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Lowering the nets on Whiskey Row

By Lawrence J. Nelson

As a small boy in the Midwest in the middle of the 20th century, I knew the down-and-outers who frequented the Morning Star Mission on Collins Street in Joliet, Ill., were less fortunate than my family and me. A big Irishman named Peter McCarthy was the proprietor of the Christian mission on what was called Whiskey Row in our industrial town southwest of Chicago.

I don’t know when I first saw Pete McCarthy or his mission, but it was early in my life. I liked him — he was big, gregarious, happy and always shaking my young hand and leaving a foil-wrapped chocolate mint. Not once or twice, but every time I saw him. That this big smiling Irishman had been, around the turn of the century, a drunk and a barber (maybe in that order) I couldn’t have known at the time, nor would it have mattered. I knew his smiling face. There was a peace about him, and always that gift he left in my small hand.

What brought me to the mission was my father, a white-collar manager in a local chemical plant. My mom came too. My parents were married early in the Great Depression. According to the family story, they made a pledge to my dying grandfather to attend some gospel meetings conducted by an itinerant Pentecostal preacher at the Orpheum Theater in town. They honored the pledge and both became Christians. After that they often ministered to the homeless at Pete McCarthy’s storefront mission.

My mom was part of a singing gospel trio at the mission and my dad would occasionally share his faith with the men who wandered in from Whiskey Row. As a kid I sat on the hardback benches observing the goings-on. Here and there sat expressionless, unkempt and somber men, worn down by hard lives. Signs on the walls testified to how many donuts had been served during the year, how many meals and the like.

Pete required the men to attend the mission service before going downstairs to the basement where dinners were served and beds were set up. Crudeness and dignity coexisted.

The ritual included a man named John who led the singing — always singing the same two songs: “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow” and “Nothing but the Blood.” I can hear John now, distinctive twang and all, leading the rough men: “Ah where He leads me I will folloooow, I’ll go with Him, with Him, all the waaaaay.” Then,

“What can wash away my sin?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Always those two songs. Then my dad would stand up, Bible in hand, and tell the story of salvation from its pages. Dad was a respected member of the business community. He gave his job a hundred percent, but he never really liked it. The company had his head, but the mission and the things of the gospel had his heart. So there he stood in the storefront mission on Whiskey Row, suit and tie, sharing his heart with those who likely had a hundred stories, each one sadder than the next.

Then, to hear my mom tell it, the big Irishman would get up and say, “Pete’s going to lower the nets,” a reference to the invitation of Jesus to a band of fishermen to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Pete would invite the rough men to make their way to the altar and receive forgiveness of sins. Some did, but mostly I remember them shuffling quietly down the stairs to eat and sleep.

One night I found myself at the altar, praying to receive Jesus into my heart. How small I was, how incomplete was my understanding of the gospel and what it meant. But there I was nonetheless, and only later would I learn the admonition of Jesus that the simple and trusting faith of a child moved the heart of God more than the arrogant posturing of the adult (Matthew 18:3; 19:14). Nothing can shake my faith in what happened to me on Whiskey Row.

My life stretched out in front of me, along with its sin and corruption. Despite renewal at a Christian summer camp and subsequent water baptism, I came of age in the 1960s — a time when I said, thought and did things for which I am ashamed today. But the grace of God displayed in the storefront mission sustained me even then, and never did I abandon my simple faith in Jesus. I grew instead.

Pete McCarthy died in the late 1950s, but the mission prospered, outgrew its Whiskey Row storefront and moved downtown. Dad’s business transferred him to a Park Avenue office in New York City in 1957, but in retirement he returned to Illinois and in the twilight of his life was made a director emeritus of the old mission.

A few years before my mom died I called her and played over the phone “Nothing but the Blood” from a CD.

“Page 298,” she said.

The page of the mission’s hymnal is well worn. That’s my song. Like many of the tragic men to whom Whiskey Row was home, I was one of the fish caught in Peter McCarthy’s net.

Lawrence J. Nelson is a professor of history at the University of North Alabama. He lives in Florence, Ala.

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