A Religious Experience - Part One

When I was born, my parents decided not to baptize me into the Catholic faith in which they had been raised. They wanted me to be able to make my own informed decisions on matters of religion when I got old enough. Here, at the ripe old age of 25, I can say that I still don't know. I'm not prepared to say with any certainty whether or not God exists, although I generally believe there are forces larger than myself at play in the universe. To me, Jesus was a man who had some very good ideas, a few of which have been used by some of his followers for less-than-honorable purposes. I just try to treat others as I would like to be treated myself, and hope that the positive energy I put into the world comes back to me somehow. For me, that is enough.

Although I am not a religious person, I do find myself fascinated by religious architecture. I think my interest began when I took AP Art History in high school, where I had to memorize all the different architectural elements of Gothic cathedrals. The next time I found myself in Europe, I enjoyed being able to identify all the different components I had studied, and my new appreciation for religious art only grew from there. Nowadays, religious sites, whether they be churches, mosques, temples, or shrines, are always at the top of my sightseeing lists when I travel, often to the chagrin of my traveling companions.

Recently, it occurred to me that I've been overlooking the wealth of ecclesiastic architecture right here in my home town. Since I won't be traveling abroad this year, why not treat Chicago as I would any other global city? I think it's easy to take for granted the sights that surround you all the time, figuring you have an unlimited amount of time to see them. It's easy to procrastinate, and eventually, never see them at all. So, loyal readers, I have decided to embark upon a little pilgrimage of my own here at The State I Am In, and take myself on a tour of religious Chicago in an ongoing series. My goal is to try to see one church a week, and share my findings with you. I'm so serious about this plan that I even trekked to the public library last weekend to study up on Chicago's historical churches, and draft my very own local tourism to-do list. Hopefully you will find my project as fascinating as I do, and not be bored to tears...

Holy Name Cathedral
735 North State Street
Chicago, IL

For my first entry, I decided to go straight to the nexus of Catholicism in the city of Chicago -- Holy Name Cathedral. Dedicated in 1875, Holy Name is the seat of the Chicago Archdiocese, and the Archbishop of Chicago (who is presently actually a Cardinal), Francis George. The original church on the present day site was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but that church was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, and the replacement building was rededicated to the Holy Name of Jesus. Tremendous funding difficulties at the time of construction forced the original structure to be rather spartan in nature. Numerous subsequent renovations have contributed to the level of ornamentation currently visible inside the building.

Located in the heart of the city, Holy Name's limestone structure is dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers.

The elaborate walnut and oak vaulted ceiling was added in an 1890 renovation, but was almost destroyed in a 2009 fire. The fire, caused by faulty electrical wiring during another renovation project, destroyed much of the ceiling and roof. I can remember watching the church burn on television, as the fire crews struggled to quell the flames due to frigid temperatures that froze their water as they sprayed it. I still remember the images of the icicles that hung down from the charred ceiling. It's amazing how quickly they were able to restore it!

Hanging in the apse of the cathedral above the altar are the galeros, or ceremonial hats of Chicago's cardinals. Upon their passing, their hats were suspended from the ceiling, where they will hang until they turn to dust, symbolizing the transience of our mortal existence. From left to right are the galeros of Cardinals Meyer (1903-1965), Bernadin (1928-1996), Mundelein 1872-1939), Cody (1907-1982), and Stritch (1887-1958). This tradition was formally discontinued by Vatican II, but it persists in Chicago.

The magnificent oak organ was donated to the church inthe 1980s, and is one of the largest in the United States.

I've always been a sucker for stained glass.

Flanking each side of the nave is a series of high-relief sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, created by Italian artist Goffredo Verginelli. I was moved by their rustic, evocative style.

Although Holy Name was a bit brighter and shinier than most of the cathedrals I've visited abroad, I was still impressed, especially with its splendid ceiling. It was hard to believe that all of that beauty has been there all along, unnoticed, as I passed by it day after day on the bus going home. For some reason, however, I felt a little awkward and uncertain as I entered the building, almost as if I were intruding. I think being a tourist in a foreign country gives one a sense of boldness about entering into unknown places, plus, the guide books usually give guidelines for what times are appropriate for a visit. Hopefully, I'll overcome my sense of being out of place as this project moves forward, and I can't wait to see what other gems lie in store for me to discover...

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