Chicago Mid-Century: St. Thomas More Catholic Church

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St. Thomas More Church sits on S. California Avenue at 81st Street, amid vast stretches of post-World War II semi-suburban cityscape.  Founded in 1947, it was the first new parish established in the city after the war, and is older than most of the development around it. The far south side of Chicago boomed in the post-war years as new, modern houses went up, and the parish’s growth was rapid. St. Thomas More began holding services in a 300-seat temporary building a few blocks east, at Talman and 81st Street. Meanwhile, a series of buildings went up on the larger site on California Ave., beginning with the school, followed by the convent, the main church building, and a rectory.

The parochial elementary school leapt from an enrollment of 250 to 450 in a single year. In 1950 a second story was added to the school building, bringing its student capacity to 800. In the following decade, even that would not be enough, and students would be split between morning and afternoon shifts. A second addition of 8 classrooms followed in 1954, designed by architects Barry and Kay; this building sits on the south border of the property. At its peak, the parish school had 2,000 students. Enrollment fell over the following decades, leading to the school’s closure in 2005. Today the building houses a charter school.

The convent, seen to the left of the church above, was built in 1954 with housing for 21 residents.

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All these buildings were designed by Chicago architecture firm Barry and Kay. The firm’s principal was Gerald Ward Barry Jr. (1924-2005). Presumably aided by his prominent family connections (his relatives founded Barry University in Florida; his father, Gerald Barry senior, was also a local church architect), Barry & Kay designed many Catholic churches and school in Chicago and around the country. Other works by the firm include the magnificent St. Ferdinand Church on the far west side and Chicago’s St. Cajetan Church, also on the deep south side.

Planning for the new church building began in 1956, to replace the temporary structure at Talman Street. The cornerstone was laid in November, 1957, and the new building was dedicated at the end of 1958. Described as “ultra-modernistic”, the new sanctuary seated 1,300, was fully air conditioned, and included a large chapel in the basement.

St. Thomas More Church

St. Thomas More’s main building consists of an oval drum sitting atop a one-story rectangular base. The base contains chapels, side wings, the lobby, stairs, entrances and other assorted service spaces. The drum, of course, is the main sanctuary space, distinctly articulated inside and out. Flagstone and harmoniously colored 1×1 tile cover the ground level facade, with orange brick above. A high-relief sculpture group centered on the church’s namesake saint marks the entryway.

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Inside, the sanctuary is simple in form, with a flat ceiling and no columns in the primary space – but elaborate in ornament. Tile mosaics enliven the walls with images and delightfully stylized text, and the hanging lamps are a 1950s delight.

The deeply recessed stained glass windows are made of faceted glass, designed by Gabriel Loire (1904-1996) of Chartes, France; they portray the life of Thomas More, recognizable by his peaked cap.

Stained glass

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The reredos is a curvaceous affair, rising up behind the altar and swelling up to the heavens, covered with a massive tile mosaic and lit from above by three circular skylights.

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Stained glass and details

I am particularly fond of the designs on the window recesses, a melding of abstract shapes and symbolic imagery, and the aggressively whimsical font used on the text.

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Plenty of little period details enliven the rest of the building, as well, such as the holy water basin in the lobby.

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The baptistry gates are another high point, loaded with abstracted imagery.

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A tiled holy dove is emblazoned on the ceiling of the entry canopy, whose tapered columns dissolve seamlessly into the ceiling.

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The same tile pattern carries all the way around the building’s exterior.

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During one visit I was gently greeted by an aged priest; during another, two older women were raptly offering alternating Hail Marys in the sanctuary.  I did not visit during services and so have no notions about the congregation’s size or health, though the school closing obviously speaks to changing local demographics – likely a home-owning population that’s aging in place while their children have moved elsewhere. Regardless, the church building and its harmonious ancillary buildings are one of the area’s best Mid-Century religious complexes, intact and well-maintained to this day.

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Best. CVS. EVER.

This is the former MB Finanacial Bank building, 1200 N. Ashland Avenue, as it used to look.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

And here it is today, after a CVS moved in some time around 2010.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

Changes for the better – they unbricked the grand lobby windows! And the architectural goodness doesn’t end there. Just step inside…

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

No cruddy dropped ceilings or bland remodeling here – the CVS was simply dropped onto the existing banking floor, while all the architectural splendor around it was left intact.

The detailing of the bank lobby is magnificent. From the wood beam ceiling, to the plaster moldings, to the still-intact chandeliers, CVS has done a remarkable job of leaving well enough alone.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

The outside of this place is something special, too. Bas relief sculpture lines the walls between the arched windows. Check out the signs of the age – from a ship’s wheel to a winged car wheel.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

This handsome classical bank building was originally the Home Bank and Trust Company, designed by architects K. M. Vitzthum & Co. in 1925, and built at a cost of $1,000,000, with three floors of office space above. Home Bank was one of a spate of outlying banks opened in the years before the Great Depression, serving neighborhood needs – in this case the heart of Chicago’s Polish community.  Despite merging with Northwestern Trust and Savings, the bank was killed off by the onset of the Depression in 1930, and a successor bank – United American Trust and Savings – only lasted another year.

In 1934, a stable legacy began when the Milwaukee Avenue National Bank opened its doors at Ashland and Division, supported by over 2000 depositors from the previous bank on the premises. With a 1946 name change, it became the Manufacturers National Bank of Chicago, with its name shortened to Manufacturers Bank by 1984. A 2001 merger with Mid-City Bank created MB Financial, who soon built their own headquarters downtown.  The building was designated a city landmark in 2008; CVS opened its doors in 2011.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

The Architecture of Hot Dogs, Hamburgers and Custard

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Ain’t no two ways about it – this town’s got a thing for hot dogs.

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Henry’s Drive-In – 6031 W Ogden Ave, Cicero; opened circa 1955.  See some photos of the building’s original state here; it was later remodeled out of its fantastic Modernist style, most likely in the 1970s.

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Wolfy’s at 2734 W. Peterson, opened 1966. The building is a totally plain brick box with faux mansard, but the sign is worth writing home about!

The hotdog stand – and its various associated roadside cousins – has a long and rich history in Chicago and its surroundings. From full-sized diners to small custard stands with no indoor seating, the roadside stand rose in lockstep with the automobile, and diversified into an infinity of styles and programs.

How to tie together this group of buildings? They are not united by architectural style, not by venue or menu, certainly not by ownership. Most – nay, all – of these hot dog stands and hamburger carryout joints are independently owned and operated.  Some have been around for decades. Their breed is certainly diminished from days of yore, but not yet vanished.

They are less than a full restaurant. Floor space is minimal – small size is a common factor among most roadside stands. Ambiance and seating are optional. You do not come here for a fine dining experience; you come to gorge on greasy deliciousness.

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Arnie’s Dog House – 1503 Indianapolis Boulevard, Whiting, Indiana

In a blue collar town like Chicago, passions run deep about cheap eats. I am no food critic, nor a foodie, nor even much of a greasy spoon aficionado. (I’ve never even had the famous Chicago style hot dog because I don’t like onions, or mustard, or peppers – and,  horror of horrors, I like ketchup.  You may excommunicate me at your leisure.) So – we’ll just stick with the architecture and history end of it. There’s plenty to dive into.

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Terry’s Red Hot – 1554 N.  Larrabee. Check out some of their food offerings here.

One recurring style for roadside is the plain white box – intentionally simplified, with clean, neat lines reflecting the ideal of a clean, modern dining experience.

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Muskie’s Hamburgers – 2878 N. Lincoln Avenue. The business opened in 1986, but the building has been there longer. No word on where they got that fantastic neon sign.

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Al’s Italian Beef – 169 W. Ontario at Wells. Open by 1989, perhap earlier.

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Snappy Service System, 1141 N. Ashland – part of a Missouri-based hamburger chain that expanded widely in the 1930s.  They signed the lease for this location in 1936.  Later this was La Pasadita, a taco stand, whose yellow paint concealed the white tile for many decades until its removal in 2013. This info and more from The Chicagoist

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One of the city’s most revered greasy spoon joints is the Diner Grill, 1635 W. Irving Park Road. You’d never know it today, but the building is actually two old Evanston streetcars parked side by side in 1935, now so covered over and remodeled that hardly a hint remains of the building’s origins. Today it carries some hints of Mid-Century streamlining, particularly in the long band of windows and the shallow-pitched roof.

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Bill’s Drive In – 120 Asbury, Evanston.  Opened circa 1960. The glazed block, flat roof, wall of windows, and sanitary-yellow color are classic Mid-Century roadside.

A second style of hot dog & hamburger stand is much more chaotic than the examples above. These are the places where less is truly a bore, so pour on the more! Signs, more signs, lights and still more signs festoon these colorful if incoherent little buildings.

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Duks Vienna Red Hots, 636 N. Ashland. Originally a wide-spread Chicago chain called Donald Duks until the Walt Disney corporation sued them,  this location opened in 1958. 

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Shelly’s Freeze – 5119 N. Lincoln Avenue. Located at the south end of Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row, this was originally a Tastee-Freez franchise, open by 1974 at the latest.

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Harlo Grill – 2400 W. North Avenue, Melrose Park – a glass walled serving area with a terrific old neon sign out front. Open by 1957, this is a 24 hour diner with a full menu.

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Susie’s Drive Thru, 4126 W. Montrose – a 24-hour greasy spoon. Originally a Tast-e Hast-e location, it became Susie’s in 1974.

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Murph’s Place – 3930 W Montrose Avenue. Closed in 2012. 

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Hamburger Heaven – 281 N. York Street, Elmhurst – opened in 1948, this stand is known for its ice cream and its Richardson Root Beer – and perhaps for that fabulous sign on the roof. Official site is here.

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Then there are the really stylized places – the ones where, through nostalgia or lucky preservation, the vintage roadside look is in full effect.

Superdawg Drive-In

Superdawg – 6363 N. Milwaukee at Devon Avenue, opened in 1948. Superdawg is arguably the region’s most famous hot dog stand due to its flamboyant color scheme, 1950s geometry, liberal use of neon, and of course the terrifying anthropoidal hot dog cave man on the roof.

Be Careful What You Wish For.

True fact: both him and his demure hot dog ladyfriend have TWO FACES, one on each side. They’re not just humanoid foodstuffs; they’re Janus-faced monstrosities watching your every move.

You wanna know the truth about the anthropomorphic hot dog cave person?

The original building and its expansion were designed by co-owner Maurie Berman. The current look of the restaurant dates from a 1999 renovation and restoration, but largely retains the look of the place from the 1950s. Likewise, carhops still bring your order out to your car while you wait – though you can also go inside and order at the counter.

Our last two stops are part of a tradition more common to Milwaukee than Chicago: the frozen desert stand. In Milwaukee, several such stands still survive, selling frozen custard in the summer months. They’re considerably rarer in Chicagoland. They’re characterized by a single-slope shallow-pitched roof that rises dramatically over the front serving area, which is walled in glass, and an overall small footprint.

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Carvel Ice Cream, 7301 N Milwaukee, Niles – opened by 1957, the original franchise lasted into the 1970s. By 1986 it was a Hayes Family Ice Cream Bar, and a year later it was a Dairy Bar. Most recently Taqueria Los Cuates, a Mexican restaurant which closed in 2013.

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Yellow Submarine, 6825 W. Archer Avenue – now closed. No info on its previous incarnations; the building’s style clearly dates it to the 1950s or early 1960s.

Down by the Riverside!

Nearly due west of the loop, between Berwyn and Brookfield, you’ll find a grace note along the Metra line – the beautiful planned suburb of Riverside.

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Riverside was laid out in 1869-71 by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux.  Its ample parkland, 100×200 foot house lots, and curving streets and paths were a world away from the crowded, industrialized inner city of the time. About 50 houses (of which only a handful remain today) went up before the Panic of 1872 brought things to a temporary halt. Additional houses went up in the following decades in a variety of styles.

As a National Register of Historic Places site, Riverside has been amply researched and documented; there’s not much I can add factually. But Riverside is exactly the kind of knock-your-socks-off place that got me started writing this blog, the kind of place that a casual tourist would be unlikely to find, the kind of place I’m hoping to stumble across when I wander out beyond the Loop. So I share it here in an act of pure, unabashed enthusiasm.

Riverside is home to several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, two historic water towers, a lovely city hall, several important commercial buildings, many beautiful turn-of-the-century homes from a highly pedigreed register of architects, and even a few Mid-Century buildings of note. It was also the home of Louis Sullivan’s Babson House, lost in 1960.

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Hoffman Tower, 1908

This castellated tower stands alongside the Des Plaines River, on a stretch of road that is a sort of “back door” to Riverside. This route is how I’ve always approached the town, coming off of Ogden Avenue.

The adjacent dam was removed in 2012, and the river re-channelized.

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Water Tower (1871) with adjacent pump house and well house (1890). Architect William LeBaron Jenney.

Major commercial and public buildings:
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Riverside Improvement Company Building, 1871 – architect Frederick C. Withers. The development’s first commercial building.

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The Driver Block, 1891 – architect Charles Hallam

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Riverside Town Hall, 1895 – architect George Ashby

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Riverside Public Library, 1930 – architects O’Conner, O’Conner & Martin

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Central School, 1897 – architect Charles Whittlesey, with later addition

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Riverside Presbyterian Church, 1879 – architect John C. Cochrane. Much of the stone in this church comes from an 1869 church on the same site, destroyed by fire.

A sampling of notable residences:
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Schermerhorn Residence, 1869 – architect William LeBaron Jenney

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Dore Cottage, 1869 – architects Olmsted, Vaux & Co.

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Prairie Houses
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Avery Coonley Residence, 1908 – architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This landmark Prairie Style house is the centerpiece of a whole estate, including the servants’ quarters and the stables & garage seen below.IMG_6120

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Coonley Playhouse, 1913 – architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Originally a school for educating the Coonley children.

IMG_3037Thorncroft Residence, 1912 – architect William Drummond – as home for teachers in the Playhouse school, it was yet another part of the Coonley estate.

This short set of photos doesn’t even include all the highlights; an entire day could be spent exploring every corner of this fantastic architectural wonderland. There are buildings I haven’t even gotten to myself, including another major Frank Lloyd Wright house and a surviving Louis Sullivan house (a service building for the Babson estate which is significant in its own right – 277 Gatesby Road if you’re looking!) For any architecture fan in Chicago, a trip out to Riverside, IL is an absolute must.

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  • Riverside Museum online tour
  • National Register of Historic Places nomination form
  • The Lengthy Houses of Polonia

    For a long time, I nourished a latent fascination with a peculiar type of vernacular house. Often gabled, sometimes flat-roofed, these houses are sized to fit the standard 25′ wide Chicago lot. They are typically two to four stories tall. But they are incredibly long, extruded all out of proportion and stretching on for bay after bay after bay. Their rooflines may have up to half a dozen chimneys, lined up like soldiers on the march. One or more entryways are often found on the long side, providing separate access to apartments further back in the building. Most are flecked with many windows.

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    Long houses of Pilsen, seen from the Pink Line El, with St. Adalbert Church beyond.

    Once I began looking more closely, a few things jumped out. Firstly, these houses are usually on the end of their block. The long side faces a street or alley. The reason for these abnormal houses, then, suggests itself: With the sure knowledge that no future neighbor would block up the light and the view, there was no reason not to fill the entire length of the lot with building. For an owner, it meant more space and more rental income.

    Buildings on this model proliferated in two neighborhoods: Pilsen, and Pulaski Park. Both have a common point of origin as home to Polish immigrants in the late 1800s.

    In Milwaukee, Polish immigrants famously developed the “Polish Flat” – a wood-frame house that, as time and finances allowed, would be jacked up a level, with a more solid brick basement built underneath. Likewise, back-lot houses would be added behind the main house to provide rental income – or a smaller front-of-lot house would be moved to the rear when a more spacious replacement could be built. In short, Poles were experts at extracting value from precious city land, and these houses are designed in the same tradition.

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    1458 W. 18th Street at Laflin, Pilsen

    The archetypal examples, in my mind, stand in the Pulaski Park area, clustered along Blackhawk Avenue, just east of Ashland.

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    Polish housing
    1362 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

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    1363 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

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    1301 N. Greenview Avenue at Potomac

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    1409 N. Greenview Avenue, at the mid-block alley. This house suffered a serious fire in 2004 that destroyed the third floor, attic and much of the roof; it has, obviously, been restored since then.

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    2100 Hoyne Avenue at Charleston

    A number of things make these houses curiosities to me. First is the steadfast refusal to treat the exposed long side of the house as decorated architectural facade. The same unadorned common brick that would appear on an unexposed wall (ie, one crowded up against a neighboring building) is used in most cases; on the building above, a simple gabled roof is extruded out of the elaborate front bay. The front is the front and the side is the side, and that’s that. That elaborate façade is another point of interest – they came in all styles, arrayed with beautiful brick corbelling, pressed tin cornices and finials, cast iron storefront columns, carved stone lintels and more.

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    918 N. Ashland Avenue at Walton – a particularly curious case, as a modern addition has continued the fill-the-whole-block approach begun by the original building, while conjoining it with the building across the alley.
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    And then there is the final mystery – what kind of floor plans were originally hidden behind those walls? Are the interiors contiguous or separate? How did a preponderance of light and air on one side affect the design? Maybe one day I’ll turn up some plans, but till then I simply gaze and speculate.

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    1725 S. Ashland Avenue at 18th Street

    Polish housing
    1400 N. Noble Street at Blackhawk

    Chicago Mid-Century: St. Cornelius Catholic Church

    St. Cornelius Church

    St. Cornelius Church forms a dramatic intrusion into the residential buildings along western Foster Avenue. Though the building sits at 5420 W. Foster Avenue, the parish – founded in 1925 – has roots on an adjacent site at 5205 Lieb. After a school expansion, dramatic overcrowding prompted planning to begin for a new church building in 1962, along with a parking lot on a lot just to the east. The cornerstone was laid in 1964, and the building was dedicated in June 1965. IMG_3967

     

    Spacious and airy, St. Cornelius seats 1100 in its sanctuary.  Lannon stone forms a base, while plain plaster walls and ceilings rise above. It is an extremely plain space – decoration is spare and strategic, limited primarily to the elaborate lamp fixtures, a spectacular tile mosaic behind the altar, thin ribbons of stained glass, and a stylized baldachin over the altar.

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    The stained glass is modernistic and mostly abstract, flecked with fishes, sheaths of wheat, and other Christian symbols.

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    St. Cornelius Church

     

    The baptistery gate is an abstrct Modernist form.

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    The stations of the cross are stylized but literal.

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    St. Cornelius Church

     

     

    Sited at the head of  N. Lotus Avenue, St. Cornelius strikes an impressive profile when seen from the south. The main window is flanked by statues of Saint Cornelius (an early Pope from circa 250 AD) and Saint Peter, and glows handsomely when the sanctuary is in use at night.IMG_3915a

    St. Cornelius Church – official site

    Compare & contrast: St. Louis’s Joan of Arc Catholic Church