Old St Patrick's, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Old St Patrick's
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 November 2019, 11:15am

The building

Old St Pat’s, as the locals call it, was dedicated in 1856, the parish having been founded a decade previously. It is the oldest public space in Chicago, having escaped the Great Fire of 1871. It is an example of Rundbogenstil, a 19th century revival of the hybrid Romanesque and classical style popular in Germany and the German diaspora. The two spires on either side of the church, intended to represent the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, were added in the mid 1880s. The interior is in the Celtic Revival style. The stained glass and stenciled wall decorations were heavily influenced by the Book of Kells; the result is an artistic treasure rich in detail. The windows memorialize not only the traditional Irish saints, but political figures as well. A renovation took place in 1992, restoring work that had been painted over and taking into account changes in the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council.

The church

In the mid 1980s Old St Patrick's was a parish in decline. It had all of four parishioners on its membership rolls, and at one of the current pastor's first masses there were twenty-five in attendance. But the neighborhood, and the parish, eventually came back (the pastor told me after mass that ‘The church never left this neighborhood’), and it is now a parish of some 3,000 families who come from all over the Chicago metro area. It's a very busy parish; the 24-page bulletin we were given listed activities for the coming week, including family bingo, a blood drive, a men's group ‘Beer Biz and Tasting,’ a financial planning seminar for young adults, spiritual retreats, and the solidarity market, where parishioners can do their holiday shopping with vendors who are committed to being stewards of the environment and to fighting poverty through job training. There are a variety of social groups. Two special annual events are worth noting: each summer they host ‘the world's largest block party.’ And each spring around St Patrick's day, they present at Symphony Center (home of the Chicago Symphony) Siamsa na nGael, a celebration of Irish music and dance. There are six Sunday masses (and no Saturday vigil mass).

The neighborhood

The church is just west of the Loop, Chicago’s downtown commercial core (the name refers to the elevated rail line that encircles the area). Directly across the street is a park jointly created by the city of Chicago and its sister city, Galway, Ireland.

The cast

The pastor celebrated and preached. He was assisted by two lectors, an intercessor, and fourteen eucharistic ministers. A choir of about twenty was directed from the piano. Several choir members served as cantors at various points in the service.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Overflowing. Pews were packed; chairs had been put out on just about every available space. The service was televised in a room downstairs, seating another 50-60. If this is what it is like on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, what are Christmas and Easter like?!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No, but we arrived early to enjoy the beautiful interior of this building.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quite a bit of chatter. The celebrant spent about 30 minutes before mass roaming up and down the center aisle, greeting parishioners and visitors alike.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Welcome to Old St Pat's.’ This from a laywoman, who then had quite a few announcements. Then a layman gave another announcement. The pastor then began with an invitation to an upcoming musical event. After that, he welcomed a group of young people from another parish who were seated in the balcony, and explained to them that at St Pat's there was no procession to begin mass; rather, the congregation greeted those around them. Then the opening hymn, and the usual ‘In the name of the Father ...’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A tri-fold leaflet with all of the music for the service. There were paperback books in the rear of the church with the readings.

What musical instruments were played?

Baby grand piano and flute. Old St Pat's does not have an organ.

Did anything distract you?

At the beginning of mass, there was a bit of noise from the basement room with the overflow seating.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

An informal celebration of the liturgy. The music was all contemporary. The Gloria in excelsis and verse to the Alleluia were omitted, and the responsorial psalm abbreviated. The pastor likes to amplify the missal texts with introductions – before the collect of the day, the reading of the gospel, the Orate fratres, the Lord's Prayer, etc. The petitions before the Kyrie were probably the longest I've heard. Communion was in both kinds. After the final communion hymn (gospel-tinged), the congregation applauded. The pastor remarked, ‘Aren't they great?’ and the congregation applauded again. Just before the blessing, the pastor noted that the Chicago Bears football game had begun a few minutes earlier and that the Philadelphia Eagles were leading.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes. This does not include the introduction to the gospel.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 — The pastor is an exceptional public speaker, who easily held the congregation's attention. Throughout the sermon you could have heard a pin drop.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

I didn't take notes on the part of the sermon given before the reading of the gospel (Zaccheus the tax collector climbs into a tree to be able to see Jesus), but I remember two things: the pastor said that he has always identified with this story because he, like Zaccheus, is short. And he noted that tax collectors were not respected in Jesus' time because they had a reputation for dishonesty, and most observant Jews would not break bread with a tax collector. He began the post-gospel part of his sermon by recalling his early days in the parish, when the parish had pretty much hit its low point. The church, he stated, ‘was a dump,’ and the neighborhood was rife with prostitution. One day a woman rang the bell at the rectory and asked to see a priest. She wanted to make a confession, and the pastor noted that probably no one at this Sunday's mass would need to confess anything like the sins this woman had committed. The pastor absolved her, and then said he had two questions for her: One, ‘Do you believe that God will forgive you?’ The woman replied, ‘Yes.’ Then he asked her, ‘Can you forgive yourself?’ She replied, ‘Father, I'm not sure about that one.’ We are all sinful, but we must learn to see ourselves as forgiven. Jesus, when he agreed to come to Zaccheus' home, was on a mission (‘to search out and save what was lost’), and Zaccheus gradually began to see himself not as a dishonest tax collector, but as God saw him – as a forgiven son of Abraham.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Catholics can sing! Quite impressive congregational singing, beautifully led by choir and instrumentalists.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The introduction to the Lord's Prayer, revisiting some of the points made in the sermon, and underscored by quiet piano music, which continued through the Lord's Prayer. A bit maudlin, I thought.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The woman sitting directly in front of me turned around and said that she had enjoyed my singing during mass. She then noted our luggage sitting by the pew we were in, and asked where we were from. We had a nice chat. The pastor was waiting outside to greet the congregation, and I said to him, ‘Such wonderful preaching and music – it's a shame no one attends here.’ He laughed, and noted that when he first arrived at the parish, ‘You could take a nap in the street in front of the church and not worry about being run over.’ He also noted our luggage and asked how long we would be in Chicago. When we replied we were on our way to Union Station to catch our train, he said, ‘Safe travels, and take the Spirit with you.’

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — Another visit would be to hear a Catholic congregation that isn't afraid to sing. I wouldn't mind hearing this pastor preach again, either.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Sitting in a sports bar at Union Station shortly after mass, and noting that the Philadelphia Eagles had extended their lead to 12-0 (they eventually won the game).

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