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Crossing Parish Boundaries

Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954

Controversy erupted in spring 2001 when Chicago’s mostly white Southside Catholic Conference youth sports league rejected the application of the predominantly black St. Sabina grade school. Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, interracialism seemed stubbornly unattainable, and the national spotlight once again turned to the history of racial conflict in Catholic parishes. It’s widely understood that midcentury, working class, white ethnic Catholics were among the most virulent racists, but, as Crossing Parish Boundaries shows, that’s not the whole story.
            In this book, Timothy B. Neary reveals the history of Bishop Bernard Sheil’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), which brought together thousands of young people of all races and religions from Chicago’s racially segregated neighborhoods to take part in sports and educational programming. Tens of thousands of boys and girls participated in basketball, track and field, and the most popular sport of all, boxing, which regularly filled Chicago Stadium with roaring crowds. The history of Bishop Sheil and the CYO shows a cosmopolitan version of American Catholicism, one that is usually overshadowed by accounts of white ethnic Catholics aggressively resisting the racial integration of their working-class neighborhoods. By telling the story of Catholic-sponsored interracial cooperation within Chicago, Crossing Parish Boundaries complicates our understanding of northern urban race relations in the mid-twentieth century.


“A nuanced and richly documented interpretation of the role of Chicago's Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) and its founder, Bishop Bernard Sheil, in promoting better race relations. . .Neary's deep archival research and well-organized presentation significantly adds to our understanding of Chicago's Catholics and race.”

American Historical Review

“Neary has produced a work of wide reach and interest—a history of religion and race, sports and northern urban culture, and youthful engagement around issues of central significance to the mid-twentieth century US society and politics. It is not only exceptionally well researched and analytically careful and illuminative, but also written with an enviable clarity and simplicity of style. Neary helps fill out the storyline of John T. McGreevy’s foundational work on US Catholicism and race, while advancing in a more thoroughgoing historical key the kind of analysis of Catholicism and sports culture undertaken in Julie Byrne’s O God of Players.”

James P. McCartin, director, Fordham Center on Religion and Culture

“Neary’s Crossing Parish Boundaries tells an unexpected story. Previous historians have depicted the high walls of segregation dividing white ethnic neighborhoods from Chicago’s African American ghettos. Yet in the middle decades of the twentieth century, Chicago’s Catholic Youth Organization promoted interracial sports. In an era otherwise characterized by deep ethnic tensions, even violence, especially between the children of immigrants and the new black migrants to the city, Neary shows us how local Catholic leaders and parishioners deliberately and successfully resisted the bigotry of their times. Crossing Parish Boundaries is a fine book, merging urban history, social history, and sports history in an elegant and insightful narrative.”

Elliot Gorn, Joseph A. Gagliano Chair in American Urban History, Loyola University Chicago

“Neary examines the understudied world of youth athletics, finding significant interracial cooperation by the mid-twentieth century. His well-researched study allows us to better understand the dynamics of—and limits to—such cooperation in a city marked by intense residential and racial segregation.”

John T. McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame

“Neary’s excellent study of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) represents an important counterpart to works that emphasize the role of working-class Catholics in segregation and racial violence.”

James R. Barrett | Journal of American History

“Neary’s emphasis on African American involvement in the CYO is unique. . . .His book is an important contribution to scholarship at the nexus of Catholicism and race in the twentieth-century urban North.”

Journal of American Ethnic History

“Neary’s work represents the most comprehensive, authoritative, and detailed analysis of his subject to date. His extensive research utilizes a vast array of primary sources, archival records, church documents, private papers, interviews, newspapers, journals, and magazine articles in an interdisciplinary study that covers religion, race, ethnicity, social class, and politics to analyze a largely forgotten figure that preceded the luminaries of the better-known civil rights of the mid-twentieth century.”

Journal of Sport History

“Complicates the narrative of Catholics, race, and housing. . .Neary makes the [John McGreevy] narrative more complex by showing how hundreds of thousands of white and black Catholics were exposed to the CYO’s message of interracial justice in the generation before the modern civil rights movement. . .Neary’s book is a welcome addition for those interested in race, religion, urban history, and sports, and Neary illuminates the intersections between the questions animating these fields with precision. His depiction of black Catholicism is significant, and he restores Sheil, a household name in Chicago and nationally from the 1930s to 1950s, to our memory.”

Journal of Illinois History

“A richly textured and deeply researched book that offers not just another look at the history of ethnic and racial conflict over neighborhood, but uncovers a forgotten brand of ‘everyday interracialism’ in Bishop Bernard Sheil’s Catholic Youth Organization.”

Chicago Catholic

Crossing Parish Boundaries comes at a time when violence and racial tension again plague the city of Chicago. Neary’s work is part biography of the extraordinary Bishop Bernard Sheil, part urban study, part religious survey, and part racial history, all combined into a fluid and fascinating text that is as readable as it is informative.”

National Catholic Reporter

“A compelling case study of the interactions among race, region, and sports in Chicago in the early to mid-twentieth century. Neary is a skilled writer [and] this superb local study deserves close attention from historians of race, religion, and American sports. Although focusing on one city, it illustrates the wider value of “complication” in historical interpretations.”

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Table of Contents

Introduction. “Building Men, Not Just Fighters”
1. Minority within a Minority: African Americans Encounter Catholicism in the Urban North
2. “We Had Standing”: Black and Catholic in Bronzeville
3. For God and Country: Bishop Sheil and the CYO
4. African American Participation in the CYO
5. The Fight Outside the Ring: Antiracism in the CYO
6. “Ahead of His Time”: The Legacy of Bishop Sheil and the Unfulfilled Promise of Catholic Interracialism

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