Timothy Neary on Race, Sports, and Catholics
Date: January 22nd, 2017

In the first half of the twentieth century, the city of Chicago was going through a number of economic, political, and demographic changes that drew the attention of the Catholic Church.  Prof. Timothy Neary, an associate professor of history at Salve Regina University (Newport, RI), discusses how a popular sports program – the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) – was developed by the Catholic archdiocese in response to growing challenges from secularism, communism, and a changing racial landscape.  Prof. Neary recalls how he came to study such a topic in graduate school, taking us back to his past education in Jesuit institutions from high school through his doctorate.  We then lay out the scope of his new book Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago 1914-1954, starting with what Chicago as a city looked like at the turn of the century and the changes it experienced over the next half century.  This transformation included the rise of Catholic politicians and increased immigration from African Americans, transforming the formerly Irish Catholic neighborhoods of South Chicago into one with a majority black population.  We explore the nature of the religious scene paying particular attention to an influential minority of African American Catholics.  Tim then explains how an important auxiliary bishop in the Chicago archdiocese — Bernard Sheil — brought his interest in sports to bear on an increasing concern among the clergy to engage in social work as a counter to a number of changes they saw facing their communities in the era of urban industrialization.  Inspired by the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, Bishop Sheil creates the Catholic Youth Organization in 1930 to give adolescents — a newly identified demographic with more teenagers attending high school — an alternative outlet to other less savory activities.  Partially inspired by the Protestant YMCAs that were popping up throughout the country, the CYO offered young men and women the opportunity to participate in a number of individual and team sports that crossed parish boundaries and brought disparate members of the Catholic community together in unified activity.  We spend some time talking about a very popular sport at the time, boxing.  Tim notes that despite being a competitive, martial sport, the CYO was able to use this activity to promote discipline, upright behavior, and a love of God, country, and the papal encyclicals.  Open to non-Catholics, it also brought in some converts.  Despite the Chicago branch of the CYO falling into disarray after the death of Bishop Sheil, Prof. Neary details the long-term influence this program had in terms of creating greater awareness for racial justice (a growing concern of Sheil) and cultivating a cohort of Black Democrat leaders including the likes of Ralph Metcalfe.  (Tony points out that Mr. Metcalfe, a CYO participant and Olympian, was a graduate of Marquette University, his alma mater.)  Tim finishes up by discussing what he learned throughout the course of his studies and what the future might hold for Catholics and race relations.  Recorded: December 30, 2016.



Prof. Timothy Neary’s bio at Salve Regina University.

Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954, by Timothy Neary.

Urban History Association.

Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North. by John McGreevy (mentioned in podcast).

Play Like a Champion Program (Notre Dame).

For God & Country: Bishop Sheil’s Vision for Youth Sports (Feb. 10, 2017 at the University of Notre Dame – public lecture by Prof. Neary).


Maureen Fitzgerald on Irish Nuns and Welfare.

Jay Hein on the Quiet Revolution and Social Work.

Timothy Dalrymple on Religion, Sports, and Jeremy Lin.

Eric Carter on Religion and the NFL.

Byron Johnson on More God, Less Crime.

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