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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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