Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In Praise of Chicago


I am spending the current academic year in Chicago at CTU (Catholic Theological Union) in the Institute of Religious Formation. 

When I left for Chicago in late August with a car filled with suitcases and boxes, I knew very little about the city to which I was going other than it was a BIG city.  In fact it took me two hours to drive from the outskirts of the city in the North end to Hyde Park at the southern end.  But I knew a few things: that President Obama was from Chicago, that it was on Lake Michigan, and that at one time there were famous gansters living here. I was also familiar with the names of the sports teams. However, I was not prepared for what I discovered over the past two months. Did you know that outside of Warsaw, Poland, Chicago has the largest concentration of people of Polish descent in the world and that there is a multitude of ethnic neighborhoods all around the city? The photo above was taken on a glorious September day when a group of us from CTU took a boat ride along the Chicago River to see the extraordinary architecture, both old and new. The boat also took us through the lock seen in the picture and we went up and down Lake Michigan for several miles. And so I am learning that there is much to discover about this beautiful city: the parks, the waterfront, the neighborhoods, the festivals, etc.

I also discovered that Chicago is a  "religious" city.  There are churches everywhere.  I am not sure they are as well attended as they once where but they tell a story of what this city was in the not too distant past.  I knew when I left Saint Benedict's that I would be meeting many people of  religious communities at CTU; what I did not know was the number of religious communities that have a home in Chicago, mostly for their people in formation and/or their administrative houses.  I am astounded at the many names of communities that I have never heard of before.

I cannot end this short expose of Chicago without saying something about the people.  My experience of big cities until now has been that people tend to keep to themselves, being somewhat fearful that someone might take advantage of them.  Not here!  It is most noticeable on the buses and trains around the city.  When I returned from California two weeks ago I had to take two trains from O'Hare airport down into the city.  I got off the first train but was unsure where to go next so I asked a young man, probably a Latino who spoke very little English, and with gestures he made sure that I found my way to the correct train. A real guardian angel!  More recently when a friend and I were going downtown to the Art Institute at least three young people offered me their seat in a very crowded bus, and I have witnessed that kind of  attentiveness to people who need a little help on the bus many times so far. It seems automatic: if an older person gets on the bus, a younger person pops up immediately.

There would be so much more to write about this wonderful and great city but time and space are at a premium for now.  Next month I will write about the experience of being a student.

Helene Mercier, OSB

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