Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 October 2013, 11:00am

The building

A traditional structure in English Tudor Gothic style, dating from 1913, built of Indiana limestone. There is a rear gallery for choir and organ. The most distinguishing characteristic is a series of stained glass windows, designed by the John J. Kinsella firm of Chicago, whose windows in the Tiffany style grace numerous churches in the Chicago area. The four archangels are located in the church's apse; the central window in the apse is an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. On the side walls are ten windows of various saints, Mary Immaculate, and the Good Shepherd. Appropriately, a St Cecilia window illuminates the rear choir loft. There is also a chapel (the Eden Chapel) where weekday masses are celebrated.

The church

The parish was founded in 1886 as the mother parish for English-speaking Catholics on the north side of Chicago. It seems best known for its school and its music program, with four choirs and two excellent organs. Their ambitious choral plans for 2013-2014 can be seen on their website.

The neighborhood

The church is in Lakeview East, one of Chicago's older neighborhoods: a mix of apartment dwellings, small businesses and ethnic restaurants. It is about five miles north of the Loop.

The cast

The Revd Patrick J. Lee, pastor, was homilist and celebrant. I assume that Paul French, music director, conducted the choir, and that Kelly Dobbs-Mickus, organist, presided at her instrument (no information was given in the service leaflet).

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

People kept streaming in as late as the second reading. I would guess the church holds about 700, and by the time everyone was in, it was slightly over one-half full. The congregation were both racially and generationally diverse.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed me a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Quite, with kneelers under the pew in front.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Very quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

From the cantor: "Good morning. Please take a moment to silence all cell phones." Following the opening hymn, the standard "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A four-page service leaflet, and the hymnal Ritual Song, a publication of GIA, Inc. which is located in Chicago. Taped into the inside back cover of the hymnal was the order for mass, with the new translation of the missal.

What musical instruments were played?

The parish has two quite fine organs: in the rear gallery, a 1928 opus of the venerable organ builder E.M. Skinner, restored (but not altered) by Fabry Pipe Organs of Antioch, Illinois, and one of the only unaltered Skinner organs in existence; and along the north wall, a 1987 mechanical action instrument by Visser-Rowland of Houston. Only the former instrument was used for this service.

Did anything distract you?

I had to tolerate yet another crying baby. This one was something else: incredible lung capacity, capable of drowning out much of the first reading and psalm. Its parents seemed to be very reluctant to take it outside. I don't think I've ever heard an infant quite so vocal in church before.

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

Stiff upper-lip, to be sure. Incense was used (first censing, gospel, and offertory, but nothing at the elevation). Bells were rung during the institution narrative, and there was a good bit of chant: the alleluia refrain, sursum corda, Lord's Prayer, and (in Latin) the proper communion antiphon for the day. Announcements at the end of mass were kept to a minimum, and the sharing of the peace was over pretty quickly. Communion was in one kind only.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

10 – Low key but effective and thought-provoking.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father Lee preached on the gospel for the day, Luke 18:1-8 (the parable of the persistent widow who finally wins justice from a hard-hearted judge). This parable illustrates Jesus' sense of humor – he was trying to turn our thinking upside down. Because we think of God as all-powerful, we are tempted to compare him to the judge in the parable. But Jesus did not come in power, but rather as a servant. God gently persists in turning our hearts back to him. The judge in the parable does not embody this notion; rather, the widow does! We are the ones who have become selfish and self-concerned, like the judge, but prayer breaks down our resistance to God's grace.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

An extraordinarily generous offering of music, beautifully done. Three choruses of Mendelssohn (two from the oratorio Elijah, and the Da Nobis Pacem); the Kyrie, Gloria and part of the Agnus Dei from Mozart's Missa Brevis, K. 275; and stunning settings of the psalm verses and alleluia verse by the parish's former music director, William Ferris. The prelude and postlude were from Mendelssohn's Organ Sonata, op. 65, no. 2, and the opening and closing hymns were embellished with improvised introductions and interludes as well as soaring soprano descants. Ms Dobbs-Mickus was a superb accompanist on the Mozart Kyrie and Gloria.

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

After the peace, the choir began to sing the Agnus Dei to the simple Gregorian chant that most Catholic parishes know well. But I was taken aback when, for the third petition, the choir sang a fragment from the Mozart Agnus Dei. The effect was weird, and I'm not sure that such a little snippet of a Mozart movement added much to the proceedings. (Granted, if this is the worst hell has to offer, it may not be so bad!)

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

I remained in my pew to hear the Mendelssohn postlude; by the time it was over, the church was virtually empty and the lights were being turned off.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

7 – My first reaction is no, it's just too liturgically conservative for my tastes. But as I recall the exquisite music, the diversity of the congregation, and Father Lee's homily, I start to rethink. Should Materfamilias and I move to Chicago, we would probably try Our Lady of Mount Carmel for a few weeks.

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


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

Hearing a chant Agnus Dei suddenly interrupted by Mozart.

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