Barack Obama was in St. Louis last Saturday night addressing 100,000 people under the arch. John McCain was in North Carolina defending Joe the Plumber from creeping socialism. Sarah Palin was in New York preparing for her Saturday Night Live appearance and I was back home in Chicago in a parish social hall attending a dance to raise money for St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church in Bucktown.
St. Hedwig’s is not a stop on anybody’s presidential campaign tour this year. There was a time back in The Depression when it might have been. That was when its 3,000-member congregation was the largest Polish parish in America. Changing times and increased mobility allowed many of them to move to the suburbs after World War II, opening the way for new generations of Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Mexicans and now gentrifying whites to put their faith in the 107-year-old cathedral.
That faith is not easy to come by these days. Six months ago, a fire swept through the church basement and burned up through the floor under the altar belching smoke into the sanctuary. Since the fire, the church has held its services in the school gym while parishioners struggle to find the $3.2 million needed for repairs.
In an era of $700 billion bailout packages for Wall Street, that doesn’t seem like a lot. But for the mostly poor and middle class parishioners it’s a mountain of money, and the task of raising it is all the more daunting because St. Hedwig’s is not one unified church but three churches in one building. Bucktown is one of those inner city communities that seem to grow a new ethnic skin every couple generations but never cast off the old. So Sunday services at St. Hedwig’s are alternately conducted in Polish, Spanish and English by priests specially chosen for their multi-lingual skills.
When In Doubt, Throw a Party
A lot of debate went on in church councils over how much to charge for a ticket to the dance. Too much and no one would come. Too little and nothing would be made. The important thing, they decided, was to get everyone to come together to make a new start. They settled on $15 at the door, plus $5 for food, $1 for soda and $2 for beer and wine.
There would be two kinds of entertainment. DJ Grezegorz Drden, the Polish Dr. Dre, would spin his eclectic mix of disco waltzes and Elvis oldies while Escorpeonez del Norte, seven men in white suits and cowboy hats, would fill the gaps with music from south of the border.
When my wife and I arrived, we were greeted by Father Stan. He gave my wife a warm hug since he recognized her from Sunday services and offered me a less warm handshake since he didn’t. The gym was decorated with 30 red balloons tied to chairs. The food was set out on tables along one wall, heaps of food tended by women in party dresses holding serving spoons over aluminum roasting pans. There was pulled pork and pierogi, Spanish rice and egg rolls, tamales next to goulash, beef sate beside Filipino noodles, and more salad and dessert combinations than I can name.
On the gymnasium stage, where the priests usually put the cross and flowers during Sunday services, the band was setting up. DJ Drden brought his own flashing red, green and yellow gobo lights and smoke machine, and pretty soon people got up to dance.
The first couple on the floor were two 75-year-old Polish women in floor length skirts traversing the floor in formal waltz step. A young blond and her husband soon joined them, then an elderly Mexican couple, a mother with two young children, and a priest with a young Filipino woman. The spacious gym, half empty when we arrived, swelled with people and more lined up at the door to get in.
We sat at a table with neighbors we knew only from passing in the street: Ralph and Beverly Esposito, who have been teachers at the local public elementary school since 1968; two women who said they have lived in the neighborhood for 50 years; Jesse and Gladys Barrera, best known for their annual contribution to the 4th of July fireworks display in the alley behind the Diazes.
As the crowds poured in, teenagers rushed to set up more tables. But there were not enough tables. When one couple rose to dance, another sat down to eat.
Hundreds came that night to celebrate the rebirth of a church. And through the whole evening, no one mentioned John McCain or Barack Obama, Sarah Palin or Joe Biden. No one talked about their 401(k), foreclosed mortgages, job layoffs or Joe the Plumber’s tax liability, and no one really believes a change in Washington will trickle down much into the neighborhood.
As they laughed and danced, what they all knew is that if the church is to be saved, they will have to do it themselves – together.