In a city shaped by immigrant communities, beautiful historic churches reflect the faith and hard work of generations of Catholics.
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 a visit.
St. Mary of the Angels
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 movieAbove the Law.
St. Mary’s is built in the Italian Romanesque style, modeled after churches in Rome. It is cruciform—the shape of a cross—and 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.
St. Hyacinth 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 in 2003.
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, clergy—including Pope John Paul II—and 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 marble.
Some other suggestions for churches to visit when in Chicago:
St. Stanislaus 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.St. Mary of the Lake was 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.
About the Author
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
Matthew Rose adds:
"I would also add St. Gregory the Great Church in the Andersonville neighborhood. It is a smaller but beautiful Gothic revival structure built in the late 19th century by German immigrants. There is beautiful stained glass depicting the seven Sacraments on the walls of the nave; ornate carved wood around the Sanctuary, and a beautiful marble High Altar (albeit sadly with a whitewashed reredos).
The address is 5545 N. Paulina, Chicago, IL."