To talk about Garfield and Peoria is to talk about St. Basil–Visitation parish. Its two landmarks face one another on either side of Garfield Boulevard: Visitation Catholic School and St. Basil’s Church, with Peoria running in between. Today, the church and school communities are both small but vibrant; Father Hernán Moran-Rosero of St. Basil’s speaks fondly of Visitation’s annual Christmas concert, which is held at the church each year and marks a rare instance when the pews are filled. Just a few decades ago, empty seats at St. Basil’s would have been unthinkable, as would a Latino reverend.
The St. Basil’s of the 1940s and 1950s was the church where 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke grew up. At the time, the church was located a mile west, in a Byzantine-style building at Garfield and Honore, in Back of the Yards. St. Basil’s current home was known as Visitation—the two churches would consolidate in 1990, and St. Basil’s original, Byzantine building was demolished soon after. For Burke, as for three 14th Ward aldermen before him, St. Basil’s was “an integral part of the experience of growing up in [the neighborhood].” In an interview, he had little to say about the church as it is now. What he did say was that the community there, as he knew it, had “vanished.”
So what happened? Visitation parish has survived in name, but any survey of its population—schoolchildren and churchgoers—reveals that it has been subject to the same demographic changes that transformed the surrounding neighborhoods of Englewood and Back of the Yards in the middle of the century. While both neighborhoods were almost entirely white, today Englewood is almost entirely black, and Back of the Yards is predominately Latino. The church’s eleven o’clock service is now conducted in Spanish, and its bulletin is printed in two languages. The parish was founded, however, to serve the predominantly Irish population that lived in Englewood before the “white flight” of the sixties and seventies.
In November 1949, riots began at 5643 South Peoria, where a mixed-race union gathering was held a block and a half from Visitation Church. Worried that the presence of blacks meant they were about to occupy the neighborhood, whites gathered in the thousands over the next several days, chanting racial slurs and fighting with neighborhood outsiders. Many of the rioters were parish members; a reverend of the church at the time, Monsignor David Byrnes, had said to his congregation that only “if Irish families remained in the neighborhood would Visitation continue to flourish.”
Even so, in 2013 the shift has taken place, and some of the strife seems to have died down. 5643 Peoria is now a vacant lot. And St. Basil’s mission is, after all, not to maintain a demographic but a faith; the bulletin pledges, in English and Spanish, to “continue the work of Jesus here in Englewood and maintain always his presence alive on the Boulevard.” Garfield and Peoria may have served as a crossroads of racial tension, but its spiritual heritage has emerged on top, and the Parish quietly flourishes once more.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 6, 2013
An earlier version of this story did not acknowledge that St. Basil’s was originally located at Garfield and Honore in Back of the Yards. The church merged with Visitation and moved to its present location in 1990. A reference to the boundaries of Englewood and Back of the Yards also did not make clear that while the official community areas are divided by Garfield Boulevard, Ashland Avenue is, for the most part, the de facto boundary between the two neighborhoods.