Chicago is known for its many beautiful and
historically significant buildings, not the least of which are its Catholic
churches. In the city there are about 365 Catholic churches, which for nearly
two centuries have invited the faithful to come and worship their Creator.
This summer, I took a tour of four of these
churches in what were originally Polish neighborhoods with Nell Andrzejewski,
director of Catholic Church Tours.
She refers to Chicago as “Little Rome” because of its many churches built in
the old European style. As various immigrant groups came to the United States,
they moved into often modest neighborhoods and built grand churches, which
would serve as a hub for their communities. And while the ethnicities of these
communities would change over time, their houses of worship would endure.
Since Nell began her touring company two years
ago, she said, “I’ve fallen in love with the beauty of the Church.”
Each building has something to teach us about
the Faith, she continued, and she sees the structures as “poetry in concrete.”
Here are profiles of these four churches,
followed by suggestions from Nell and CWR readers of others that are well worth
St. Mary of the Angels is a parish in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago originally established
by Polish immigrants in 1897. The building of the church was delayed for years
due to a variety of factors, including shortages of manpower and materials during
World War I. The church was finally completed, and Chicago Archbishop (later
Cardinal) George Mundelein dedicated the structure in 1920.
It’s an impressive edifice, both inside and
out, that sits prominently on the Kennedy Expressway as you head toward
downtown Chicago. It is a large church, seating 2,000. If you’re a Steven
Seagal fan, St. Mary’s served as the backdrop for his 1988 movie Above the Law.
St. Mary’s is built in the Italian Romanesque
style, modeled after churches in Rome. It is cruciformthe shape of a crossand
its exterior features include twin bell towers, a large central dome, and
nine-foot statues of angels that surround its rooftop. Its entrance portico is
supported by four sets of tall columns; it has images of the Holy Family’s
flight into Egypt on the right and Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey
on the left.
Inside, there is a vast collection of
beautiful artwork, a feast for the eyes wherever you look. Features include
colorful paintings, statues, and stained glass windows. The interior of the
central dome declares, “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace on Earth to Men
of Good Will,” with stained glass windows of the 12 Apostles above. As with any
historic building, maintenance is a constant challenge; work is currently
underway to stabilize the dome.
You’ll see many statues and images of the
saints; one window, for example, features St. Francis of Assisi receiving the
stigmata and a statue in the rear has him holding a skull, reminding us of the
passing nature of life. To the left of the altar is an image of St. Therese of Lisieux,
a new saint when the church was being decorated. You’ll also see images of
angels throughout the interior.
The church has a clearly defined theology in
its architecture, Nell noted during our tour, with a central focus on the
tabernacle. It is relatively rare among American churches in that it still has
altar rails, a clear dividing line between the holy place occupied by the
congregation and the holy of holies occupied by the priest as he celebrates the
Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There is marble on top of the altar rail, which
matches the marble on the top of the altar.
Like many old churches, St. Mary’s has a
raised ambo. As it was built in the days before sound systems, the priest was
raised above the people so that his voice would project throughout the church. The
interior of the church also has a double row of arches, and an organ in the
rear. The stained glass windows feature the Stations of the Cross. In addition
to its main altar, there are four side altars.
In its heyday in the 1920s, St. Mary’s was
home to 1,600 families, but by the 1960s the parish went into a period of
decline. An often-cited factor is the construction of the Kennedy Expressway in
1960, which ran just a few blocks away from the church and split the
neighborhood the parish served in two.
Due to its extensive maintenance needs, St.
Mary’s was slated for closure in 1988. Large and small donors stepped up to
save the church, and, in 1991, Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin entrusted care
of the parish to Opus Dei priests. Rarely do Opus Dei priests staff parishes,
but in this case they did so at the request of the archdiocese.
Today, St. Mary’s is more than just a
magnificent building, but also a place where the Catholic faith is taught and
fostered. Masses are celebrated in English, Spanish, and Polish, and
confessions are readily available. Its priests are known for their orthodoxy,
and the parish draws many large families. The parish still offers a grade
school, and has a program for inner city youth.
St. Mary’s is an ideal place to start when
taking a Chicago church tour, as it has much of the best of what a Catholic
parish can offer.
St. Hedwig Church is also in Bucktown and is another beautiful historic parish. Its
exterior façade is modest, but its interior is stunning.
St. Hedwig was founded by Resurrectionist Fathers
in 1888; they still serve the parish today. Like St. Mary’s, it too served
Polish immigrants, although many in the congregation today are Latino and
Filipino. The church itself was built in 1901.
The narthex acts as a short transition area to
the main body of the church, giving the faithful the time to prepare themselves
mentally for entering the church. The narthex has historic statues of Christ
crucified and Mary with the boy Jesus. Look over the doorway and you’ll see the
church’s namesake, St. Hedwig.
One of the many stories of the saint was that
as a penance she always walked barefoot. Her confessor told her that she should
have shoes, so the saint began carrying them with her under her arm. Thus, images
of St. Hedwig often feature her carrying shoes.
St. Hedwig’s interior includes beautiful
woodwork and art. Prominent features include 12 columns, six on either side,
which represent both the 12 Apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel. The dome
above the altar has a magnificent reproduction of Raphael’s Dispute of the
Blessed Sacrament. Paintings near the ceiling of the church depict the seven
sacraments. In the rear of the church is a double balcony for the choir.
Fire has struck the church more than once. Most
recently, a 2008 electrical fire burned a hole in the wooden floor along the
altar area. Firemen were able to douse the blaze before serious damage was
done. If you look at the large crucifix to the right of the altar area, you’ll still
see the darkened areas around the base where it was touched by flames.
Basilica is one of three basilicas in Chicago. The
church towers above modest homes in the neighborhood of Avondale. It was
founded in 1894, and built between 1917 and 1921. It was designated a basilica
Exterior features include a soaring
three-tower façade, decorative bronze doors (added in 2005) and a statue of
Blessed John Paul II along the side of the church. The late pontiff visited the
basilica in the 1970s before becoming pope, and due to the parish’s Polish heritage,
is specially honored there. The grounds also have a memorial dedicated to Jerzy
Popieluszko, a Polish priest murdered by the communist secret police in 1984,
and a World War I memorial.
The interior of the church is especially
impressive. The central dome features an image of the Holy Spirit in a stained
glass window surrounded by mural of 150 prominent saints, clergyincluding Pope
John Paul IIand laity. Look for the gold bell to the right, and the red and
yellow umbrella to the left, indications that it is a basilica.
Other features include an ornate main altar, side
altars, double balconies, altar rails, a raised ambo, and magnificent paintings
throughout. The stained glass windows include images of the Resurrection and
the birth of Jesus. Many statues and images of the saints are throughout the
church; look for St. Hyacinth’s image hanging above the main altar. The
basilica is home to 35 relics of different saints, and it also has a collection
of memorabilia of Pope John Paul II.
St. Helen’s Church in Ukrainian Village, built in 1965, is a modern church also
worth a visit. Much of its interior is beautiful marble with a “royal and
regal” motif. High-quality materials were used in the construction of the
church; the pews, for example, are of a well-crafted walnut.
Its altar retablo
features the tree of life, including images of grapes and wheat. A large
crucifix and tabernacle are front and center. Along the ceiling are 12 heraldic
shields of the Apostles. The stained glass windows are not representational but
abstract; however, they are well-ordered, symmetrical, and make use of primary
colors. There are only four statues, but each is well done with multi-colored
Some other suggestions for churches to visit
when in Chicago:
Kostka Church is the oldest and most prominent
Polish parish in Chicago, also right along the Kennedy Expressway. Founded in 1867, the current church was built
1871 to 1881. Highlights include a painting over the altar by Tadeusz
Zukotynski depicting Mary placing the baby Jesus in the arms of St. Stanislaus.
It also has beautiful stained glass windows and chandeliers. Cardinal George
designated it as the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy in 2008.
St. Alphonsus Church
is another magnificent Chicago church in the
neighborhood of Lake View. It was founded in 1882, and originally served German
immigrants. The current church was dedicated in 1897. A fire partially
destroyed the church in 1950, but it was rebuilt and opened again in two years.
Holy Family Church was founded by Jesuits in 1857, and is Chicago’s second oldest
church. Although the great Chicago fire started in 1871 just a few blocks east
of the church, the building escaped the blaze unharmed. The story is that the
church’s founder, Father Arnold Damen, heard that fire had broken out while he
was preaching a parish mission. The priest invoked Our Lady of Perpetual Help
to save the building, promising to light seven candles before her statue if the
church was spared. The wind suddenly shifted, and the church was saved. To this
day, seven electric lights burn in Our Lady’s shrine in the church’s east
transept to mark the event.
Holy Name Cathedral is the seat of the archdiocese, dedicated in 1875 and built in
the Gothic revival style. Look up towards the ceiling and you’ll see the five
hats, or galeros, of deceased
cardinals who served the archdiocese: Cardinals Mundelein, Stritch, Meyer,
Cody, and Bernardin.
Monastery of the Holy Cross is a Benedictine monastery in the Bridgeport neighborhood of
Chicago; the church which serves the community was formerly Immaculate
Conception Parish. You can stay overnight and pray with the monks, as they now
operate a bed and breakfast, which helps fund their work.
St. John Cantius was originally another Polish parish, founded in 1893. Today it
is served by the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. The parish is beautiful,
and known for its daily offering of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form, as well
as the Ordinary Form. It also offers a rich program of sacred music. In the
rear of the church, there are relics of many saints.
of the Lake
founded in the neighborhood of Buena Park in 1901, and the church itself was
built 1914 to 1917. It features stunning architecture and artwork: ornate
carvings, marble, arches, paintings, stained glass windows, and altars. One of
the city’s finest.