The Trail of Churches, Part 1 – St. John Cantius

One of my earliest impressions of Chicago, driving in from the north, was the string of grand churches visible from the Kennedy Expressway. I visited a few of them in my early explorations of the city. Then my attention wandered away, further afield to the mid-century suburbs and south side, and I never really got back to these near west side neighborhoods… until recently. Lately I’ve been on a mission to visit all these landmark houses of worship, a loose grouping that I have dubbed the Trail of Churches.  A glimpse from the Sears Tower should show why the name fits.

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At top-center, the domed roofline of St. Mary of the Angels. Below it, St. Stanislaus Kostka, with the highway swerving to avoid it.  At far left, the low twin towers of Holy Trinity Polish. (Not visible, but close to Holy Trinity are the abandoned St. Boniface, and the very much active Holy Innocents.)  And at bottom-center, just peeking into the frame, is the taller tower of St. John Cantius.

These four are among the city’s most spectacular religious buildings. Stick around and we’ll go on a tour of each one in turn. Today: St. John Cantius Catholic Church.


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St. John Cantius (1893, architect Adolphus Druiding) was raised by the huge community of Polish immigrants that populated the near west side. Petitioning the nearby mother church of St. Stanislaus Kostka, they were granted their own parish in 1892. The work of raising a church building began at once; the final product was dedicated in 1898, flanked by a contemporary school and rectory. (Ref)

After its booming early years, the parish followed an arc of decline and revival. The downturn began in the 1920s with Ogden Avenue’s construction through the area, and bottomed out in the 1960s after the Kennedy was rammed through the neighborhood and innumerable residents fled. Decline began to reverse in the 1980s with the reintroduction of more traditional Mass attracting new congregants; the church’s fortunes have reached a magnificent new peak today as the building was renovated and restored in 2012. Today the church offers the traditional (pre-Vatican II) Mass in Latin, and has a strong emphasis on sacred music and art.

Architecturally, St. John Cantius Church is a hybrid of styles. The massive, dour exterior combines Classical elements – such as a flattened Greek temple front  with quasi-Corinthian columns – with heavy, blocky stone that gives it some kinship with the Romanesque. At the entryway, “squashed” columns call out a lineage that includes ancient Greeks, Renaissance Italians, and contemporary Victorians. They emphasize the  sheer massiveness of the building – as if at any moment they might snap and bring the whole thing tumbling down. Their smooth shafts are a moment of machine-like precision bursting out of a mass of roughly split rock. This sort of perversity was common among Victorian architects, who delighted in twisting expectations.

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The interior lives up to the church’s official desigation of its style as “Baroque”. The modestly proportioned columms support pediments and seem a touch too large, intentionally “off” for dramatic effect. Huge arches spring from these dainty supports, a dazzling display of engineering.

Nearly every surface is gilded, sculpted, or painted.  In a lesser setting it might be gaudy – but here, the glory of the decoration simply matches the grandness of the space.

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The sanctuary is enormous. Soaring columns support vast round arches. The crossing is of tremendous proportions.  The overall effect is of a open, lofty, airy space – a welcome respite during Chicago winters, which can leave a city resident feeling perpetually imprisoned in the small rooms of their house or apartment.

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St. John Cantius is a golden space – it shimmers with browns and yellows, and blues and greens punctuate its murals and stenciling, but it is the golds which leave the deepest impression. The 2012 restoration has left the space in immaculate condition. Column heads and brackets are gilded in gold, and thanks to recent renovation efforts they gleam spectacularly.  Even the stain glass reinforces the golden hued tones.IMG_2201a

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The reredos behind the high altar is a Mannerist confection, with clustered columns supporting a split pediment with a rounded arch pediment in the middle. A small round skylight brings light down onto it from above.

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At the time of this writing, the old organ is being replaced by a new one; blue sheeting covers the balcony space where the new instrument will be installed.

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The church is heavily laden with statues of saints and apostles; they are tucked away in the various side chapels and even in the stairwells.

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The pulpit is a fine example of the church’s Baroque Revival style – its wooden stairs snake sensuously around a column, to an intricately carved wood speaker’s stand with an even more elaborate sounding board overhead.

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Together with its school (1903) and rectory (1901), St. John Cantius Catholic forms a grand and amazingly intact group of turn of the century architecture.

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St. James Catholic Church – endangered on the south side

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Since 1875, St. James Catholic Church has stood watch over this section of the city on the prairie. But the remaining time of its vigil may be measured in mere months.

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The towering church stands at 2942 S. Wabash Avenue, housing a congregation founded in 1846. St. James was designed by prolific Catholic architect Patrick Charles Keely, whose designed hundreds of Catholic churches during a time of vast Catholic expansion in America, including Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral downtown.  St. James was built for an Irish congregation, replacing an 1853 building lost in the great fire, and was touted as the most expensive religious building in the city to that time. The October 10, 1875 cornerstone laying was preceded by a parade of Irish societies that stretched out over 2 miles and eventually brought an unruly crowd of 20,000 to the site. (Tribune Oct 11, 1875). Services were begun and the building was formally dedicated on May 23, 1880.

Designed in the French Gothic Revival architectural style, the exterior is suffused with beautiful stone carved details:

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St. James was badly damaged in a fire on December 21st, 1972. Many of the original stained glass windows were lost due to the firefighting efforts required to save the building itself. After the fire, parishioners rallied and funded the considerable repairs themselves, with no help from the Archdiocese.

The intervening 40 years have taken their toll on the venerable structure; electrical, heating and plumbing systems are outdated, and there is concern over the roof structure and the stone facade. After citations were issued by the city, the parish erected protective scaffolding around the church, closed it off, and began holding services in a secondary building next door. As Lee Bey recently reported, the Archdiocese wants to demolish the church this year. More recently, Gazette Chicago reports that a 90-day reprieve has been granted, as supporters try to rally interest in the building and possibly find a buyer. (With IIT within spitting distance, I can’t help wondering if they could become partners of some kind.)

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Lynn Becker puts all of this into a larger context, citing with his usual eloquence and insight the role of churches like St. James on the city landscape and the difficulties they face as congregations change and move away. His post also shares some of the grand churches that Chicago has already lost over the years, in a heartbreaking series of photographs.

The Archdiocese cites a cost of $12 million to get the building back into functional condition, vs. $5-7 million for a new building. But as I often tell people who complain about high costs of living in Chicago – you get what you pay for.  Will a $5 million building look like this? Will it even come anywhere close?

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$12 million is nothing to sniff at, to be sure. But what will the legacy be if that money is not spent? In ten, twenty, fifty years, what will matter more?

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