An Exploration of Chicago’s Catholic Church Architecture and Art

by Napa Institute
Published In July 24, 2018

Catholic architecture and art are tools of evangelization. They capture the beauty of faith history, truths, and mysteries—portraying God’s presence and power and contributing to conversions. This evangelization impact means that architects and artists can share in God’s creativity and salvation history through their craft.

As Saint John Paul II wrote in his 1999 Letter to Artists, “With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling him or her to share in His creative power…The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation.”

Church architectural styles pull inspiration from around the world. In preparation for our 2018 Domestic Pilgrimage to Chicago, here’s a preview of the city’s significant sites. The Archdiocese of Chicago is home to more than 2.2 million Catholics and hosts about 344 Catholic churches with including these diverse places of worship.

Holy Name Cathedral is the center of the Archdiocese of Chicago, dedicated in 1875 and built in the Gothic Revival style. Popularized in the 1740s, this style has medieval characteristics like decorative patterns, high windows, and moulded projections. The original Holy Name Cathedral was completely destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, but after a few years of fundraising, it was rebuilt based on the designs of architect Patrick C. Keely. The cathedral now merges traditional Gothic architecture with modern pieces following its renovation in the 1960s.

The Gothic Revival style of Holy Name Cathedral has inspired the architecture of many other churches in Chicago. It has a strong asymmetrical and vertical layout with its tall tower, pinnacles, and pointed arches. The sanctuary organ, handmade in 1981 with 1,284 pipes, and the gallery organ, handmade in 1989 with 5,558 pipes, are among the cathedral’s outstanding features. The wooden Resurrection Crucifix suspended over the altar shows Christ in His risen state—an arresting representation. From the sanctuary panels to the stained glass windows, each artistic feature in the cathedral has intentional symbolism.

Completed in 1898, Saint John Cantius Church was initially built for Polish immigrants. It was designed by Adolphus Druiding in the Baroque style known for its elaborate and ornate qualities. Designed similar to churches in Kraków, Poland, the church is located in downtown Chicago and recognized from afar by its 130-foot tower. Saint John Cantius Church is also home to the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, a religious community of men committed to the “Restoration of the Sacred.” Both the religious and lay church community are focused on efforts to preserve and restore Catholic artwork and liturgy.

Standard components of Baroque architecture cover the inside the church such as pediments supported by disproportionate columns, topped by enormous arches. Adding to its extravagance, almost all sections of the church are painted, sculptured, or gilded. Gold is the primary color featured on the elegant murals, stencils, stained glass, and other artwork. Another key Baroque detail is the wooden stairs that spiral around a column up to the pulpit. Despite the heavily-decorated interior, the Saint John Cantius Church has an airy aura due to the height of the ceilings and the round skylight over the altar.

Located in Lincoln Park, Saint Clement Parish was constructed between 1917 and 1918 and designed by architect Thomas P. Barnett. Its Byzantine-styled structure is based on the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Built during the Middle Ages in 537 A.D., the mosque was first a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, then became an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now is a museum. The mosque’s most famous architectural element is its dome, also a prominent feature of Saint Clement Parish, and is considered the ultimate example of Byzantine architecture.

The interior of Saint Clement Parish is also modeled after the art principles of the Middle Ages. It was designed by Gleb Eveniovitch Werchovsky, a Russian priest of the Ruthenian rite who studied Byzantine art in Constantinople. Werchovsky was commissioned by the founding pastor Monsignor Rempe, who described the artist’s designs as “very fascinating, though unusual.” The inside features heavenly symbols in the highest areas of the parish, the middle sections have prominent images of saints and the sacraments, and the ground-level portions include imagery that resembles the creation of the world—specifically, near the altar, ambo, and font.

The individual artwork pieces are Byzantine versions of Catholic symbols and tributes to Saint Clement. Within the dome, there are heavenly depictions of angels, clouds, stars, and zodiac signs. The pendentives supporting the dome display images of the four evangelists. A painting of the Byzantine icon of Christ Pantocrator with Mary and Saint Clement praying by His side appears on the main arch. The arch in the back of the parish features a throne to represent the Trinity in Heaven, surrounded by angels and saints. The artwork on additional arches show the two miracles credited to Saint Clement.

As one of the few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire, Old Saint Patrick’s Church is the oldest public building in Chicago and the city’s first English-speaking parish. Founded in 1846 and dedicated in 1856, the church was designed by Augustus Bauer and Asher Carter in the Romanesque style. The 15 stained glass windows are among the church’s standout items, installed and designed between 1912 and 1922 by Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy. The 12 stained glass windows on the church’s sides are based on Ireland’s Book of Kells and the remaining three windows in the Eastern facade reflect the Celtic art exhibit at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  

To experience the spiritual beauty of Chicago’s Catholic architecture and art, join us for our 2018 Domestic Pilgrimage to Chicago from August 29 through September 2. The pilgrimage is themed “Evangelization Through Beauty,” and we will explore all that the Catholic architecture, heritage, and educational institutions of Chicago has to offer.

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