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Erie Neighborhood House: 150 Years as a Home with No Borders

May 3, 2021
Erie Neighborhood House, 2019. Photo courtesy of Maureen Hellwig.

--by Maureen Hellwig 

Those of us who take an interest in history are generally drawn to it because it is full of good stories. One such story, a Chicago story, that has always grabbed my attention, pertains to the birth and growth of the settlement house movement before, during, and after Hull House and Jane Addams. My view is that it was a faith-based movement – not necessarily church-based, although churches were involved. Nor was it religious, but rather, as Eleanor Stebner describes it in her book, The Women of Hull House, “a study in spirituality, vocation and friendship.” It is a gospel story about being a good neighbor. 

Background on the Movements & Erie’s Early Days

As a deep admirer of Jane Addams, and aware of the many books written by and about her, I felt it was time for the story of a place that was influenced by her, and has actually surpassed Hull House in its longevity. So, I wrote a book about it. This is the story of Erie Neighborhood House, which started on Erie Street, just northwest of Chicago’s downtown, and was doing some of Jane’s work nineteen years before she came on the scene – welcoming immigrants, and starting them on their path to success, not by denigrating their “foreign” culture, but by celebrating it. 

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Walter Gielow. Photo courtesy of Maureen Hellwig.

This work was started by a small mission church, called Holland Presbyterian, in 1870, when Ulysses Grant was still President and Chicago was only thirty-three years old. It first embraced the children of the neighborhood in what was described as the largest Sunday School in Chicago at that time. But church laymen, like Thomas Templeton and Walter Gielow, soon realized that their “mission” needed to extend beyond religious teachings, and so the Erie Chapel Institute (ECI) was incorporated in 1915, and established itself on Erie Street just a half block from the church on Noble Street.

Eventually, the Erie Chapel Institute became Erie Neighborhood House, adopting this as its name in 1936, when the current structure at 1347 W. Erie was built on the same site as the ECI. Since the time of Holland Presbyterian, it responded to five generations of immigrants that passed through its doors at the same address for 150 years, giving it a unique perspective on this port-of-entry neighborhood called West Town.

Erie Chapel Institute, before 1935. Photos courtesy of Maureen Hellwig.

Who were the Five Generations of Immigrant Neighbors?

First, it was the Dutch and Norwegian immigrants, among the earliest arrivals in the new city of Chicago in the 1830s and '40s. They were generally not Presbyterians, but no matter. As these two groups prospered, they moved on. Norwegian American Hospital was part of their legacy, and only recently, after 125 years, a name change was announced, calling it Humboldt Park Health, basically a Latino-serving hospital today.

From the late 1880s to 1920, the Dutch and Norwegians were replaced by Poles and Italians. “Mom Savino,” came to Erie House when it was still the Erie Chapel Institute in the 1920s. She and her husband both got jobs at Erie, but also volunteered for many hours beyond their work time. I met her at Erie in the late 1960s. She was an Erie institution by then, by far Erie’s most famous Italian participant. For the most part these Italians were Catholics, as were the Poles who also came to Erie. Eventually, there were more Poles in Chicago than in Warsaw. They built and worshipped at Holy Innocents Church, just two blocks from Erie House where they learned English.

Puerto Rican immigrants started arriving in the 1950s, at first settling at the south end of Lincoln Park. This is the neighborhood where former Congressman, Luis Gutierrez, who became a nationally recognized leader in the fight for immigration reform, lived until his parents decided to move back to Puerto Rico when he was about 15. He returned to Chicago as an adult and settled himself and his wife in West Town, the successor neighborhood to Lincoln Park for Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. The Gutierrez family was a good example of what Gina Perez has called the “va y ven”/ “go & come” pattern of Puerto Rican migration, in her book The Near Northwest Side Story.

"Mom Savino", undated. Holy Innocents Church, undated. Photos courtesy of Maureen Hellwig.

Mexicans were already in the neighborhood and connecting to Erie House by the 1970s. But Mexican immigration increased precipitously following the Immigration Reform & Control Act of 1986, which opened a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. By 2000, there were an estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants in the US, mostly from Mexico. Mexican immigration to Chicago eventually surpassed the previous record-breaking Polish immigration already mentioned. In the morning, Erie House’s newest neighbors dropped off their pre-schoolers. After work, they picked them up, along with their older children who went to Erie after school. Monday through Thursday evenings, and twice on Saturday, the adults studied English or enrolled in citizenship classes. 

Except for the earliest days, Erie House was never about making new Presbyterians, but about making new neighbors – not necessarily in the sense of geographic proximity, but in the sense of “neighbor” that one found in the gospel, especially the “social gospel,” which called for “neighboring” with the most marginalized, the poorest of the poor.

Through each wave of immigration, the leadership of Erie had become aware of Jane Addams’ work, recognized its value, and incorporated its methodologies into its support of the community. But the foundation of “the House” had been laid years earlier by the Presbyterian church on the corner.

You can read more of this story in my book, A Neighbor Among Neighbors, and in the upcoming second part of this article. Readers can purchase A Neighbor Among Neighbors directly from the publisher, MIPJ.org, or through Amazon; it can also be downloaded on the Kindle app. 

--Maureen Hellwig is a life-long Chicagoan. While she spent her first 5 years as a teacher, most of her professional life was spent in social justice work, as a community organizer and urban planner, at organizations like Erie Neighborhood House. From volunteer to employee, it was a fruitful 50-year relationship, the quality of which prompted her to write A Neighbor Among Neighbors: Erie Neighborhood House – 150 Years as a Home with No Borders. Maureen earned her B.A. in history from Alverno College and holds a PhD in Public Policy and Urban Affairs from the University of Illinois Chicago.