Vol. XX, No. 6
Recycling the House of God
Two Old Churches Unite to Become One New Parish
model of the completed St. Raphael the Archangel Church
by Richard J. Gambla
A church is a lot more than just a building. Nobody knows that better than the parishioners of St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church. They held their first Mass in 2007 in a converted barn on Route 173 in Old Mill Creek, a small town outside of Chicago. It wasn’t long, however, before the parish outgrew its temporary quarters. By 2008, the decision had already been made to build a new church.
That’s where the story gets interesting.
“As Catholics, our faith is built upon the faith of those who have come before us,” says Father John Jamnicky, St. Raph-ael’s founding pastor. “So when it came time to build our new church, it felt natural to look to the past for inspiration.”
As it turned out, the past would provide something a lot more concrete than just inspiration.
This particular story really begins more than a century ago, when the massive Union Stock Yards still dominated Chic-ago’s south side. The yards employed tens of thousands of workers, mainly immigrants. Most of these workers settled in the neighborhood that grew up adjacent to the meatpacking plants and the hundreds of acres of livestock pens. That neighborhood was originally called the Town of Lake, but would later become known as “Back of the Yards.” The lives and struggles of the downtrodden slaughterhouse and meatpacking workers who lived there were famously immortalized in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle.
The neighborhood was home to immigrants from many nations, striving to build new lives in the United States. The people of each small community tended to stick together, clustering in their own enclaves where they preserved their culture and their faith. The workers were German, Lithuanian, Slav, Russian, Ukrainian, Mexican, African American — and Polish.
By 1906, there were enough Polish families living south of 43rd Street and east of Ashland Avenue to justify the founding of a new parish. The Reverend John G. Jendrzejek purchased a city block at 52nd and Throop Streets, and the first St. John of God Church was dedicated in 1907.
Like today’s St. Raphael in Old Mill Creek, however, the parish grew quickly. In 1918, the cornerstone was laid for a much bigger Renaissance-style church building overlooking Sherman Park.
St. John of God
The first Mass in the new St. John of God Catholic Church, designed by noted Chicago architect Henry Schlacks, was celebrated on Palm Sunday in 1920. The completed church included a school, a priory, and a convent. Its sturdy limestone exterior was a reassuring presence for Catholic immigrants. With pastors bearing names like Grudzinski and Jagodzinski, St. John of God became the bedrock of the local Polish community. By 1922, some 2,400 families belonged to the parish.
St. Peter Canisius
Not far away in Austin — at that time one of Chicago’s middle-class neighborhoods — another Catholic church was growing as well. St. Peter Canisius Parish was established in 1925, named for the Jesuit priest who had just been canonized by Pope Pius XI and who played an important role in defending the Catholic faith in Germany. This was only fitting, because the parish was to provide a spiritual home for Austin’s German, Italian, and Irish immigrants.
Fewer than 200 families belonged at that time, and the first Mass was said in the chapel of a local funeral parlor. A new church and school building opened the next year, but the Great Depression slowed the progress toward construction of the planned permanent church, rectory, and convent. However, thanks to annual carnivals and raffles and the support of the fast-growing congregation, St. Peter Canisius parish acquired sufficient funds, and groundbreaking ceremonies were held in 1935.
In September 1936 Cardinal Munde-lein, the Archbishop of Chicago, dedicated all three buildings.
St. Peter Canisius towered over North Avenue and housed solid wooden pews, Italian marble statuary, and vibrant stained-glass windows. A page from a commemorative book issued in 1975 to celebrate the parish’s 50th anniversary described the interior of St. Peter Canisius and more of its history:
The church is well built and has the beautiful sweeping lines of the Romanesque style of architecture, seating 1,000 people. The stained glass windows, most of which were donated, came from Innsbruck, Austria, and were installed gradually. The marble furnishings were held up because of World War II. The altar from the temporary church was used until the new altar and the marble furnishings arrived from Italy in 1946. At this time the entire church was painted and the walls and ceiling embellished with beautiful pictures and symbols.
By the 1960s, however, both neighborhoods were changing. The decline and eventual closing of the Union Stock Yards affected employment and immigration in Chicago. Immigrant communities assimilated and dispersed, moving to the southwest side or the suburbs.
The Chicago Tribune summarized the shift in a 1992 article:
But like many inner-city churches, attendance started dropping at St. John of God as the original Polish population left the neighborhood. Attendance at the school dropped as well, because the neighborhood’s new residents could not afford tuition and sent their children to public schools instead.
The demographic changes in Chicago are far from unique. As a 2011 article in the National Catholic Reporter noted, Catholics have been becoming more geographically dispersed — including a shift from cities toward the suburbs:
An unintended consequence of this growth and migration has been a mismatch between Catholic institutions and Catholic population … more and more large, once-beautiful urban parishes and elementary schools in the traditional Catholic population centers such as Cleveland and Boston struggle under the burden of too few Catholics to provide financially for their maintenance or to keep them vibrant communities of faith.
St. Raphael — A New Model
With St. Raphael, however, we may be seeing a surprising new model for other parishes and dioceses navigating change.
In Chicago the archdiocese began consolidating Catholic parishes, and eventually both St. John of God and St. Peter Canisius were shuttered. By the time St. John of God closed in 1992, the church stood surrounded by gutted buildings and burned out homes. Sadly, its interior reflected the same neglect. With paint peeling off the walls, art works crumbling to dust, and windows broken, the once-beautiful landmark church was destined for a landfill. St. Peter Canisius closed in 2007, amid a neighborhood that had become notorious for drugs and prostitution. The stained glass and marble statuary that embodied yet another community’s legacy was also on the verge of being destroyed and forgotten — except the parishioners of St. Raphael the Archangel had other plans.
A fitting name, St. Raphael — the patron saint of happy meetings and of travelers — because two very unusual travelers were about to meet in an unexpected and unique way. Now remembered and rediscovered, both historic churches would physically become part of the new St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church.
“Nothing like this has ever been done before,” Father Jamnicky points out.
The still-robust limestone façade of St. John of God, including its 140-foot bell towers, was dismantled stone by stone. The pieces were then hauled 50 miles north to Old Mill Creek and painstakingly rebuilt to form the exterior of the new St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Church.
The beautiful interior elements of St. Peter Canisius then made the same trip: Tyrolian stained glass windows, oak pews, hand-carved marble altars and statues, the stations of the cross in raised relief multi-figural detail. All of the treasures created through the sacrifice, labor, and talent of those who went before would be restored and reused in the new church.
Jean Mulroney, a St. Raphael parishioner since 2007, has been heavily involved with the historic preservation project. She even donated a Holy Family stained glass window in memory of her late husband, Vincent.
“We will have a traditional church,” says Mulroney. “It will be a contemplative place to worship, and through our efforts to reuse and save items that would have been destroyed or stored, we are also saving natural resources.”
St. Raphael is intended to represent a bridge from past to future, so along with the sacred architecture and refurbished traditional stained glass that helps make it a “church that looks like a church,” brand new elements are being seamlessly integrated. Savoy Studios, a renowned and innovative glass design house based in Oregon, is creating angel light fixtures for the church’s interior, as well as a rose window 25 feet in diameter that depicts the seven sacraments.
Tradition and sacred architecture suit St. Raphael the Archangel, a parish loyal to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church — and so does sacred music.
St. Raphael has acquired a rare pipe organ that, like the two old churches, was languishing unused and unappreciated. The historic 1915 Austin Pipe Organ Opus 558 has long been considered a cultural treasure. Originally housed in Chicago’s famous Medinah Temple, it is one of the few large civic organs from the early 20th century that survives intact and playable. The Austin 558 is being authentically restored by the same company that originally built it, and the new church’s interior has been acoustically designed specifically to accommodate the organ’s rich sound. When the 5,120-pipe organ is rededicated, more than a century after its original debut, it will be available to the public for concerts and events, which should help make St. Raphael a prime venue for musicians from all over the world.
As with the construction of St. Peter Canisius during the Great Depression, the St. Raphael project was launched during a time of economic turmoil. Some St. Raph-ael parishioners, like Jim Sheehan, at first doubted whether building a church in the midst of a recession was feasible. However, Sheehan changed his mind after considering the achievements of hardworking immigrants who built beautiful churches as monuments of their faith — and even medieval peasants who came together and built magnificent cathedrals. Sheehan says he was struck by the fact that the common people who built churches in such times wanted to be part of something greater than themselves, something that would still be standing when they were long gone.
“When you are building for God,” Sheehan says, “timing doesn’t matter.”
A Church Is More Than a Building
A church is a lot more than just a building. In all faiths and cultures, houses of worship stand as monuments to the human longing for communion with the divine. Like Jean Mulroney’s “contemplative place to worship,” they are invitations to ponder a mysterious universe and our place in it. Therefore the decisions we make around our churches, their size, architecture, art, and maintenance, have a direct impact on our faith communities and how we come together to give glory to God. This is especially important for a traditional church like St. Raphael, where parishioners are committed to sharing Jesus’ message so that people who hear and understand it may find spiritual awakening and salvation.
Indeed, Jim Sheehan envisions St. Raphael as a means of evangelization, a way to bring people back into the faith and “create a long-lasting spiritual community whose beautiful church will bring people to experience a religious tradition that will lead them to honor God or simply reflect on their own religious/spiritual life.”
He describes an “intensity of religious experience” facilitated by the beauty and iconography of church buildings that express the majesty and dignity of the House of God. Sheehan and his wife Colleen donated the sanctuary lamp that burns night and day before St. Raphael’s tabernacle, in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. They chose this item because it is a symbol that indicates and honors the presence of Christ. In other words, it shows that God is present in His house.
In a letter to church colleagues, Father Jamnicky summed it up by writing, “We want this new church to be a clear and visible sign to all that a Catholic church does not stand alone. It is part of one universal Church. It is this universality and unity of our faith that distinguishes us from most others and that has sustained and will sustain us forever.”
Locally, the parishioners of St. Raphael the Archangel hope and expect that their new church will be a welcoming place for worship, a distinctive architectural landmark, and an important new cultural center for their community and entire region.
Globally, St. Raphael is a unique and innovative model of construction and preservation that could forever change the way we think about our Catholic heritage, and about landmarks that cannot be saved where they stand.
To Jean Mulroney, the most important thing about the project is that St. Raphael represents community for its parishioners, just as St. John of God and St. Peter Canisius did a century ago.
“To me, community is defined as people working together for a common goal,” she explains. “Our current goal is to finish this church and live in a manner respectful of all.”
Jim Sheehan agrees, and construes “community” in this case to refer broadly to the “people of God.” This reflects the philosophy underlying the St. Raphael project: that our churches are where we go to be together, places where our prayers rise up, places where we mark key moments in our lives with the sacraments. There can be no better way to respect the sacrifice and hard work of our forebears than to preserve the sacred places where they experienced the most profound joy and the deepest sorrow, where they sought spiritual guidance and comfort, and make them our places as well.
Construction is still in progress, as the parish works to complete major elements such as the church’s bell towers and colonnades. Donations are therefore very welcome.
For more information, visit the parish website: newoldchurch.org or call 847-395-3474.
Richard J. Gambla, PhD is the business and construction manager for St. Raphael the Archangel Church. He also designed and built the temporary church for St. Raphael parish, and was influential in relocating St. John of God and St. Peter Canisius churches. He now oversees the interior design and construction of the new church. He holds a PhD in classics and a Master of Arts from Northwestern University. (Denise Nicolaides of Wildcat Venture Management contributed to this story.)
Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy