For billions of Christians around the world, Christmas Day is a time of great rejoicing as we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. For the employees of Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero (the passengers on the Eastland) the Christmas season would have been equally as important. Many employees settled in the area around the Hawthorne Works, creating new neighborhoods throughout Cicero and Berwyn during the early 1900’s. The population of these new suburbs was for the most part, eastern European, from such countries as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Romania. These “Bohemian” (as they were called at the time) countries were primarily Roman Catholic and therefore, these newly blossomed neighborhoods became Christian/Catholic as well.
Many small neighborhood churches were constructed, and many are still in use today. As you can imagine, in the devastating aftermath of the disaster, these churches came to play an important role in the burial rites of the victims. Hard as it may seem for us today to imagine, deceased family members were waked in the living rooms of their homes. Custom dictated that a lit candle be placed in the parlor window and a mourning crepe of flowers and ribbons be hung on the front door, both signals for neighbors that someone within had died.
The majority of the funerals were held on the Wednesday after the Saturday capsizing. That day became known as Black Wednesday, and many Chicagoland businesses were closed in remembrance. In the book Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic, author George W. Hilton tells us that one particular Catholic Church, St. Mary’s of Czestochowa in Cicero, held a funeral mass for 29 victims. The Archdiocese of Chicago sent the popular bishop, Paul. R. Rhode, to preside over that service. The 29 white caskets were arranged across the front of the altar and along the tops of the first four rows of wooden pews.
St. Mary’s is still an active parish, serving the needs of the primarily Latino community. Mass, once said in Polish, is now spoken in Spanish. The plain, three-story yellow brick church of 1915 is now used as a center for religious education. In 1918, an ornate, gothic-style church was built, its elaborate twin spires towering over the Cicero landscape even today.
Eastland by Marian Cheatham available on Amazon www.amazon.com/Eastland-Marian-Cheatham/dp/1495203646
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