The Trail of Churches, Part 4 – St. Mary of the Angels Church

It’s one of Chicago’s most mind-blowing sights – a huge, ornate church with a mighty dome, looking over the freeway, half-glimpsed as one battles through inbound traffic on the Kennedy Expressway.P6233747a

Pity the poor traveler who has never sought out this imposing religious edifice! This is St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, and it is among Chicago’s greatest architectural glories.

St. Mary of the Angels

Among the Polish churches in this sector of the city, it stands out as the most monumental, the most elaborate in form, and the most fully realized as a work of architecture.


The Beaux Arts influence on the front portico is clear – with its grand staircase, massive twinned Corinthian columns, huge doorways, balustraded roof and central terra cotta heraldic ornament, it could easily be a snippet of Pennsylvania Station transported to Bucktown.

Moving around, however, the influences become less singular. The dome is clearly influenced by St. Peter’s in Rome, but what of those outsize porthole windows? Second Empire, or some Edwardian era flight of fancy? Certainly the square vaults capping the side aisles are not like anything in the Vatican.


Regardless, these components make St. Mary of the Angels much more of a building in the round than its predecessors to the south. The other churches we’ve seen feature a highly decorative facade, but are essentially brick warehouses in the back – unelaborated in form or material.  St. Mary, by contrast, doesn’t have a bad side – a fact driven perhaps by its double-corner location, which guaranteed that three sides would always be exposed to full view.


Inside, the church also marks a departure from the earlier Polish churches. It still draws on the same influences, with abundant Roman arches and Greek capitals, painted and stencilled and muraled to glorious excess.

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To the casual fan – myself included at times – the architecture of pre-war churches can all start to seem the same after a while. But they are not – some are fundamentally different than others, and St. Mary of the Angels is a fine case in point.

While churches like St. John Cantius and Holy Trinity focused on ever-larger open spaces, with thinner and thinner supports, St. Mary of the Angels seems to take an intentional step back.  The enclosed space under its roof is enormous,  but it is divided in a way that our other three subjects were not.

The primary spaces of the sanctuary seem less concerned with pushing the limits of architectural technology; the arched columns and smaller side aisles create layers to the sanctuary space. They also allow more room for mystery and shadow than the gargantuan spaces of the earlier churches. Brightly illuminated above, the ground level of St. Mary still allows for intrigue and beautiful solitude.


Behind the main arches are smaller arches that define the side aisles; centered in each smaller arch, a window.  Those curious square vaults cover parts of the side aisles, illuminating them from above with round porthole windows.




St. Mary of the Angels can seem somewhat conventional in its decoration. In this sense, it pushes no boundaries, and has none of the calculated awkwardness that makes Victorian churches so endearing. But by the same token, it is the most unified, its decoration seeming all of a piece, a complete entity.




By way of history – St. Mary of the Angels was designed by the architecture firm of Worthmann & Steinbach, with ground broken in 1914 and dedication in 1920.  The paintings and stencils were done in 1948.

Like its brethren, St. Mary suffered heavy losses as neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the Kennedy. Closed in 1988, it was officially marked for demolition – an announcement that came only a week after Holy Name was similarly marked for razing – until its own parishioners rose up in opposition. Two years of grassroots fundraising followed, gathering the money needed for restoration of the building, which occurred from 1991 to 1999. Since then, the number of families in the parish has increased, and the church’s future seems brighter.


A more recent restoration of the dome was completed in 2011, following another fundraising campaign.



Thanks to the tireless efforts of its congregation, St. Mary of the Angels continues to be one of Chicago’s greatest neighborhood landmarks.



The Trail of Churches, Part 3 – St. Stanislaus Kostka Church


Exuberantly ornamented, overloaded with articulation, the gangly, delightful facade of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church has loomed over its stretch of Noble Street for over 140 years – predating even Pulaski Park across the street.

St. Stanislaus is the Polish mother church of Chicago, the one from which all others sprang. Designed by prolific Catholic architect Patrick Keeley (also responsible for Holy Name and the endangered St. James), the building was begun in 1876 and dedicated five years later.

The towers were completed in 1892 and were originally identical.  In June of 1964, a massive storm roared through Chicagoland; lightning hit the southern tower and started a fire which destroyed the cupola. The surviving northern cupola has also been “modernized”, losing a slathering of decorative trim, to detrimental effect.


But on the facade, a blizzard of stone and brick ornament remains, a festively overwrought assemblage repeatedly referred to as “Renaissance style” in the press, though the name – like “Victorian” – refers to a time period rather than a style. St. Stanislaus is such an individualistic creation that it’s difficult to pin a single name on its style. The stair-step facade, however, is a distinctly Flemish element.

The exuberant facade conceals a more disciplined space within.

Different styles of church sanctuaries create different effects for their inhabitants. The round and square plan designs of the 1880s were meant to bring the congregation more closely together, enhancing spirituality by building community – Lake View Presbyterian is a fine example.  Post-Victorian efforts like Holy Trinity are intended to overawe – to glorify God through size, ornament and decoration.  And the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe brought a sense of mystery and wonder to the worship space, through their towering height, the mystical light filtered through their vast stained glass windows, and the contrast of light and shadow. Large but not enormous, tall but not overpowering,  St. Stanislaus lies somewhere between the Gothics and the Holy Trinities of the world.

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Not as soaring as St. John Cantius, nor as gigantic and open as Holy Trinity, St. Stanislaus instead offers a refined and measured space. The rows of columns elegantly define the side aisles. The lighting fixtures appear to be original, and much about the church seems unchanged since days of yore.IMG_5257a



The pews are the most characteristic of the church’s Victorian roots, with piston-like carvings on their sides reflecting the rising machine age.

The altar table and reredos are certainly modern innovations.



St. Stanislaus was endangered by the construction of the Kennedy Expressway in the 1950s, but a tide of protest – and an alternate route of the freeway that proved to be cheaper – spared it. Today the Interstate actually curves around the building’s back.


Today the church offers mass in Polish, Spanish and English. As a home for Eucharistic adoration, it is open for much of the week – making it one of the most accessible of Chicago’s grand churches.

St. Stanislaus Kostka at Wikipedia

The Trail of Churches, Part 2 – Holy Trinity Polish Catholic Church



Every member of the Trail of Churches is big. But the biggest of all is Holy Trinity Church, 1118 N Noble Street.



Behind that elaborate facade lies a vast sanctuary, clear of any interior columns but over loaded with ornament.


Despite its many glories, it is sheer size that must be counted as Holy Trinity’s crowning attribute. Free of interior columns, a hundred feet wide and almost twice as long, the sanctuary seems incredibly vast.  The architecture acknowledges this break with the traditional cathedral form, with a wink and a nudge – truncated column heads and arches drop down from the ceiling, placed about where a row of columns would normally be… but they end in the air, supported by nothing but the hidden iron vaulting above.



Murals cover all the major ceiling sections:


The two largest side chapels are architecturally integrated into the building – they sit above the sanctuary’s side entrances, and must be reached by stairs.


No one style dominates. The arch above the altar is Romanesque. The guilding is Baroque. The reredos features pointed Gothic arches. The column heads are Greek Ionic.


Wikipedia gives a far more complete history than I could hope to, but the essentials are thus: the parish began as an offshoot of St. Stanislaus Kostka, just up the street. Originally considered an overflow component of that parish, it was finally recognized as a separate parish in 1892 after a protracted feud with the mother parish. Over thirty years after splitting off, they began a new church building, designed by architects Herman Olszewski and William Krieg, and opened in 1906. Decorations, murals, and stained glass were added one at a time over the following decades.

The spat with St. Stanislaus Kostka – relating to property ownership, assignment of priests, and various other issues – was well documented in papers of the time. With its resolution, the 1905 cornerstone laying was a grand affair, keynoted by the Pope’s delegate to Polish American churches and attended by a reported 50,000 Poles. The dedication of the finished building a year later was met with equal ceremony, with about 90 different Polish societies and organizations joining in a massive parade leading up to the new church.

In the modern era, the church followed the same arc of decay and renewal as St. John Cantius as congregants moved away and the Kennedy bashed its destructive path through the neighborhood. The parish faced closure in the mid-1980s but was granted a reprieve, to focus on operating as a “mission church” to new Polish immigrants. The comeback culminated in a 2005 restoration.  Today, Holy Trinity Church remains true to its roots – signs and services are mostly in Polish, as is the church’s official website.