by Sarah Fentem
On the chilly afternoon of April 22nd, visitors climbed the steps of a well-known Chicago landmark in the West Loop, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, otherwise known as “Old St. Pat’s.” The cathedral, located just West of Union Station on Adams Street, was the second-to-last venue in the Council for the Parliament of World Religion’s “Sharing Sacred Spaces” program.
“Sharing Sacred Spaces” was started in 2011 by architect Suzanne Morgan as a way to foster interreligious dialogue among different faith communities in Chicago. Each month, one of eight Chicago congregations opens its doors to participants in order to showcase their religious space and speak to the public about their beliefs and traditions.
Like most of the “Sacred Spaces” events, the Old St. Pat’s event began with an introduction to Catholic faith and beliefs, given by Keara Ette, the Director of Youth Ministry at the cathedral. Ette explained that “Catholic” means “relational”. Stemming from their belief in the Holy Trinity—a tri-personal God made up of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—Catholics believe that God “is one that teaches life is all about relationships.”
Other beliefs that would be pinned to the Catholics’ “letter jacket”, as Ette humorously described the Catholic dogma, would be the belief in Jesus as the savior of humanity, the sacredness of the Scriptures, and the belief in a God desperate to reveal himself to humankind.
Catholics, said Ette, also love “stuff.” The Holy Sacraments—sacred rituals like matrimony and baptism— are a way God uses “the stuff of the world to become present to us.”
Unlike some religions, which preach separating oneself from material items, Catholics have a distinct love of accouterment. From the reading of the scripture and praying of the rosary to the taking of the Holy Eucharist, items, art, and iconography play a huge part in the religious lives of the faithful.
Indeed, Old St. Pat’s brims with “stuff” symbolizing, celebrating, and reflecting Catholics’ relationship with God. While a popular conception of cathedrals paints them as dark, imposing places, when one walks into Old St. Pat’s, they feel as if they have walked inside a giant Easter egg. The walls are painted a pale pinky-taupe, so as to draw attention to the elaborate Celtic knot motifs that decorate nearly every surface, including the ceiling. Splendid windows, which appear to be made of melted jolly ranchers in every flavor imaginable, depict likenesses of the saints. (The famous triptych in the rear, representing faith, hope, and charity, is known as one of the finest examples of Celtic Revival art.) Even the pews are curved in a way that represents the ribs of Christ.
“Art is one of the ways we believe we can connect with the Great Creator”, said Ette.
Notable not only for its decorative interior, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is also known as an institution whose history closely parallels that of the City of Chicago. Old St. Pat’s docent and tour director Jim McLaughlin explained the church was built to cater to Irish immigrants who settled in Chicago during the mid-19th century. As more immigrants flooded into the area to escape the Great Famine and find work building the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the congregation grew so much that a new, bigger Cathedral had to be built. The present building, completed in 1856, stands as the oldest public building in Chicago.
Two of the most seminal events in Chicago’s history are tightly interwoven with the 1956 building: The first, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, was arguably the biggest disaster the city has ever seen. Miraculously, though, St. Patrick’s escaped destruction-a change in wind carried the conflagration back across the Chicago River and away from the cathedral.
Secondly, the city hosted The World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1993, which brought visitors from all over the country to the Windy City. For the cathedral though, the most important visitor to the Exposition already lived in the city-a Chicago newspaper artist named Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy. Inspired by the Celtic art he saw at the fair, the young artist spent the next decade researching Celtic imagery and perfecting the art of stained glass. In 1912, 15 magnificent windows were installed, each inspired by images O’Shaughnessy found in the Book of Kells, one of the world’s oldest gospels. The “Faith Window” at the rear of the Church has been called “the most spectacular window around.” McLaughlin pointed out there were more than 2000 different tints of color represented in the windows.
Despite O’Shaughnessy’s unduplicated work, attendance dwindled in the mid-century, caused mainly by the neighborhood’s decline and the Cathedral’s proximity to Skid Row. Two women were stabbed while staying in the church’s rectory. One Christmas mass had only 12 people in attendance.
The fate of the church started to turn with the arrival of Fr. John Wall, who came to Old St. Pat’s in 1983 when church attendance was at its nadir. Within 15 years, Fr. Wall revitalized the congregation through youth outreach programs, most famously founding the St. Patrick’s block party, the world’s largest, which brings thousands of young Christians downtown. The young people started bringing their families, and by 2012 the cathedral boasted congregants from over 200 zip codes.
Today St. Patrick’s is considered one of the most famous churches in the city. The newly restored building not only mirrors the history of Chicago and its people, but also celebrates the space where the human and the divine intersect.
Impressive stuff indeed.
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