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CPWR’s “Sharing Sacred Spaces” Program Has Its Finale at the Chicago Downtown Islamic Center

The 99 Names of Allah, on display at the entrance to the prayer area of the Downtown Islamic Center, Chicago. On each tile is an attribute of God, which Muslims use to help understand and worship God. Photo from CAIR-Chicago.

by Sarah Fentem

Mohammed Kaiseruddin, a member of the Downtown Islamic Center Board, is the first to admit there is nothing intrinsically special about the space that houses the Downtown Islamic Center (DIC).

“The DIC spaces are hardly unique”, he said.  “If anything, the DIC demonstrates that our place is sacred not because of its design but because of its use.”

The DIC can only be found if you know where to look. Housed in multiple stories of a former commercial building on State Street downtown, the mosque blends seamlessly into the retail shops around the Jackson Street Red Line stop, its front door easily confused with the entrance of the apparel store adjacent.

The DIC was the final destination for the Council for a Parliament of World Religions’ “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project, a series of events that brings together different Chicago-area communities of faith and practice. Since October, one of eight participating faith communities has opened their doors each month to showcase their sacred space and share their beliefs and traditions.

The Downtown Islamic Center served as a fitting capstone for the program, demonstrating Sacred Spaces creator and Chicago architect Suzanne Morgan’s affirmation that “spaces become sacred through the meaning they have for the members of their communities.“ What makes a space holy is not what the building looks like for, as in the case of the Downtown Islamic Center, appearances can be deceiving. Instead what counts is what goes on inside.

Originally established as a space for Muslims working downtown to attend daytime prayers, the building was more of a “home away from home” than a religious center in its own right.  In the past 15 years, however, the DIC has grown to become a large and vibrant religious presence downtown, with the weekly Friday prayers (Jumu’ah) attracting hundreds of people.

The youngest of the three Abrahamic religions and the world’s second largest religion after Christianity, Islam has 1.5 billion followers, or 1 Muslim for every 5 people worldwide. The defining statement of Islam is “there is none worthy of worship except God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” Muslims live lives based on the Qur'an, taken to be the literal words of God revealed to Muhammad, His prophet.  Islam is based on the 5 basic acts of faith (“pillars”) as the declaration of faith in God, praying five times a day, giving to charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and performing pilgrimage in and around the holy city of Mecca at least once during a lifetime.

Visitors to the May 12 event were able to witness afternoon daily prayers. Visitors were ushered into a large, mostly unfurnished space on the 5th floor of the building, which could have easily been mistaken for a conference room or banquet hall at a hotel or university, save for one ornately lit, marble-covered corner on the Northeastern side of the room and diagonal, parallel lines drawn across the carpet.

The marble corner, or mihrab, is a niche that indicates the direction in which Muslims are to pray, or qiblah. No matter where they are in the world, Muslims face towards the Kaa'bah, a sacred stone building at the Great Mosque in Mecca, said to be built by Abraham (in Chicago’s case, to the Northeast).  Those taking part in prayer at the DIC faced the Mihrab and, guided by the lines in the carpet, lined up neatly touching shoulder to shoulder. Except for the initial call to prayer, the praying was mostly silent.

Before entering the main prayer area on the fifth floor, visitors were asked to either remove their shoes or don fabric booties over their footwear before walking on the carpet. The removal of shoes is customary in mosques as a way to show respect when one stands before God. For the same reason, the DIC has two locker-room like facilities on the fourth floor so worshippers can perform wudu, or ritual cleansing, before praying.

Even for the visitors, the rituals lend a sense of holiness to the space. When forced to pay close attention to normally mundane activities like walking across a carpet, a person is made to become similarly aware of the things one says and does.

The holy feeling permeates the entire space. “The DIC is my spiritual home in Chicago,” said Ahmed Nyamuth, a DIC member. “As soon as I cross its threshold….a kind of peace and tranquility descend on me.”

While most Americans might think of the Middle East when they think of Islam, Muslims are most numerous in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, a statistic reflected in the makeup of the DIC community. As the center has grown though, so has the diversity, making the DIC home to what Chairman Syed Khan calls “A true rainbow of Muslims.” The DIC is made of immigrants and Americans of all age groups and walks of life.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the DIC is that it is run entirely by volunteers. The center is governed by a voluntary board, with administrators and services taken over by members of the community. Knowledgeable Muslims like professors give weekly sermons, and any capable person in attendance is able to lead daily prayers.

The fact that the center is run entirely by volunteers emphasizes the commitment and love its members have for their faith and their community. Said Qudsia Khan, “I feel blessed that such a space is easily and readily available to me,” underscoring a “Sacred Spaces” visitor’s comment during the tour: “It’s the people who gather that make the sacred space.”

Click here to learn more about Sharing Sacred Spaces and join us at our culminating event on the Federal Plaza on June 10th!

CPWR’s “Sacred Space” Program Visits Historic Old St. Pat’s Catholic Church

Sacred Space Event attendees view the beautiful architecture and learn about the Catholic faith at Old St. Pat's Cathedral, April 22nd.

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.


Click here to learn more about Sacred Spaces and join us at our next event!