St. Rita of Cascia Parish, located in Southwest Chicago, was the first foundation of the Augustinians in the Midwest Province, along with St. Rita High School. Since its establishment in 1905, the parish has seen great demographic changes in the neighborhood, as well as a number of very difficult challenges for the community. Rev. Tony Pizzo, O.S.A. is the current parish pastor and has served at St. Rita for seven years. In the midst of major concerns afflicting the neighborhood, Fr. Tony offers insights on the parish’s history and some actions the community is taking to make the area a more peaceful place. The following is an excerpt from the Summer 2013 issue of The Midwest Augustinian:
Could you give our readers an insight into the brief history of the demographic changes at St. Rita Parish?
Rev. Tony Pizzo, O.S.A.: The parish and the school were founded at the same time. It was basically one entity with two sites where the Augustinians were serving. This area south of downtown was never really supposed to be part of the City [of Chicago]. It was industrial; the original makeup at the time was mixed – German, Irish, Polish, Slovaks, it was a kind of mixture. So for a long time, and still to this day, it went from white Anglo European to Hispanic little by little. At the time when the parish began addressing the Hispanic issue was when Fr. John Flynn, O.S.A., who at the time was pastor, said, “We have a lot of Spanish-speaking people. Something needs to be done.” You don’t realize it demographically until the parish and the commercial area begins to start addressing the [Spanish-speaking] issue you get this in flux. So Spanish Mass begins. Now you have requests for Baptisms, you have requests for Marriages, you have requests for other sacraments and before you know it you realize that you did not know how many people there were. It’s been going on over 20 years from when they celebrated their first Spanish Mass here, so it’s been going on for quite a while. Now about 97% of our congregation is Spanish-speaking.
St. Rita has been heavily involved with social activities in the past few years. How did that get started?
Pizzo: Fr. John Flynn, O.S.A. conceived of the idea of the Good Counsel Center, which has been the social help ministry of the parish. When it started, Fr. Lego began to address, little by little, the social issues that were going on. One of them, which we’re still dealing with today, is the housing issue: vacant homes and foreclosures. It was at this point when we started supporting the idea of forming a local community organization which is now known as SWOP, or Southwest Organizing Project, which was formed specifically for the Catholic parishes but then expanded, mainly to schools, the hospital, as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities in this given area.
What kind of problems is the neighborhood tackling?
Pizzo: [Concerns had] been going on for a while, and the parish up to that point was not doing a lot to address the issues. It was doing fine with addressing the sacramental needs of the people, but there was little to no activity to address the issues that were affecting them: immigration; safety—either because they are renting and homeowners and they have children or it’s their own children that are brought up in gangs; the housing piece—being first-time homeowners and finding out that their variable interest rates mean that they go way up and they lose their home; and of course, education, being that Hispanics still have a high dropout rate for high school.
How does Southwest Organizing Project, or SWOP, work with the parish to help?
Pizzo: Ideally, SWOP is like the hub in addressing our social issues and then out of that come people from institutions like St. Rita to keep us informed and ready to mobilize. And then out of that come people with potential to be good leaders. And that’s the whole point of a community organization is that you identify people in the area, you train them for leadership, and they basically wind up taking over. Feed a guy a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, he feeds himself for a lifetime. And what better place than a local church? Because if the Church is not involved in its own reality, the Church is out of touch.
What are some specific examples of social outreach at St. Rita in the recent past?
Pizzo: Since we’ve been collaborating with SWOP and other agencies, we’ve saved about 500 families from losing their homes. Now that’s a small percentage of the amount of foreclosures in the area, but still its 500 families. We’ve become even more aggressive: we had a big rally last year when Attorney General Madigan was here as well as some of our City Aldermen, with this whole effort toward getting funds to get the neighborhood to re-invest. We’ve had a rise in violence, so once a month we have a peace walk with other religious clergy of other faiths in the 8th District. We’re committed to walking once a month. This is our people, our neighborhood, we have to step up to the plate. We did a survey, and a number of people said they can come here and feel at peace. I love it. This is exactly what we want to create: an atmosphere of peace, so that people can feel that they can come here and feel at peace.
Why is it the role of the Church to address these social issues?
Pizzo: There are different types of ministry: some guys prefer to just do sacramental ministry, and that’s fine, that’s always an option. First and foremost, that’s why we exist. However, you also have the social message of the Gospel and that has to be incarnated in the parish. This social outreach to the people is so close to being absolutely essential because these are the people that are coming to church and praying who want stability in their lives. If the local parish, and the Church overall of course, doesn’t get involved with the lives of its people, it’s not going to have a relationship with its people.
Is there anything further you want our readers to know about the work being done at St. Rita?
Pizzo: In the midst of all this, there’s a lot of good going on. We have a number of really good guys at the high schools and parishes [across the Province], and I want our readers to know that St. Rita Parish is stabilized. The Augustinians are doing good work and service, we care about the people here at St. Rita enough to want to be involved in their issues. It’d be much easier for us just to provide sacramental ministry, but that’s not what the Gospel is about. St. Augustine himself was not only a bishop in his diocese, he was a civil magistrate. He would end up mediating civic issues, so that’s what we have to do.