St Clement Parish, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Clement Parish
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 13 April 2022, 7:00pm

The building

Dedicated in 1918, the church was designed by the same architects who designed the cathedral-basilica in St Louis, and there is a definite family relationship (St Clement's, though, is smaller and has better acoustics). The exterior is unassuming. The interior, on the other hand, is a stunning example of Byzantine art. The altar is in the center of the transept. On the front of the altar is a mosaic depicting Christ as the Lamb of God, with the Greek letters alpha and omega on either side. In the apse is a painting of Christ on the cross, growing out of the Tree of Life, modeled on a similar painting in San Clemente church in Rome. Beneath it is the baptistery, allowing for baptism by immersion. There are three rose windows (known as 'wheel windows' in the Byzantine tradition), each devoted to a person of the Trinity. On either side of the transept are windows representing the second (the Lamb of God) and third (a dove, representing the Holy Spirit) persons of the Trinity. In the balcony, behind the main organ, is a window featuring the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew letters representing the name of God. The Stations of the Cross are interesting: each is a simple cross against a red background, with a Roman numeral to indicate which station they represent. This barely begins to describe the artistic richness of this space – the parish website has an extended description.

The church

This is a large parish (there are seven masses each weekend), with a broad range of ministries. Especially notable are its social justice ministries (this year, for example, they have designated April 23-30 as 'Service Week,' with parishioners encouraged to select ways of engagement in the community). And the music program is exceptional, as this service indicated.

The neighborhood

St Clement's is in the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood, north of Chicago's loop. It is near DePaul University, a leading Catholic university in the US. On West Deming Place are upscale apartments and condominiums.

The cast

A priest vested in cope led the opening versicles and responses, and led the congregation in the Lord's Prayer. There were two lectors, an acolyte who extinguished fourteen candles at the appropriate time, and an organist/choir director, leading a mixed choir of 16-17 singers.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

The transept was three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed me an elaborate service leaflet and noted that we were requested to sit in the transept.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The priest said, 'God, come to my assistance,' to which we replied, 'Lord, make haste to help me,' followed by the Gloria Patri.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Only the leaflet designed for this service.

What musical instruments were played?

A five stop, portative organ by Taylor & Boody of Staunton, Virginia. It has a transposable keyboard, in which A can be played at either 415 or 440, the former for early music repertoires. In the rear balcony there is a two manual, 27 rank Casavant Frères pipe organ, which was not used in this service. Except for a couple of psalm tones during the Lauds part of the service, most of the service was sung a cappella.

Did anything distract you?

The congregation were encouraged to sing the psalms to the psalm tones provided in the service leaflet. A gentleman seated not far from me seemed not to understand the notation.

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

Tenebrae, strictly speaking, is the combined morning offices of matins and lauds, anticipated and prayed the evening before Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. A special feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of fourteen candles, signifying the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus. After all candles but one are extinguished, the last candle is removed from the sanctuary until the strepitus – a loud noise recalling the earthquake at the crucifixion – brings the final candle back, signifying Christ, the light of the world that cannot be extinguished. St Clement's has adopted an abbreviated form of Tenebrae, with a sampling of the psalms, readings, canticles, versicles and responses from the entire service, plus Pietro Yon’s Christus factus est and the famous Allegri Miserere. The candles were placed in front of the altar, and the congregation were invited to make the most of the strepitus by rapping on the pews until the Christ Candle returned. Music was a mix of congregational singing and choral offerings (the latter largely in Latin, the former entirely in English). The verses of the psalms were sung alternating between the two sides of the transept.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The wonderful singing (and there was a lot of it) of the choir.

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

Despite the remarkable job of adaptation, the service leaflet did have some glitches. Psalm 22 as chanted by the choir was missing verses 22-24 in the leaflet. The flex, sometimes a part of the first half of the psalm tones used for the psalms, was in the leaflet, but I suspect most members of the congregation didn’t notice it, as it was printed following the second half of the psalm tone. And the pointing for Psalm 63 in Lauds was absent for the second half of verse 7. But by and large, a complex liturgy was well supported by the printed materials we were given.

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

We were asked to leave in silence.

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 — I have visited St Clement's on a couple of previous occasions, and make a point of attending there when in Chicago. The space, the music, the liturgy, are all beautiful.

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


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

The remarkable way that this parish has adapted the traditional Tenebrae service for a parish setting.

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