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Steeple Chase

From women saying Mass in Edgewater to the thriving Latin Rite in West Town—seven parishes suggest the huge variety within the Catholic faith in the Chicago area.

St. John Cantius
Established: 1893
Number of Households: 1,500
Location: West Town (825 N. Carpenter St.)
Patron saint of Poland and Lithuania, John Cantius was an ordained priest and a professor of theology in 15th-century Poland. He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on foot.

At a time when many churches reach out to their communities through guitar music or sacred dance, St. John’s is thriving by looking back. Masses here are conducted much as they were in the fifth century, in Latin-a mode that had almost disappeared from the liturgy after Vatican reforms of the 1960s. Since 1988, St. John’s has offered both Tridentine Mass (in Latin, with the priest facing front, toward the altar) and Novus Ordo (the most common type of service offered around the world, usually in the vernacular-but here also in Latin). The traditional approach draws nearly 1,000 worshipers for two Sunday services, some making a two-hour trek. “It’s not just gray-headed folks,” says the Rev. C. Frank Phillips, the parish’s pastor. “We’re getting younger families who were born after 1964. It’s an amazing thing to see.”

 


 

St. Agnes of Bohemia
Established: 1904 (current church erected 1926)
Number of Households: 2,300
Location: Little Village (2651 S. Central Park Ave.)
Daughter of the 13th-century king of Bohemia (and beloved of the Czechs who started this parish), Agnes refused to marry Frederick II of Germany, choosing instead to become a nun. She lived most of her life in a Prague convent, built a hospital, and worked closely with the poor.

Situated just south of bustling West 26th Street, the main artery of the mostly Hispanic Little Village neighborhood, St. Agnes is both an integral part of its community, and an island separate from it. The church stands near the border of an ongoing turf war between rival gangs. “They mostly do the shooting on 25th and 27th,” says Father Matt Foley, pastor of the church since 1999. “Usually 26th is too crowded.”

Every Sunday, 6,000 worshipers attend any of the nine masses offered (seven in Spanish, two in English), making St. Agnes the second-largest parish in the archdiocese. Father Foley estimates that three-quarters of the parish school’s 540 students and most of its worshipers come from within the church’s ZIP Code. “And this is a working-class church,” Father Foley notes. “Only 3 percent of the population [here] have a college degree, and the median household income is about $26,000.”

Although it provides a haven from the trouble in the area, the church is also trying to improve the neighborhood. A memorial on the grounds lists the names of all the young people in the congregation who have died-an alarming number of them from violence-and the church is trying to bring a new park to the community. “It’s not about the buildings,” Foley says. “It’s about the spirit. If the building tumbles down tomorrow, we’ll have services in the street. We do it all the time anyway.”
-David Zivan

 


 

St. Barnabas
Established: 1924; current church erected 1968  
Number of Households: 1,700   
Location: Beverly (10134 S. Longwood Dr.)
A first-century Jew from Cyprus, Barnabas converted to Christianity and was sent to Jerusalem to instruct converts in their new faith.

It’s hard to imagine Beverly as being anything but a bastion of Irish Catholicism. In 1924, however, construction had barely begun on St. Barnabas when the Ku Klux Klan burned three crosses on the church’s property. “Catholics were not very welcomed during that time,” says the Rev. Raymond Tillrock, who has been pastor of St. Barnabas since 1987. “But when we celebrated our 80th anniversary this past year, the local Baptist church sent us flowers. Everything comes full circle.”

Over the decades, St. Barnabas has evolved into an institution in the Beverly and Morgan Park neighborhoods. The church serves as the spiritual home for about 1,700 families, many of Irish ancestry, and 500 students are enrolled in its elementary school.

St. Barnabas continues to draw from within the parish’s boundaries, and while there are plenty of parishioners whose grandparents helped found the church-it was started at the request of Cardinal Mundelein, with 300 families-there has been an influx of new members over the past decade. “The empty nesters are moving into condos downtown, which brings in a lot of young families,” says Father Tillrock. “It’s a blessing. It’s kept us a family community.”

 


 

St. Sabina
Established: 1916
Number of Households: 1,700  
Location: Auburn-Gresham (1210 W. 78th Place)
Known mostly through legend, Sabina was a second-century Roman who was converted by her servant, Serapia (also a saint), and who was later murdered for her religious beliefs.

Established to serve a primarily Irish congregation, St. Sabina’s is now a self-sufficient, thriving parish that serves primarily African Americans. Members here consider themselves “doers of the Word,” and as a result the church has been successful in curbing some of the problems historically associated with urban neighborhoods, such as drugs and violence. Today the church-with its gospel choir, participatory worship, and the lively preaching of its social-activist pastor, Father Michael Pfleger, who has been the driving force behind the parish since 1981-is helping redefine the modern experience of black Catholicism.

While much of the church’s décor would be familiar to Catholics all over the world, some fixtures speak directly to its local population. A large mural behind the altar, titled “For God So Loved the World,” depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched, standing between the hands of God the Father. The side altar, dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., features a banner and a quote from Genesis: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.”

 


 

St. Gertrude
Established: 1912
Number of Households: 1,200
Location: Edgewater (1420 W. Granville Ave.)
A 13th-century German mystic, Gertrude was raised by Benedictine nuns, became one herself,   and gathered her spiritual visions and supernatural revelations into several books.

Growing up in Humboldt Park, Father William Kenneally-like most other Chicago Catholics in the middle of the past century-identified the city by parish. What church someone attended said a lot about that person’s family. While that identification system continues to fade, Kenneally is striving to resurrect a key aspect of that culture. “A parish should be an anchor in the community and adapt to meet the needs of its parishioners,” he says. “That’s the church I grew up in, and I think that’s the only way to survive.”

Since arriving at St. Gertrude’s in 1984, Father Kenneally has been a driving force for transformation. “Edgewater is an extraordinarily diverse, liberal, and socially minded neighborhood,” Kenneally says. “While we [at St. Gertrude] haven’t spearheaded that liberal drift, we have accepted it. Not in our theology, but in our understanding of that social arm the church should have.”

Parishioners at the church-a mix of young families and old-timers-are active participants, and women sometimes say the homily. And while Kenneally admits that it’s against church rules, he says there are just some things you have to do. “The laity’s the future of the church, and to limit their role is ridiculous,” he says. “These are deeply spiritual people who articulate their beliefs in a very moving way. Why wouldn’t I utilize that?” Despite several slaps on the wrist from the Archdiocese of Chicago, St. Gertrude’s continues to push buttons. “I’m 70 years old; what can they really do?” he says, laughing. “They may be looking for sanctions but it’s like taking away my cane, which is cruel and unusual. They’d get in trouble.”

 


 

St. Michael
Established: 1867; current church erected 1969  
Number of Households: 4,500   Location:
Orland Park (14327 S. Highland Ave.)
Archangel and leader of the army of God, Michael cast Lucifer out of heaven during the uprising.

The Rev. Mike Hack grew up in the southwest suburbs, so he has witnessed the transformation of the area firsthand. “That was about as far out as you went, back then,” he says. “There were a few families in Orland Park, but there was nothing beyond that until Joliet.”

During his eight years as a pastor at a parish in Flossmoor, Father Hack saw the massive migration of families-particularly Catholics-from the city to the southwest suburbs. “Once [Orland Square Shopping Center] opened, the number of new housing developments just boomed,” he says.

Catholic parishes across the southwest corridor have grown to meet the changing needs of their communities, and St. Michael’s has led the way. Over the past 15 years, four parishes broke off from the church, each with at least 3,000 families. Despite being in an “older” area of Orland Park, Hack says, they have a surprising number of young families. “They moved to the city for a while, but once they had kids they wanted a backyard, so they came back here,” he says.  

 


 

Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Established: 1907; current church erected 1953
Number of households: 3,700
Location: Glenview (1775 Grove St.)
Our lady of perpetual help refers to one of the most famous pictures of Mary-an icon, painted probably in the 13th century.

If you’re Catholic and live in Glenview, odds are you have some connection to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. With 3,700 households, the thriving church is bursting at the seams. It also, says the Rev. John Flavin, who has been pastor since 1989, “has some unusual features.” Father John Dussman, who served the parish from 1934 until 1971, chose the church’s colonial architecture, which he intended as a reminder of the religious freedom gained in the American Revolution. As a result, the pristine colonial-style church has no stained glass, and two large busts-one of Robert Brent, the first mayor of Washington, D.C., and the other of Marquis de Lafayette, the French general-perched prominently above the door.

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