Home  Publications

Robert P. Swierenga -- Publications

The Groninger Hoek: Chicago's West Side Dutch

Dr. Robert P. Swierenga

A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College

Talk for Senior Citizen Fellowship, Faith Christian Reformed Church, Elmhurst, IL, Oct. 26, 1999


They say that you can't go home again, but the past weekend in Chicago has stirred the old feelings of home. It has been more than 40 years since I graduated from Calvin and then Northwestern University, and left Cicero for good. Since 1958 my wife and I have only returned for brief visits with our families. Her parents were Ted and Ann Boomker from the Oak Park church and mine were John and Marie Swierenga from the Warren Park church. Our wedding in 1957, in a sense, was a harbinger of the marriage of the two congregations in 1973.

I see my classmate and friend, Marty Stulp, here. He has helped me tremendously by taking his video camera and interviewing some of you about life on the Old West Side. Marty is ready to record more of your life histories, and I hope some of you will see him or me afterwards to arrange for him to sit at your kitchen table and talk on camera for the sake of your children and grandchildren.

Many of you have lived your entire lives on the West Side, and some of you are older than I am. You have a first hand knowledge of the history of the community that I could only get from reading and listening to your stories. So please cut me a little slack when I don't have the story quite right. And by all means clue me in when I have it wrong. Once my book is at the printers, it is too late to get it right.

Peter Huizenga

I want to take this opportunity to thank Peter Huizenga and the Huizenga family, who have generously endowed the Van Raalte Institute at Hope College where I am a research professor. Without this position, it would have been far more difficult to study the history of the Chicago Dutch. Peter's grandfather Harm arrived in Chicago in 1893, the same year as my great-grandfather, Jan Swierenga. Both came from the same region of Groningen and settled on the Old West Side, where their paths often crossed, as have those of their children and grandchildren in the last 100 years.

Jan Swierenga

Jan Swierenga came with his wife Katrijn and 8 children. They were members of the Christian Reformed Church in Groningen, like the Huizengas and so many others. Jan's family joined the First CRC, where his older brother Barteld was the custodian.

Both Jan and Katrijn contracted tuberculosis, the disease of poverty. Katrijn died within four years and Jan two years later. Both were in their late forties. They paid the supreme price for emigrating, but their children to the third and fourth generation have enjoyed the blessings of God.


You might wonder about the sources of information for my study. Written sources are rather sparse. At the beginning of my research, I went to the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Historical Society Library, and Newberry Library. These major libraries have virtually nothing on the Dutch. We are an invisible ethnic group in the city, as far as historians and librarians know. Fortunately, Trinity and Calvin libraries are far richer in documents, especially of the churches and Christian schools.

The best sources are the Chicago Dutch-language newspaper, Onze Toekomst (Our Future) and its successor, The Illinois Observer. But the run of the Toekomst, which was published from 1894 to 1953, is incomplete. And all the back issues of its predecessor, De Nederlander, which appeared in the early 1880s, were lost in a printshop fire in 1894. The Reformed Church weekly, The Christian Intelligencer, ran a regular column for fifteen years (1891-1907), entitled "Chicago Letter," written by Rev. Peter Moerdyke of Trinity Reformed Church. Moerdyke tells about church life in the Reformed and Christian Reformed communities at the turn of the century. Finally, in the mid-1930s, Dr. Fred Wezeman published The Chicago Messenger for three years. It was an English-language counterpart of the Toekomst. Besides the newspapers, I used church and school records, the federal census records of 1880 and 1900, and oral interviews. My book will tell the story of the Dutch Reformed churches, Christian schools, church societies and clubs, mutual aid societies like Self Help that took care from womb to tomb, high brow clubs like the Holland Society that promoted things Dutch, political doings that were largely Republican, and of course work on the garbage and cartage trucks and the truck farms.

Dutch Catholics and Jews in Chicago

I even note the Dutch Catholics and Jews of Chicago, although the Calvinists had nothing to do with them. Many of you remember Father George Beemsterboer of St. Francis of Rome Parish in Cicero. He was one of several dozen Dutch priests in Chicago. Did you know that Father Arnold Damen was Dutch-born? He founded Holy Family Parish and St. Ignatius College on Roosevelt Road and May Street, and became the most famous Dutch Jesuit in America. Damen recruited more than a dozen Dutch Jesuits to serve this parish and the college. Damen Avenue was named his honor.

About 40 Dutch Catholics worshiped at St. Francis of Assissi Church on Roosevelt and Peoria streets, which had several Dutch priests to hear confessions in the native tongue. The only true Dutch Catholic parish in Chicago was St. Willibrord, which began in the 1890s in Roseland's Kensington district, at 114th and State. This 200-family parish of truck farmers remained predominantly Dutch until the 1960s. Altogether, about 10 percent of Chicago Hollanders were Catholic.

Several dozen Dutch Jewish merchants and shopkeepers could be found in the downtown area in the decades after the Civil War. Most lived on the fashionable South Prairie Avenue near Burnham Park, with a smaller concentration along the equally prestigious Washington Boulevard near Garfield Park on the West Side. Henry S. Haas, a retail clothing merchant at 718 S. Wabash Avenue, owned $37,000 of property in 1871 and was the wealthiest Hollander in the city. Joseph Israel Van Baalen ran a successful clothing store on West Randolph street at the same time. Both businesses were wiped out by the Chicago fire of 1871. Most Dutch Jews were retailers in tobacco, clothing, and jewelry. About 4 percent of Chicago Dutch were Jewish.

Now I'll tell the history of the West Side Reformed Community by posing a series of questions.

First, what does the phrase "Groninger Hoek" mean?

The word hoek is Dutch and means a corner, a quarter (like French Quarter), or section. Groningen is a province of the northern Netherlands from which most West Siders originated. The phrase Groninger Hoek was first used in 1859.

Where was the Groninger Hoek?

There were actually three Groninger Hoeks, not counting Cicero-Berwyn. The first was on Harrison (600 south) at Desplaines (640 west) in the 1850s and 1860s; the second was five blocks west on Harrison at May streets (1150 west) in the 1860s and 1870s, and the third was at 14th and Ashland--the "Old Neighborhood." What most Chicago Dutch do not know is that there were two previous Groninger Hoeks, or Old Neighborhoods, before 14th and Ashland. They were on Harrison Street. Beginning in the 1880s, Groningers always lived near Roosevelt Road--from Ashland Avenue (1600 west) and moving all the way to Elmhurst and Wheaton.

For more than 100 years the Dutch have settled within three to four blocks on either side of Roosevelt Road. Moving west in search of better housing along this main artery was easy and almost natural. But was their something else? This street, after all, was named for the Republican Roosevelt, a president the Dutch in Chicago claimed as one of their own, because of his roots in the province of Zeeland. Did the Groningers like Roosevelt Road because of its Dutch connection? Just a thought. When and where was the first Reformed church in Chicago?

In the Reformed community in Chicago, one could live from the cradle to the grave within the church and its many societies, services, and extended families. Yes, the church even directed members to the right cemetery--the Dutch section at Forest Home. Religious affiliation also determined educational choices; CRC children attended Christian schools while RCA parents usually sent their children to the city's public schools.

First Reformed Church was founded in 1853 and the place of worship for several years was in rented space on Randolph Street at Desplaines and then Clinton. For five years before that, a few families met for worship in their homes in a "lees kerk," literally a reading church, where laymen read printed sermons.

The Dutch in Chicago in the 1840s were a disparate group, compared to the large homogenous groups that settled in the Prairies--Low Prairie (South Holland) and High Prairie (Roseland). The city Dutch included people of Reformed, Catholic and Jewish backgrounds. South Holland settlers came from the province of Zuid-Holland and Roselanders from Noord-Holland; both were strictly Reformed. The Prairies established churches right away, with dominies to lead them. The city Dutch had no clerical leadership and many of Reformed background were religiously indifferent.

In 1852 the house church named a steering committee and asked Rev. A.C. Van Raalte of First Reformed Church of Holland, MI, to come and formally organize them as a Reformed congregation. The next year, 1853, Classis Holland accepted them into the RCA. The infant congregation couldn't afford to pay a pastor or buy a building, so it continued as a lees kerk for another six years.

In 1854 the first contingent of Groningers arrived--the families of Nicholas Ronda, Cornelis Bos, John Kooi, and John Evenhouse, and they joined First Church. Many more followed. The next year the church reached 30 families and desperately needed its own building. The congregation bought a lot on Foster Street near Harrison Street and began raising money for a frame sanctuary. [Foster Street was one half block west of Desplaines, near the south branch of the Chicago River, where the Dan Ryan Expressway runs today.]

The monies needed for the church were less than $1000, but the members could not raise it, so they scaled back the building by a third, to 20x45 feet. They proudly dedicated their first church in late 1856, even though a Michigan Hollander described it as "small and unsightly." By 1859 the Foster Street neighborhood was already being described as the Groninger Hoek.

That year First Reformed welcomed their first regular pastor, Rev. Cornelius Vander Meulen, the founder of the Zeeland, MI congregation, and Van Raalte's faithful associate. Dominie Vander Meulen found the Hollanders of the "Groninger section" to be quite indifferent in matters of religion. Indeed, "these people would have nothing to do with it." The dominie diligently set about to gather in the indifferent ones and the stragglers. He was a strong leader, plain spoken, warm, and humble in spirit, and the church of ninety souls thrived. Vander Meulen started a Sunday school, that very American institution, to "protect the children from strange teachings" in the public schools.

But Vander Meulen left after only two years for Grand Rapids, after the Chicago body decided it could not afford to expand the sanctuary or relocate to accommodate the growth. Rev. Seine Bolks, founder of the Overisel, MI church, and another close associate of Van Raalte, took Vander Meulen's place, but he stayed for even less time, only 17 months. Rev. H.J. Klyn followed; he was the founding pastor of the Grand Rapids congregation and another associate of Van Raalte. Fortunately, he stayed for 6 years (1862-68).

In 1866 Klyn convinced the congregation to begin a Christian day school, taught by a "brother" Huizenga. Instruction was in the Dutch language. The school was shortlived, but it was the first Dutch Christian school in Chicago.

That same year the consistory made an arrangement with the Forest Home Cemetery to designate a special section for the Dutch. In exchange for promoting Forest Home cemetery lots in their congregations, the company donated a number of charity lots for the deacons. These lots were in the low lying section just west of the Desplaines River that were often under water after heavy rains. That section, incidentally, is where Jan and Katrijn Swierenga were buried in unmarked graves as charity cases.

How bad were the spiritual conditions in Chicago?

The Chicago congregation was spiritually very weak and few members were educated; the city was rocky ground. Once, the worshipers became so unruly during a service that Vander Meulen felt compelled to preach a catechism sermon from LD 46, the phrase "Our Father, who art in heaven" in the Lord's Prayer, which teaches the need for awe and reverence for God's heavenly majesty.

This wasn't surprising. Van Raalte's report to Classis Holland on his first visit to Chicago in 1852 painted a poor picture of religious life in the Windy City. He found "the ravages wrought by error, worldliness, and quarrels to be great. Some had joined the so-called Spiritualists, one young man had gone over to the Romanists, others dispersed themselves among all kinds of denominations, many lived in indifference and sought the world, while others who confessed the name of the Lord lived in isolation. One of the chief causes of all these woes," Van Raalte continued, "was to be sought in the lack of the ministry of the word and pastoral care."

Henry Lucas, the historian who wrote Netherlanders in America, said that the westside Dutch "manifested little interest in religion and church life" and that they were "different from the majority of Dutch immigrants" elsewhere.

What about this view? It is true that the city Dutch in the 1840s and 1850s did not have a flourishing Reformed community led by pastors, like Roseland and South Holland. In Chicago the immigrants had to start a church on their own, without the benefit of clergy. The elders had to take the lead. Over time this made for stronger, and perhaps less contentious, congregations.

The Chicago churches, over the years, have been noted for their strong denominational loyalties. The city Dutch affiliated with the RCA before the Prairies did. And while Holland and Grand Rapids were racked by church squabbles and major secessions in the 1850s and again in the 1880s (the former gave birth to the CRC in 1857), the Chicago Dutch had a relatively peaceful split in 1867 when some fifteen families left First RCA to form First CRC. Yes, the rivalry between the "first" churches was strong, but I do not think it was as bitter as in Holland and GR.

Note that the CRC secession in Chicago came in 1867, ten years after the secession in Michigan. First Roseland CRC was not organized until 1877 and First South Holland CRC until 1886. Even today the Christian Reformed churches on the West Side have not added many persons to the nearly 15% who have seceded from the denomination in the 1990s.

What caused the 1867 secession in Chicago?

In 1867 First Church split when the stalwart elders, Gerrit Vastenhouw and Arie Van Deursen, led some fifteen mainly Groninger families (75 souls) to secede and form the True Holland Reformed Church (later First CRC). These folks were dissatisfied because of the Americanizing tendencies in the RCA, especially the condoning of lodge members by the denomination's leaders in the East. The concerns were similar to those of seceding congregations in Michigan in 1857.

The True brothers in 1867 built their first church, a 40x60 feet building, on Gurley Street (now Lexington, one block south of Harrison) between Morgan and Sangamon Street. The Dutch had been moving into this area of newer homes about three blocks west of First RCA's Foster street church.

The next year, Rev. Jan Schepers, then barely 30 years old, came to be the first pastor at First CRC. The Gurley Street building was fortunately spared in the great Chicago fire of 1871. The flames went northeasterly from DeKoven Street toward the city center and missed the area west of Jefferson.

Two years earlier, in 1869, First Reformed had played hop-scotch with the True Holland Church by selling the Foster building and erecting a new sanctuary on Harrison and May streets (1100 west). This was one block north and one block west of First CRC on Gurley. They needed a bigger church because after the Civil War the immigration from Groningen picked up steam. By 1870 there were 100 Groninger families living on the West Side and feeding members into both congregations. First Reformed's building was also spared in the Chicago fire.

Ashland Avenue takes shape

First CRC also grew rapidly and in 1883 they bought a larger church from the Presbyterians on 14th Street just east of Ashland Avenue (ca. 1300 West), which upscale area was becoming the new Groninger Hoek. This building became affectionately known as the Old Fourteenth Street Church. The congregation had 1000 souls by 1886 and it later birthed the Douglas Park, Third, and Fourth CRCs on the West Side, and also saw many transfers to the Englewood and Summit congregations.

In the mid-1880s, First RCA reached its high point of 1,200 souls, before birthing daughter congregations in Englewood (1886), the English-speaking Trinity RCA (1891), Bethel in Summit (1899), West Side in Cicero (1911), and Calvary in Berwyn (1940). In 1891 First Reformed moved to the 1500 block of West Hastings Street, only one block from First CRC.

The Ashland Avenue Dutch district had entered its heyday and was to remain the center of the Groninger Hoek for sixty years. Henry Stob, a native son, recalled in his "Recollections" of the 1920s that the people "spoke Dutch at home, worked hard, and harbored intense loyalties to their Dutch churches."

What was unique about the "Old West Side"?

People who grew up there speak of it with a warm glow of nostalgia. There area covered a square mile running west from Racine Avenue (1200 west) to Damen Avenue (2000 west) and running south from Harrison Street (600 south) to the railroad tracks south of 15th Street. If one street stood out as a veritable "Dutch row," it was 14th Place; virtually every house was occupied by Hollanders. The 14th Street streetcars and "L" stop on the elevated Douglas Park line provided easy public transportation downtown.

The retail corridors of 12th Street (later renamed Roosevelt Road), 14th Street, and Ashland Avenue held the shops, stores, banks, and professional offices to serve the Dutch, Jews, and various other European groups with whom they shared the neighborhood. Little Italy stretched north of 12th Street, Jews and Greeks ran the 12th Street and 14th Street shops and businesses, and Poles and Bohemians controlled the area south of the railroad tracks.

The men of the Groninger Hoek worked as garbage and cartage drivers and laborers, factory workers, and tradesman. Those who prospered moved to the upscale neighborhoods of Douglas Park, Lawndale, and Cicero, leaving the less well off behind.

How did the "First" churches in Chicago differ?

The pioneer Reformed and Christian Reformed churches in Chicago were so alike and yet so different. Groningers dominated both, but the RCA was outward looking and ready to interact with the American scene, while the CRC, with few exceptions, looked inward and guarded its Dutch theological and cultural treasure. CRC members wished to preserve their Dutchness, while RCA members were more willing to give up their heritage and become Americans.

At heart, the True church people were disciples of Hendrik De Cock of Groningen, the father of the Secession of 1834. They upheld the Dort Church Order and prized orthodoxy over church unity. To be right was more important than to be tight. The followers of De Cock in America also wanted to remain tied to the mother church in the Netherlands, rather than be a part of the thoroughly Americanized RCA.

The Dutch Reformed churches in Chicago had two conflicting religious traditions; the pietist outlook of the Afscheiding of 1834 and the triumphalist outlook of Abraham Kuyper's Doleantie of 1886. The Afscheiding of 1834 was a secession from the Netherlands national church because of religious apostasy, that gave rise to the Christian Seceded Church. The Doleantie of 1886 was a neo-Calvinist reformation under Kuyper, a theologian and founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, who became prime minister in 1901 under the banner of the Anti-Revolutionary Party. Kuyper institutionalized the historic structuring of Dutch society into Reformed, Catholic, and liberal-socialist pillars, each with tax supported schools, newspapers, trade unions, welfare agencies, etc.

The pietists and Kuyperians, in turn, can be divided into outgoing and defensive mind-sets. Leading pietists were Bernardus Be Bey of First RCA and Benjamin Essenburg of First CRC. De Bey was the dominant Dutch preacher in the city in the 19th century, as Essenburg was in the twentieth century. He followed Van Lonkhuizen, who was a graduate of the Free University of Amsterdam and proponent of Kuyper's world and life view. Van Lonkhuizen used his pen as editor of Onze Toekomst to disseminate his views; the paper had a weekly circulation of 3,500 in the 1920s. Van Lonkhuyzen also promoted Christian secondary education at the newly established Chicago Christian High School (1916).

On the whole, the Chicago Groningers were products of the Afscheiding more than of the Doleantie. They had immigrated before Kuyper's time. The Chicagoans followed De Cock and Van Velzen, the Seceder leaders in Groningen, who believed in restoring doctrinal orthodoxy, the historic confessions, and especially the Church Order of Dort. These Cocksians, in James Bratt's words, were "vigilant for orthodoxy among themselves and content to let the rest of the world go by." Their orthodoxy had a "warm" character that stressed the "importance of the heart" more than a vision of building God's kingdom on earth. Their chief concern was to defend the iron triangle--the Christian home, church, and school; it did not extend to transforming "every sphere of life." Generally, the Chicago Hollanders contended with the culture more than they challenged it.

Immigrants who arrived after the turn of the century introduced Kuyper's neo-Calvinism in Chicago and worked to create Christian schools, labor unions, and newspapers. Most were South Siders. Craftsmen in the building trades on the South Side, for example, formed a Christian Labor Association, but it struggled to survive against AFL-CIO pressures and picketing.

Bernardus De Bey of First Reformed Church (1868-1891)

The best example of pietism is the pastorate of Bernardus De Bey at First Reformed Church (1868-91). De Bey coupled his religious style with Americanizing tendencies. He arrived in Chicago in 1868 after a long and successful pastorate in the large Gereformeerde Kerk in Middelstum, Groningen. He was already at the advanced age of 53 when he decided to emigrate with his wife and six children. Some 60 members had preceded him to Chicago and more followed. He was the major immigrant recruiter in the northern Netherlands for several decades, and his parsonage served as the headquarters for the newcomers, some of whom he provided with small business loans.

For twenty years De Bey wrote a series of letters for the Provinciale Groninger Courant, the major newspaper of the province, in which he urged those with "an iron will and a pair of good hands" to come to Chicago where laborers were urgently needed, especially after the Chicago Fire. Those who work with their heads--clerks, bookkeepers, small merchants, teachers, and gentlemen--should stay at home, De Bey warned. "Our new Hollanders are hewers of wood and drawers of water. They perform the roughest and heaviest labors." Only sons of farmers, farmhands, day laborers, craftsmen, and maids need apply. The dominie was the most influential link between the Old and New World for the Chicago Dutch Calvinists.

His congregation flowered under his leadership, while First CRC went through seven pastorates and vacancies. De Bey was a strong person mentally and physically. Before studying for the ministry, he had been a peat digger and farm worker; this helped him relate to the people. De Bey preached forcefully in a rapid-fire style and his sermons reflected his pious and practical bent of mind.

Church life under De Bey took on more and more of the American style. He was much taken with popular preaching methods and attended a nearby Presbyterian church every Sunday night to practice the language and pick up tips on sermonizing. De Bey particularly admired Yankee ministers for focusing on the central idea of the text and applying it in practical ways to everyday life without much Biblical exegesis, analysis, or synthesis.

He also adopted the rhythms of evangelicalism, by conducting American-style revivals at midweek services, modeled after the evangelists Dwight L. Moody and George Pentecost, whom he went to hear. He invited Pentecost to his congregation to preach revival and served as a prayer counselor. De Bey's reports to Classis refer often to seasons of revivals in the congregation, such as an 1877 "awakening" that brought dozens to the Lord.

During his pastorate, De Bey dispensed with several standard practices of Reformed polity. He canceled "family visits," believing them to be mere "superficial chats" and a "waste of time." He substituted informal Bible studies on Saturday evenings at the church. He gave up regular catechism preaching in favor of topical sermons.

Clearly, the Dominie from Middelstum had become the American preacher. He was enamored with the practice of taking the faith into the public square, unlike the "Sunday Christianity" of the Netherlands. De Bey even ventured into the business world, using a $3,000 inheritance to buy real estate, which returned profits as high as 100 percent. And he helped found the Holland Building and Loan Company to encourage the Dutch to buy their own homes. His children lived out these convictions, as well; three sons and a daughter became physicians. His never-married daughter, Cornelia, became a leading member of the Chicago Board of Education and was active at Hull House, the immigrant social service agency of Jane Addams. Only three of De Bey's children remained in the Reformed Church. All had married Netherlanders, but most of his grandchildren married outside the ethnic group and had been given anglicized names. "My descendants are in America and will never come back to the Netherlands," he said. "So, they had better become Americans."

In contrast to the American-style Christianity at First RCA, First CRC was largely under the influence of four successive Kuyperian pastors--William Heyns (1900-02), Evert Breen (1903-09), Sjoerd S. Vander Heide (1909-18), and John Van Lonkhuyzen (1918-28). Neo-Calvinists also made inroads at Douglas Park CRC (a daughter of First CRC in 1899) under dominies Cornelius De Leeuw (1905-10) and Jacob Manni (1910-16). Calvin Seminary professor Klaas Schoolland's call to construct a holy community as a bulwark against the "world" resonated among them: "In our isolation and in our independent action be our strength and our purpose for the future, said Schoolland." But the independent action was minimal.

Benjamin Essenburg, the dominant pastor of First CRC in the 1920s and 1930s, reaffirmed the pietist mentality on the West Side, although he also strongly supported Christian higher education. Essenburg stressed mission outreach. His church opened a neighborhood evangelism center, and he and the congregation ministered at the county jail, the Helping Hand Mission, and the Nathaniel Institute Jewish church.

Essenburg was heavily influenced by the evangelical ministry of the Moody Bible Institute and its radio station WMBI. His four musically-talented, daughters sang and played hymns on a weekly radio program they produced for several years in the 1930s. They brought this popular style of music into the churches too.

This was so very different from the high brow organ playing of Niel Kickert at Cicero I church and his robed choir of 50 voices. Cicero I used a choir in worship long before any other CRC in Chicago. Many still considered such choirs frivolous and detrimental to vibrant congregational singing. But Kickert, a young music teacher and skilled organist who had recently graduated from Calvin College, convinced Rev. J.J. Weersing and the consistory to allow his choir. At least one old parishioner walked out in protest. This was in the infamous year 1929.

While the boundaries between Seceders and Kuyperians sometimes blurred on the West Side, one mind-set had little influence, that of the cosmopolitan, positivist Calvinists, led by Seminary professor B. K. Kuiper, and the reverends Johannes Groen and Henry Beets. The Groningers of Chicago seemed to have no vision to transform the city into a Christian commonwealth. Few attended Chicago Christian High School or the Kuyperian stronghold of Calvin College, and few read the triumphalist periodicals, including the short-lived American Daily Standard, launched in 1920 by Englewood CRC minister J. Clover Monsma. Politically, the Dutch Reformed were very passive, voting Republican but not otherwise getting involved in the rough and tumble of city politics. This was Satan's world and best to be avoided.

Early church architecture and worship

The early Chicago church buildings, except for Ashland Avenue which was built by German Lutherans, were modeled after those in the Netherlands. But they were frame instead of brick. They featured an elevated pulpit front and center, flanked by the elders and deacons benches on each side. Singing was a cappella, led by the voorsanger, who stood below the pulpit facing the people. Women and children sat in the center section and men in the side pews. Pot bellied stoves along the outside walls provided minimal heat. The entrance door opened into a "front hall" where Psalters and Bibles were available for those who did not bring their own.

Services lasted up to two hours, including a long prayer and an even longer, three-point sermon, with a "toepassing" at the close. If the dominie sensed that the folks were getting sleepy, he would announce a psalm and have them stand to sing. Wilhelmina peppermints helped the children mark the progress of the sermon-- one Wilhelmina after part one and one after part 2; the ladies took a sniff from their perfumed snuif doosjes to stay awake.

What impact did Christian education have on the West Side?

A statement by the consistory of First Christian Reformed Church of Englewood captures the essence of the story of the Christian school system in Chicago. "We love to speak of the chain consisting of three links, home, church and school; regarding it as a chain which cannot be easily broken." Christian Reformed youth were directed by church edict into congregation-supported schools at both the elementary and secondary level.

Ebenezer in 1893, Timothy in 1911, and Chicago Christian High in 1916 served the West Side.

These institutions were the most critical link in the chain that maintains cultural and ecclesiastical oneness in the church; they kept alive the Dutch language until the 1920s and transmitted Reformed theological and cultural values for many generations. Christian schooling kept most youth within the cocoon of the church by nurturing in-group feelings, and Christian High provided a place to find marriage partners within the Dutch Reformed community.

The RCA in Chicago cooperated in founding the Christian school system and supported it for many decades. From the 1930s on, however, this commitment weakened and RCA youth increasingly attended public schools. This hastened their assimilation and led to frequent outmarrying. One hundred years ago, at the inception of the Christian schools, both denominations on the West Side were equal in strength--about 1200 souls. But today RCA membership is less than one-fourth that of the CRC in the western suburbs. Christian schools, I think, made the difference in keeping the CRC strong.


Today there is no more Groninger Hoek. Groninger descendants are interspersed throughout the western suburbs and beyond. They are comfortably middle class and hardly distinguishable in daily life from their American neighbors. But the churches and Christian schools, though increasingly mixed ethnically, remain bulwarks of the faith. And the Dutch heritage still resonates with many who appreciate the richness of the Reformed faith and the value of the proverbial Dutch work ethic. Let's not burn the wooden shoes just yet.


It is no longer possible to ride through the Harrison Street neighborhood. The whole area from Desplaines west to Racine Street was demolished in the 1950s for the construction of the University of Illinois Circle campus. The Old Fourteenth Street Church was demolished about the same time for a public housing project, but the Hastings Street and Ashland Avenue buildings were sold to African American congregations and still are in use.

One final question--Why did the Dutch always sell their churches to African American congregations and build or buy new ones farther west? Catholics did not do this. Their parishioners changed but the churches remained. Why did the West Siders not do like the Roseland Ministries in the 1960s and continue to minister to the peoples moving into the neighborhood?

The Groninger Hoek: Chicago's West Side Dutch

Dr. Robert P. Swierenga

A.C. Van Raalte Institute, Hope College

Talk for Senior Citizen Fellowship, Faith Christian Reformed Church, Elmhurst, IL, Oct. 26, 1999


Peter Huizenga

Jan and Katrijn Swierenga

Historical Sources

Dutch Catholics in Chicago

Father George Beemsterboer, St. Francis of Rome Parish, Cicero

Jesuit Arnold Damen, Holy Name Church, St. Ignatius College

Dutch Jews in Chicago

Henry S. Haas, Joseph Israel Van Baalen

Groninger Hoek--meaning and locations

First Reformed Church of Chicago, 1848-1856--Randolph Street

Elder Albert Kroes

Foster Street Groninger Hoek--1856-1880s

First Groninger families--Nicholas Ronda, Cornelis Bos, John Kooi, and John Evenhouse

Revs. Cornelius Vander Meulen, Seine Bolks, H.J. Klyn

Spiritual conditions in Chicago--good or bad?

Rev. A.C. Van Raalte, Henry Lucas

Strong denominational loyalties in Chicago

Harrison Street Groninger Hoek--1860s-1890s

True Dutch Reformed Church, 1867-1883--Gurley Street

Elders Gerrit Vastenhouw and Arie Van Deursen

Hendrik De Cock of Ulrum, Groningen, father of 1834 Secession

Rev. Jan Schepers first pastor

purchased Old Fourteenth Street Church, 1883

Bernardus Be Bey at First Reformed (1868-91)--Harrison and May St

penned articles for Provinciale Groninger Courant

"Yankee preaching" and American style revivals

Religious outlook of Chicago pastorates

Afscheiding pietism, not Kuyperian kingdom-building

Abraham Kuyper's Doleantie of 1886 and Rev. John Van Lonkhuizen of First CRC (1918-28), editor of Onze Toekomst

Ashland Avenue--the heyday

The "real" Groninger Hoek

Benjamin Essenburg (1929-45) of First CRC

Early church architecture and worship

Christian schools--Ebenezer 1893, Timothy 1911, CCHS 1916


The Four Mentalities of Chicago's Dutch-American Community

Seceders/Pietists Neo-Calvinists/Kuyperians


Reformed Church "West" Positive Calvinists

Outgoing Christian Intelligencer American Daily Standard

Optimistic Bernardus De Bey J. Clover Monsma

Peter Moerdyke Ralph Dekker (layman)

M. E. Broekstra


Confessionalists Antithetical Calvinists

Defensive De Wachter Onze Toekomst

Isolation H. Douwstra John Van Lonkhuyzen

Frank Welandt William Heyns

H. J. Mokma Evert Breen

John O. Vos Cornelius De Leeuw

Benjamin Essenburg Sjoerd S. Vander Heide

Herman Bell Jacob Manni


Four mentalities adapted from Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America, 47.