ChicagoMag: The Midwest’s Only Chinese Catholic Church Weathers Its 70th Year

A red brick church with a bell tower stands on Alexander Street in Chicago’s Old Chinatown. Stained glass windows filter light in to the 114-year-old building, and two small stone lions guard the entrance. With curly manes, the lions are nearly identical: one is female, with her paw resting on a cub, and the other is male, playing with a ball. These guardian lions are popular in Chinese Buddhism, but at St. Therese, they welcome parishioners to the only Chinese Catholic church in the Midwest.

Established in 1904, the building originally housed the congregation of Santa Maria Incoronata, serving the Italian community. The St. Therese Catholic Mission was formally erected in 1947 by then-Archbishop Samuel Stritch, as a way to serve the growing population of Chinese immigrants in Chicago; the parishioners met in a storefront church on Wentworth Avenue. As the community grew further, especially with an influx of people fleeing communist China, it needed more room for worshippers. By 1963, Santa Maria Incoronata was consolidated with another nearby church and the building was given to St. Therese. Despite the initial friction from the changes, the St. Therese Chinese community flourished, and Italian Americans still celebrate Masses and feast days at the Alexander Street church.

In the last 70 years, St. Therese has focused on providing resources to the community, especially for immigrants who are struggling to make it in a new country. The parish has Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking volunteers who serve as translators at St. James Food Pantry; it holds a monthly gathering for Chinese-speaking university students; and the church gives referrals for English and citizenship classes, such as to the Chinese American Service League and the Pui Tak Center.

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