Catholics, Freethinkers, and the Printed Word in Czech Chicago

Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Second Floor
Exhibit Dates: April 24 – August 1, 2017

Portrait of August Geringer

August Geringer (1842-1930), publisher of Svornost, the first Czech-language daily newspaper in the United States, and numerous books of Freethought literature.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was the largest Czech enclave in the United States and, indeed, constituted the third largest urban concentration of Czechs in the world. Living primarily in the Pilsen and Lawndale neighborhoods on the west side of Chicago, members of the Czech community shared a common language and a strong sense of ethnic identity that manifested itself in a rich and vigorous associational life. There was, however, considerable social tension within this community, based on differing attitudes to religious belief. The primary fault line lay between members of the Catholic Church and those who espoused a form of secular humanism, known as Freethought.

The roots of the division between Catholics and Freethinkers lay in the history and political conditions of the Czech lands, where Catholicism was the state religion and thus strongly associated with Hapsburg rule and its Germanizing cultural policy, while anticlericalism and, more broadly, anti-Catholicism were conjoined with the nationalistic attitudes of those eager to emancipate their land from Austrian political control and cultural hegemony. Because Czech-American Freethought was strongly tinged with anticlericalism, Catholics and Freethinkers came to form two rival camps among Czech Americans, each of which carved out its own distinctive institutional and associational life.

Photograph of Fr. Prokop Neužil

Fr. Prokop Neužil, OSB (1861-1946), founder of the Bohemian Benedictine Press and third abbot of St. Procopius Abbey, Lisle, Illinois.

As ideological rivals, Freethinkers and Catholics sought to make use of the printed word to propagate their views within the Czech-American community. The Czech-language press thus became an important medium in setting the tone for Czech-American culture. The city of Chicago was home to the most important Czech-American Freethought and Catholic publishers in the country—on one side, August Geringer, owner of a small publishing empire based around the daily newspaper Svornost and a committed Freethinker whose press published numerous works of Freethought literature, and, on the other, the Bohemian Benedictine Press run by the Benedictine monks of St. Procopius Abbey, which was the leading publishing venue for Czech-language Catholic literature in the United States. Drawing primarily upon the rich resources of the University of Chicago Library’s ACASA (Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad) collection, this one-case exhibit presents a small selection of the publications of these two presses, illustrating some of the characteristic features of the two poles of Czech-American culture that they represented.

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