My Doomed Love Affair – St. Adalbert Church of Chicago, Illinois

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I am a Catholic. A Catholic by choice rather than by birth, which makes a difference. A Catholic by birth absorbs the “Catholic stuff” from childhood and thus, by the age of adulthood, it is common that much of the tapestry of Catholicism has become background scenery that is little noticed or appreciated.

For we converts (or at least some of us) that Catholic Wallpaper is not just something in the background but something to be studied and appreciated and admired. Which brings me to St. Adalbert.

We recently took a long weekend trip to Chicago to visit our son who has been working there for the summer. As a student in the Dominican religious order he has been living at St. Pius V parish in the Pilsen neighborhood of that city in what is known as the lower west side.

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Those blurry towers are those of St. Adalbert church as seen from the rooftop of the priory at nearby St. Pius V church.

When I visit an unfamiliar place I love to sop up the local history. I am not a “big city boy” by birth or nature, so going to a place like Chicago and being able to immerse myself in a neighborhood is great stuff. Staying in the priory in one of the neighborhood churches allowed us to walk the area and appreciate some of its unique character.

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St. Adalbert church c. 1926, before the construction of the school building. The elevated rail line (the Pink Line today) is seen in the background.

Pilsen was originally a Polish neighborhood, and thus a very Catholic place. OK, it was actually Irish first but we micks moved on as the Poles moved in. And How Catholic Was It? How about six-churches-in-the-neighborhood kind of Catholic. St. Pius V was one of them, but was, in its day, one of the more modest ones. It was St. Adalbert, a mere three or so blocks away, that was the epicenter for Polish Catholics back in that time.

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Until this past weekend, I had never heard of Adalbert. Adalbert of Prague was a Bishop in Bohemia (what would today be the Czech Republic) in the years leading up to the first Millennium. He was martyred in Poland in 997 AD and has long been one of the most popular saints in that region of eastern Europe. So it is no stretch to understand why the Poles of the late nineteenth century might choose him as the identity of a new parish when it was consecrated in 1874.

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We were fortunate to be able to catch a time when the church building was open so that we could walk inside. It was there that I fell in love with the place.

I have a problem. I fall in love too easily. I often fall in love with places and things that are underdogs or that are in a hopeless state of disrepair. In my mind’s eye I see the place in its prime, in all of its beauty and grandeur. But St. Adalbert church is not in its prime, not even remotely. In fact it is not technically an active parish anymore, but that only makes my love grow more fervent. Hopelessness will do that.

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St. Adalbert church, Chicago, in the years before scaffolding surrounded its towers.

First, the building itself. This church building was built in 1912-14 and replaced the original parish church building. As grand as it is on the outside ( and it is the tallest structure in Pilsen) it is inside where this place truly casts its spell. It is simply stunning.

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Basilica of Saint Paul Outside The Walls

Modeled on The Basilica Of St. Paul Outside The Walls in Rome, St. Adalbert is widely considered to have some of the finest marble work in the City of Chicago and it is easy to imagine the pride of the Polish craftsmen who raised this church building up from the sidewalks.

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The 1914 Kimball organ of St. Adalbert is one of the largest in existence.

Coming along at the tail end of the baby boom and living my life in Midwestern suburbia, I have been surrounded by modern Catholic worship spaces. Yes, they are churches, but they were designed and built in an era that intended to elevate “community”. The architects and planners surely did not intend this emphasis on community to take away from the emphasis on the divine, but I think this is what sort of happened.

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The Polish words above the altar translate to “Virgin, Mother of God, God-famed Mary”, which are the opening words of an ancient Polish hymn (Bogurodzica), believed to have been composed by St. Adalbert himself.

St. Adalbert (completed in 1914) avoided all that. This church, even as it crumbles and approaches the end of its time as a church building, is all about transcendence. It is about Divine Trinity of Father Son and Holy Ghost. I was going to say Holy Spirit, but this is the softer, gentler phrase from our era of community. This sanctuary is all about reminding us that God is God and that we are not, and only through the miraculous event of Christ’s mediation are we able to even hope for an afterlife in the presence of the Almighty. Parish meeting rooms with comfortable chairs and coffee machines may not be here, but then you can get those at any Starbucks. This . . . this is something that is absolutely not at Starbucks.

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I mentioned that the church is crumbling, and this is literally true. The scaffolding that surrounds the massive towers is there to catch the loosening bricks that are falling. Perhaps life a block from the El’s 18th street station on the Pink Line has taken its toll. The Gates of Hell may not prevail against Christ’s Church but the constant rumble of elevated trains might do the job against this particular one.

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The former St. Adalbert grade school.

As I admired this place a random thought came to me: What a massive failure we have seen in the Catholic Church’s evangelization efforts in these old inner-city parishes. There are surely no fewer people living in the neighborhood than there were during St. A’s prime. But the people living in Pilsen today are not coming into the Catholic churches in the numbers of their forebears. Frankly, the only reason the current situation didn’t come about thirty or forty years ago is that Mexicans moved into the neighborhood as the Poles moved out, and Mexicans have been overwhelmingly Catholic too.

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We Catholics believe that we belong to The Universal Church, one that dates directly back to Christ and His Apostles, and that all people everywhere are entitled to and are made better through the graces obtained uniquely through it. Of course, I acknowledge that not everyone shares this view of the Church, and in our protestant-dominated culture (or should I say formerly dominated?) the Catholic church is seen as one among a multitude of flavors in the Baskin-Robbins that is Christianity.

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Some of the stunning stained glass at Chicago’s St. Adalbert church. Note the polish spellings of St. Michael and St. George.

Perhaps this is an example of the unforeseen ill-effects of a Church that claims to be Universal becoming too centered upon a particular ethnicity or heritage at the parish level. If this is true, this could be a lesson to those who today urge us to divide off into homogeneous groups to identify with and to live among. St. Adalbert’s Polish parishioners were probably none-too-welcoming towards the Mexican newcomers to the neighborhood and the Mexican parishioners today might exhibit some wariness towards the young white hipsters who are moving into Pilsen now. I speculate here, of course, but those young newcomers to the neighborhood are the new mission field and the old inner city parishes all over had better wake up to this fact.

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It pains me to see resources going to waste. Those old Polish craftsmen built something to be cherished, a sacred space to hand down through the generations. Time and a lack of funds have slowly sucked the life from St. A and places like it. The once-bustling school is long closed and the building has been reduced to occasional liturgies as a worship space adjunct to another parish, one of three in the neighborhood following a consolidation process that has left many Pilsen-area Catholics feeling homeless. (St. Ann and Providence of God are the other two parishes that were closed).

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A group has formed to try to save the building and members of the now-ex-parish are appealing to Rome in an attempt to reverse the Archbishop’s consolidation plan (at least that part of it that pulled the rug from under St. Adalbert. Those appeals, however, almost never succeed. Also, even if the two million bucks were found to fix the disintegrating towers, the Archdiocese of Chicago has neither the funds nor the priestly manpower to keep the lights on.

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1964 Studebaker Daytona convertible – from the last year of production in the United States.

I have a similar love for the old Studebaker Corporation and the cars it once built in nearby South Bend Indiana. Even as the Indiana boy that I am, any rational look at things made clear that continuing to build cars there was madness in light of the many years of financial losses . There were, however, fans of the company’s products whose fervor ran deep and to this day they have maintained a network that has provided much support for those cars that continue to be roadworthy.

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A seemingly neglected Marian statute between the church rectory (left) and the plywood affixed to the scaffolding on the western tower of the church.

But a Catholic church building is not an old car. You cannot restore this place for five figures then keep it indoors for drives on nice days. A Catholic parish needs parishoners and it needs clergy in order to create the reason to keep an old church building viable.

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But all that aside, I still harbor some kind of irrational hope that the towers can be fixed, that the weather can be kept outside and that the people will come. Love will do this to a person.

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The baptismal font at St. Adalbert church.

Psalm 19:1-6 tells us that the Heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Until the wrecking ball comes (which may be unavoidable) St. Adalbert church will spend the rest of its days proclaiming this truth of the faith to anyone fortunate enough to be able to gaze upon it.

Photo Sources:

Historic photo of St. Adalbert, c. 1926, Chicago Tribune

St. Adalbert before the scaffolding: Photo by ChicagoGeek at PilsenPortal.org

St. Adalbert of Prague: depiction of oil on canvas painting by Mihaly Kovacs, c. 1855. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul Outside The Walls: Loveombra on Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons, free use.

St. Adalbert standing against the Chicago Skyline – Skyscrapercity.com, c. 2006 photo by Jeff In Dayton.

All other photos by the Author

10 thoughts on “My Doomed Love Affair – St. Adalbert Church of Chicago, Illinois

  1. I’m crossing my fingers for this fine building. I think you’ve put your finger right on the problem with mainline churches today: they’re failing to reach young adults.

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    • So true. And the maddening thing is that amongst Catholics the younger generation seems to be more drawn to the traditional than is our own. But this building probably will not be there to draw them in as they venture into this old neighborhood.

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    • I agree. As a Catholic by birth, we did what we were told by the nuns in school, and the priests in church, or else. We accepted the rules and the rites of passage. Today’s youth see these demands as ones to be challenged and resisted, and after accomplishing the necessary sacraments, fade away from practicing religion or attending church, after graduating high school. My boys did attend Catholic high school, and that school still thrives, but you never see any of those same young faces at mass. When he married, my oldest son chose a public officiant for the ceremony over a year’s commitment to marriage preparation classes etc. I do remain hopeful that they will baptize their offspring when that time comes.

      From time to time changing provincial governments threated to dismantle separate school education, and integrate into one public education system. This is another challenge that would further weaken Catholicism and its practice.

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  2. What a magnificent building! Your enthusiasm is contagious although the peskiness of reality does keep rearing its ugly head.

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  3. Wow. A truly stunning building. Not being particularly religious myself but having grown up in two churches, Ive always been in awe of the architecture and true sense of scale they provide. In fact, my earliest memories of architecture appreciation came from Grandma and Grandpa driving me around Fort Wayne to draw pictures of each of the big churches.

    Muncie has two catholic churches that come to mind (a third modern one doesn’t). St. Lawrence is similarly grand. St. Mary’s was built in the late 60s but the sheer size and solemnity of the place gave the same impression that your photos did.

    Was lucky to take a trip to Quebec after high school with a stop in Montreal where we toured the Notre Dame basilica there. Totally unreal.

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    • I sort of understand the spirit of simplicity and ascetecism that became a thing in the 50s-70s that dominated church archecture in that era. But when a kid sits there and his mind is blank and his eye wanders, then what does it wander towards? I think the old-timers instinctively understood that it is better to be distracted by artistic depictions of eternal mysteries than by plain white walls of graphics on screens.

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  4. Being a CRC guy I am used to modest places of worship, but I can sure appreciate a magnificent church building. Additionally, I do quake with fear at the maintenance & repair requirements of such a place.

    I don’t think the hipsters are going to be of much help. I heard an interesting talk that one of our cultural problems these days is our definition of success. Success is now culturally a fully individual thing. Institutions are merely something that we pass through on our way to more individual success. So there seems little interest in sticking around and putting your shoulder into institutional success.

    I wonder if this results in less success overall?

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    • I think that beauty is underused as an aid to evangelization.
      It may be different with young Catholics, but the parishes and religious orders that are growing are the ones that emphasize the traditional and the transcendent. Those shrinking are those that are hard to distinguish from a Methodist congregation or a social service agency. Then again, I have read that 50 percent of millennials raised as Catholics are among the “nones” who have no interest in the faith. It is not just in the inner cities that we have seen massive failure.

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