Dedicated in 1924, it has been described as the first modern Catholic church in the United States. It was designed by Barry Byrne, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, and was intended to be a church of "our own time and country." Byrne was quite aware of the nascent liturgical movement, and created a wide (five aisles) and relatively shallow nave, with the sanctuary area pulled into the nave, and with no columns obstructing the congregation's view of the altar. When the building was first used, it caused quite a stir. Byrne and Alfonso Ianelli (who did much of the interior design) actually quit the project over disagreements with the pastor and a donor over elements of the design (Byrne was especially upset about the elaborate baldacchino over the original altar). This led to other commissions within the archdiocese being withdrawn. There are impressive stained glass windows by Valentine François d’Ogries of New Hope, Pennsylvania, the largest collection of d’Ogries windows anywhere. The stations of the cross, striking in their design, are by the Florentine artist Alfeo Faggi. The building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The parish dates from 1869 and sponsors a number of activities: chapters of St Vincent de Paul and the Knights of Columbus, Bible study groups (including JAM, which takes place at a local bar; the parish foots the bill for the first round of drinks), a youth group, charismatic prayer group, social justice ministries, and sacramental preparation. There is an elementary school, and Carith, a Carmelite pre-novitiate house (a Carmelite Community administers the parish). There are three masses each weekend and a daily mass in an adjoining chapel each weekday.
The church is in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, one of Chicago's most racially diverse communities (President Barack Obama has a home in Hyde Park). To one side of the church is a park; otherwise the parish is surrounded by the University of Chicago, one of the country's preeminent research universities.
The celebrant's name was not given, but I believe he was one of the priests in residence. Ed Martin led a small music group.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
About 60 per cent full by the time everyone had entered (which was as the gospel was being read). The make-up of the congregation reflected the diversity of Hyde Park.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. Copies of a combination hymnal/missal were available in the rear of the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. No arch in the back at all.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet and reverent, although the contemporary music group did a bit of rehearsing.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to St Thomas the Apostle parish." The cantor then let us know where we could find the readings and musical items to be sung.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Worship, 4th edition, published by GIA Publications, Inc. (a Chicago firm).
What musical instruments were played?
Baby grand piano and two acoustic guitars. In addition, a quartet of singers led the congregation.
Did anything distract you?
The kneelers impossible to pull them out without making quite a racket.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A little higher than one usually encounters in an American Catholic parish. Torches accompanied the celebrant's approach to the ambo, and crucifer and torches led the offertory procession. No one felt a need to resort to "happy talk" to make the liturgy more informal. After the final hymn, the priest invited those in the congregation who wished to approach the front of the church for the anointing of the sick.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The priest spoke fluent but heavily accented English. Unfortunately, there were multiple ambulance or fire sirens from outside, and two rather rambunctious young folk a couple of pews behind me (earning quite a scowl from the woman seated immediately in front of me). So I didn't catch as much of the sermon as I might have liked.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began by describing a French painting of Jesus as Good Shepherd, and said that this kind of art unfortunately affected the spiritual life of the Catholic Church. The sweet, sentimental images are not what true Christianity is about. He then gave an overview of images of God as shepherd throughout the Bible, including the prophetic writings of the Hebrew scriptures.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The beauty of the space.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Unfortunately, this is not a singing congregation. No fault of the contemporary music group, who expertly provided musical leadership for the service. And, this seemed to have been a musical "golden oldies" Sunday: "One Bread, One Body," "Gather Us In," and Marty Haugen's overused Mass of Creation.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I walked toward the sanctuary area for another picture or two, then walked over toward the organ console (the organ is not often used, I gather). I struck up a conversation with one of the musicians, who was quite knowledgeable about Barry Byrne and the history of the building. She was most welcoming.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If only these folks would sing!
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 history of this building, the controversy it engendered when first opened, and how it now seems such an ideal setting for celebrating liturgy.