A Religious Experience - Part Three

St. Paul Parish Church
2127 West 22nd Place
Chicago, IL

This weekend, I had my first companion in my ongoing pilgrimage through the highlights of Chicago's religious architecture -- my mother. We'd started off our day in Oak Park at Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple, but I have chosen to hold off on blogging about that for the moment, in order to strive for some sort of balance in representing religious denominations. On our way home on the El, Mom was inquiring about some of the other churches on my list, and I was discussing St. Paul, a Catholic parish church in Pilsen. She pointed out how easy it would be to get there from where we were, so we switched train lines near downtown and headed southwest to Pilsen, a predominately Mexican neighborhood.

St. Paul had caught my eye for a number of reasons while I was researching the various outposts of Catholicism in the city, but it was a good thing that I was not alone when I went to visit, because I managed to get us lost on the way there. Ordinarily, I pride myself on my excellent sense of direction, and often put in charge of navigation during my world travels, but somehow, I managed to get totally turned around in my own city. All I have to say in my defense is that we decided to go there on the spur of the moment, and if I had planned in advance I would have googled the surrounding streets, as per my custom, to make sure I hadn't walked too far. Despite Mom's misgivings, I misguided us about two blocks too far west, but luckily, she straightened me out, and we finally found it.

However, when we did manage to locate the massive brick structure, we arrived to find a wedding party departing the church. Not wanting to intrude, we ended up perching ourselves on a planter across the street, waiting for them to complete their photographs and leave before we entered. When they finally boarded their limo, however, a church worker came out to lock up. We hustled across the street and begged for a few moments to glimpse the inside, despite her protestations of the church being closed. Clearly, St. Paul is not much of a tourist destination -- the woman looked at us like we were crazy for wanting a look at the interior. But we had not come so far, gotten lost, and waited so long to be turned away. I managed to snap a few quick (although, sadly, not very great due to poor lighting conditions) photos while the lady waited.

St. Paul was dedicated in 1899, and was designed by Henry J. Schlacks, a local architect who had worked with the firm of Adler & Sullivan before striking out on his own. The congregation (composed primarily of German immigrants during the 19th century), commissioned the design after their original building was destroyed by fire. As a result, the parishioners were keen to avoid a similar disaster in the future, so they turned to Schlacks, who coincidentally held business interests in the fire-proof building materials industry. His design was consequently entirely composed of brick and terra cotta, leading to the church's unique distinction of having been built entirely without nails -- an oddity that earned the church a mention in Ripley's Believe It Or Not!

Due to the church's unique design, no contractor would provide a bid for its cost, insisting that they would only work on a time and materials basis. The congregation balked, and opted to build the church with their own hands -- a decision that makes more sense in light of the fact that many German immigrants had backgrounds in construction and masonry. Given the height of the building, it's hard for me to imagine volunteering to work on it's construction. It just goes to demonstrate the power of religious devotion.

The sun was not in my favor for exterior photography, and I actually got a better picture of the back of the church than the front. The tremendous pitch of the roof accentuates the sense of verticality present in the design.

The interior of the church is also mostly composed of brick and terra cotta, but the severity of the materials is softened by ornamental mosaics, commissioned from Venice and shipped to Chicago to be installed. They were truly quite lovely, it's too bad the dimness of the nave made them difficult to photograph.

A detail of the decorative brickwork.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the comedy of errors that ensued in trying to visit it, I enjoyed my visit to St. Paul. It was a charming building; my only regret was that there was not more time to enjoy and capture its unique beauty. In light of our difficulty in locating it, I am fully prepared to pronounce St. Paul a true hidden gem.

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