A Religious Experience - Part Fifteen

It only took me six months to write about them all, but today's entry will round out the complement of posts concerning the churches and houses of worship that Justin and visited last October as part of our Open House Chicago experience. I can't express how pleased I was when I spotted Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica under the "Sacred Spaces" section of the Open House Chicago listings. It had not participated the year before, or I would have made a point of going then. 

Our Lady of Sorrows has been a priority on my Chicago religious tourism to-do list ever since its inception almost three years ago, due to its status as one of only three Chicago Catholic churches designated as a basilica-level house of worship by the Vatican. Only the pope can designate a church a basilica, and the title is reserved for the churches that are the largest, most grand, and of most significance to pilgrims. I had made it to Queen of All Saints, another Chicagoland basilica in 2010, but the questionable west-side neighborhood in which Our Lady of Sorrows is located gave me pause, and I didn't want to trek there on the bus, or alone for that matter. Hence, their participation in Open House Chicago gave me a perfect opportunity to finally make a point of checking it out.

Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica
 3101 West Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, IL

The parish of Our Lady of Sorrows was founded in 1874 by a group of Servite friars hoping to cater to a handful of Catholics living in what was then the prairie to the west of the city. As the city grew, the urban sprawl engulfed the parish and construction started on present church building in 1890. It was not finished for 12 years, but the church did not truly come into its own until the 1930s, when the Sorrowful Mother Novena series of services was originated. By the end of that decade, the Sorrowful Mother Novena had spread to over 2000 other churches worldwide, and the church was home to 38 separate services a day, accommodating some seventy thousand worshipers daily. If you stop to consider that, it's truly astonishing!

If you factor in the scale of the space, however, it is perhaps not so surprising. The soaring coffered ceiling of the nave extends some eight stories into the air, and the coffers themselves are constructed in a tromp l'eoil manner that gives them the illusion of stretching even higher by strategically elongating some squares and foreshortening others. Plus, the insides of the coffers are painted to get darker as they extend upwards, furthering the illusion of extreme height.

The altar is built of white Carrara marble, flanked by balconies on both signs in a design that mimics that of the altar in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. That is not the only allusion to the Vatican, however, as a side chapel dedicated to silent prayer and reflection houses a faithful copy of Michelangelo's Pieta.

This image better depicts the tromp l'oeil qualities of the coffers. In fact, in this section of the church, they further manipulate the eye into seeing a rounded, half-dome appearance, when the wall is actually flat.

A smaller altar in the east transept is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, who is recreated in marble and Venetian mosaics. She is surrounded by the seven founders of the Servite order, who are depicted as being called to serve her. The murals in this end of the transept are more recent, dating back to 1956, when the church was designated as a basilica by Pope Pius XII, making it the first church in Illinois to receive that honor. The image below depicts the actual signing of the papal bull that declared Our Lady of Sorrows to be a basilica.

Initially, Our Lady of Sorrows catered to a predominately Irish and Italian population, and then later a Hispanic congregation as the neighborhood changed. Today, the West Side is predominately African-American and Protestant, but the church has managed to retain some of its significance by drawing a large number of pilgrims. It is the national shrine of not only Our Lady of Sorrows, but also St. Peregrine, the patron saint of those afflicted with cancer, AIDS/HIV, and other life-threatening illnesses. Plus, people still travel there to participate in the Sorrowful Mother Novena, which has been practiced there for over seventy-five years now.

When I walked into Our Lady of Sorrows, I was almost overwhelmed with joy. Not only was it easily the most elegant and monumental ecclesiastic space I've yet to encounter in my home city, it is still beautifully maintained. It may not have the most lovely stained glass, the most elaborate stained glass, or the most intricate murals, but the sheer volume of the space and the amazing coffered ceiling were more than enough to inspire awe in this most veteran of church visitors. It was a perfect note upon which to close our two-day odyssey of architectural tourism, and it gave me hope that if this incredible gem is hiding out on the West Side, that there are still plenty of secrets waiting to be revealed as I continue my own pilgrimage through Chicago's great churches. I can't wait to see where this journey takes me next, and I hope you stay tuned to find out.

No comments:

Post a Comment