St John Cantius, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John Cantius
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 8 April 2020, 8:00pm

The building

Begun in 1893 and dedicated five years later, St John Cantius is 19th century Baroque in Chicago, built for and by Polish immigrants as their parish church. But as the 20th century unfolded, the neighborhood went to seed and by 1988 the church was destined for the wrecking ball. But a renewed liturgical spirit came with the arrival of a new pastor, who founded the Canons Regular of St John Cantius, (quoting from their website) ‘a community of religious brothers and priests who strive to restore the sacred in parochial life.’ At the same time, the neighborhood began to gentrify, and the present day finds the church building, the parish community, and the surrounding area facing a bright future.

The church

The combination of parochial and monastic flourishes, according to their website. Again quoting: ‘Saint John Cantius Parish has adopted a policy of historical preservation and restoration not only of the physical plant and artwork, but also of the liturgy itself ... The parish has preserved ... not only Gregorian chant, but also choral and orchestral settings of the mass ranging from Renaissance composers ... to the Viennese style ... [to] premieres of newly written liturgical works.’ They celebrate the Tridentine mass, as well as the Novus Ordo liturgy in both Latin and the vernacular. Among other activities are classes in Latin, Greek, church heritage, catechetics, and Catholic culture.

The neighborhood

Once called Expatriate Poland, the area is now called River West due to its location west of the north branch of the Chicago River. Many of the old industrial buildings have been converted into residential lofts, and the area continues to ‘rise from dereliction,’ according to the church’s website.

The cast

Eight singers surrounded the central candlestick. Their website identified them as ‘the brothers and priests of the Canons Regular of St John Cantius.’

What was the name of the service?

Tenebrae. This was the second part of a two-day celebration. I had already seen Part One on video.

How full was the building?

Just the eight singers. The service was live-streamed.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was an introduction explaining that the service showed the deepening of our Lord's love for us. (Part One had represented everyone deserting him.)

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Slightly soupy music and visuals that kept me guessing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?


What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books, but you could download a booklet with all the words. (Very helpful.)

What musical instruments were played?

The singing was all unaccompanied.

Did anything distract you?

Wondering what the bit of decor behind the candlestick was.

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

Very well chanted throughout, with ritual performed decorously. They sang an ‘adaptation’ of monastic Tenebrae. There were 12 brown candles and one white one. A candle was extinguished at the end of each section.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Gregorian chanting at the end.

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

The visuals, which were mainly a series of close-ups.

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

There was a closing explanation given by a member of the community (who had not been one of the singers), who talked directly to the camera.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee.

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

10 — If I were ever in Chicago, I would seek them out. I expect to visit them again online as well.

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

Interested to see what they were doing; grateful to have it partly explained; pleased by their singing; intrigued by this unfamiliar version of a beautiful service.

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

The feeling that there is so much more to find out.

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