A Religious Experience - Part Seven

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to bring you the (hopefully) triumphant return of my series on architecturally significant churches of the Chicagoland area. I momentarily paused my pilgrimage when our city's ridiculously long winter began, with a promise (and later a New Year's resolution) to carry on when the weather improved. We might still be waiting on those elusive warmer temperatures, but today I finally got a day of sunshine and I decided to seize upon it to take a little field trip during my lunch hour.

I still have plenty of houses of worship left on my original list, and now that I've checked out George Lane's Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage from the library once more, I'm sure my list will be rapidly expanding. Look forward to more installations in this series as long as the weather holds, and for those of you who are new here, you can find accounts and photos from my previous visits here.

St. Clement Church
642 West Deming Place
Chicago, Illinois

I was initially drawn to St. Clement when I was conducting my initial research for this project by paging through Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago in the Special Collections department of the Harold Washington Library. The book is full of gorgeous photographs and illustrations, and an image of the Byzantine interior of St. Clement caught my attention right off the bat.

You see, I have a bit of an obsession with Byzantine art that goes back to the first time I ever studied the Byzantine empire in a history class so long ago, I can scarcely even remember it. Perhaps it was 6th grade? My interest in ancient Byzantium fueled my love for mosaics as an art form, and motivated me to travel to Istanbul in 2007, to see the monuments of Constantinople, its imperial capital. Hence, when I saw a little slice of the Byzantine world recreated in my own fair city, I knew right away that I had to see it.

St. Clement was dedicated in 1918, to serve the rapidly growing Catholic population of Lincoln Park. The parish's leader at the time, Reverend Francis Rempe, had traveled to St. Louis to witness the dedication of St. Louis' Cathedral Basilica, and was so struck by the beauty of that church that he returned to the city determined to recreate it in Chicago. To that end, he hired the same architectural firm out of St. Louis, Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett to design a similar Byzantine church for the congregation of St. Clement.

I can see why Rev. Rempe was so motivated -- of the churches I've seen in the United States, the Cathedral Basilica is by far the most beautiful, in my opinion. That it has the most mosaics of any interior space in the world, many of them designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, is just icing on the cake. It goes toe to toe with any of the great cathedrals of Europe, even though it is hundreds of years younger.

Any church inspired by it had to be worth seeing, so I checked the congregation's website, which proved fruitless, other than an architectural tour I'd already missed. I emailed them to see if they would be offering another such tour in the future, and although they apparently offer one on the last Sunday of every month, I wouldn't be able to attend in May, and didn't want to wait until the end of June. Instead, they informed me that if I visited the church office, someone would let me in to view the church, which is precisely what I did.

Sadly, the dome of St. Clement is not visible from the front of the church. From the exterior, however, it greatly resembles the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Although St. Clement conforms to a basic cruciform plan, the inside of the church echoes the construction of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in that it features a large dome resting on a series of dramatic arches. Although greatly scaled down from their St. Louis project, Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett were able to capture some of the feel of the original.

When the parish office's secretary let me into the church, I assumed that she would turn on some lights for me. I was mistaken, however, and was glad that I had picked a sunny day and brought my tripod so I could take photos with very long exposure times. I have to say though, being alone in a dark, empty church is a pretty creepy experience. The darkness, the candles, and the solitude reminded me a bit of the off-the-beaten-track churches I've visited in Europe, but all things considered, I would have appreciated some artificial illumination.

In keeping with the Byzantine style of the church, St. Clement's pastor at the time selected a Russian painter to create the building's extensive murals. Gleb Werchovsky had studied Russian Orthodox icon painting techniques at the Fine Arts Academy in St. Petersburg before converting to Catholicism and coming to the United States to work as a liturgical artist. The dome features images of the angels bearing the signs of the zodiac, which in early Christianity were symbols of the heavenly cycle of time.

St. Clement features extensive symbolic stained glass work. Above is one of the three rose windows representing the three members of the Holy Trinity. The window above portrays Christ, as seen in the small lamb at the center. In the ambulatory behind the altar there are seven windows depicting angels bearing symbols of the seven sacraments, which alternate with mosaics picturing the early Fathers of the Catholic Church.

In the transept, six stained glass windows in the Pre-Raphaelite style represent the six days of creation in the Book of Genesis. On the left is the creation of the sun, moon, and stars; on the right is the creation of man.

Given some of the run-down churches I've seen in the course of this project, and the historic houses of worship that are losing their congregations (and therefore revenue sources) to changing neighborhood populations, it was refreshing to see a building that is still thriving and well-maintained. Once again, it was amazing to me to find such a architectural and artistic masterpiece, quietly serving its purpose on a side-street in Chicago, unbeknownst to the majority of its citizens. It just goes to show that you never know what treasures await you in the city, as long as you are willing to look for them...

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