events that have turned things around. A few years ago we had a couple people who were deported, picked up on minor traffic violations. Turn signal doesn’t work, police stop you, you don’t have a driver’s license, they check you out, they find out you’re not here legally and you get deported. There’s someone who lived right down the block here who had three small children and his wife here, and he got deported. It was really tragic. The wife didn’t have a job. And her story spurred some people to get a little more involved and minister to immigrants.
Eventually, we worked with a parish here to establish an immigrant center. It’s still going on, and it’s really responding to the needs and hurts of people. And the people themselves are keeping it going. You know, one of the greatest things is the people here. They don’t need to have a diocesan person to bring them together; they do it themselves.