This week, I’m profiling various Catholic parishes around the Chicago area again. This the article you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? Ever since I wrote an initial examination of three very different but equally faithful Catholic churches in Chicago, my readers have been clamoring for more. I’ve been asked repeatedly when the next article on that topic would arrive.
Today is that day.
Of course, I didn’t just want to rehash what I wrote the first time around. I began to think about how I could take this in a different direction for my second article. Last time, I wrote about three parishes all within Chicago city limits. Today, I’m profiling three parishes all located in the Chicago suburbs. Last time, I wrote about three parishes with extremely different ethnic cultures and national origins. Today, I’m covering three churches where most of the parishioners are upper middle class suburbanites of European ancestry, whose native language is English. Most of my readers could probably identify with a lot of those traits. But where’s the “diversity” you ask? You might be surprised. Although they sound alike on paper, these Catholic parishes have a vastly different focus, outreach, worship style, and formalities. Read on, I think you’ll be surprised.
Church #1 (or numerusunum, for those of you who like Latin) is Holy Family Catholic Community, located at 2515 Palatine Road in Inverness, Illinois (for the geographically challenged, that’s the far northwest suburbs of Cook County). The pastor is Fr. Terry Keehan. Of the three churches profiled today, Holy Family is the only one I’ve visited in person. I was there a few months ago when the church was hosting a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà. The first thing you’ll notice when you visit Holy Family is the size of the place – it’s huge! It’s not St. Peter’s Basilica but it’s certainly massive. Holy Family is right down the street from Willow Creek Community Church, the largest nondenominational evangelical mega church in America. In many ways, Holy Family is the Catholic equivalent. Even before the church’s expansion, when it first opened its doors in 1988, the original building contained 57,000 square feet of space, with more than ten miles of wiring and 31,000 square feet of carpeting, situated on 16 acres of land. 4,000 tons of concrete were poured and 400 tons of stone surrounded the exterior. The major trusses in the worship space weigh more than 100 tons, and they can be seen through the 3,700 square feet of glass that surround the space. Today, Holy Family serves “almost 4,000 families and nearly 15,000 members” (according to its website). Even the parish council that oversees operations of the parish is huge: the parish is divided into 20 neighborhoods or regions. Each of these neighborhoods has its own “parishioner overseer” to coordinate neighborhood representatives or ministers. In turn, the locals try on a regular basis, to communicate with their neighbors, people who are also members of Holy Family, so the thousands of parishioners are kept in regular contact about church events.
Holy Family’s mission is “Christian evangelization”, the kind of thing you usually see as a protestant outdoor revival meeting. In many ways, they use a similar approach. The morning Mass at Holy Family (one of five during the day, with multiple priests celebrating each service) is complete with jumbo screens, guitars, a pastor with a mic preaching through a booming sound system, and a great deal of biblical content—the overall liturgy had a degree of “God-centeredness” to promote Jesus.
Both the interior and the exterior of the church feature awe-inspiring ultra-modern designs. At the center of the worship space is a unique crucifix, known as the “The Cross of New Life”It is an amazing clear crystalline sculpture that measures 12 feet by 16 feet, weighs almost 2,000 pounds, and is suspended over the altar steps where much of our sacramental life takes place. (a photo is included in this article). Many Catholic parishes have monthly 24 hour adoration chapels. But at Holy Family parish, they take it one step further and have an entire floor space dedicated to a chapel. Known as The Sacred Heart Chapel, it is open 24 hours a day/7 days a week and 365 days a year for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. On the other side of the church, there’s another large room dedicated to the work of mercy and justice, which articulates “the seven areas of mercy and justice that we are especially committed to”.
Indeed, Holy Family itself organizes over 140 ministries. Although Catholic “mega parishes” different fundamentally from protestant “mega parishes” so much that it’s consider distasteful to refer to places like Holy Family as a “mega church”, they no doubt have similar effects. Catholic Megaparishes can have as many as seven Masses each weekend, and some have certain Masses focused on an age group, such as a teen Mass that is for the whole congregation but includes such features as a teen choir or teen volunteers. Fr. Brennan, the former pastor of Holy Family, is now pastor of St. Thomas mega church in Texas, and some of their hundreds of ministries include Ecumenical Outreach Minister, Bread Baker, and Pat-a-Cake Ministry, choir, gardeners and Retreat Ministry. Whether this type of church buffet is comfortable for you or not is a matter of taste, but it clearly reaches many people. The parish website notes “We had over two hundred people attend Holy Family parish in Inverness on a cold night of six degrees and a wind chill of five below zero [just] to hear Justice Anne Burke, Illinois Supreme Court Justice and acting chair of the USCCB National Review Board [that investigates the] sexual abuse crisis”. Clearly, Holy Family has been a wildly successful endeavor.
In case anyone is horrified at the thought of an all-encompassing mega church, you’ll probably feel better about reading details of Ecclesia numerusduobus ( that’s Church #2 in Latin, the language I’m sure the pastor of this church would prefer).Namely, it’s Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Chapel at 205 Fulton Street in Elgin, Illinois. An internet directory summarizes the parish simply as “Small church. Traditional worship.”, but that’s a bit like describing the Amish as “Dress plainly. Work Hard.” It hardly does it justice. To better explain the parish, it’s best to describe them as a traditionalist Catholic Chapel that strictly adheres to the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church prior to the changes of the 1960’s. The website notes “If you wish to worship and believe as Catholics have worshiped and believed for centuries, then our chapel is the home you’ve been looking for”. Of course, for Roman Catholics born after Vatican II, this might be a tad difficult to get used to.
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary even strongly advises Catholics who attend the “new Mass” to refrain from receiving communion at Our Lady until they have spoke with the pastor (Fr. Ronald Brown) and become familiar and are able to participate in a Tridentine Mass. The church website has a detailed guide for visitors on church etiquette, such as “If you plan to visit the Chapel or attend Mass here, please remember we adhere to the traditional modesty rules of the Roman Catholic Church. Ladies are required to wear a head covering (available in the back of the Chapel) and no short skirts or revealing clothing is permitted. For men: jeans, shorts, sneakers and other forms of casual wear are not permitted while attending Holy Mass. Catholic ladies and men should always be dressed modestly, especially when attending Mass. We have disposable veils for ladies at the religious goods counter. Those who refuse to abide by the Catholic standards of modesty in dress, will be refused the Sacraments, as Church law requires priests to do. “
Since Our Lady of the Holy Rosary exclusively worships in the style of the pre-1960s Roman Catholic Church, this means the bulk of the prayers and Mass are conducted in the Latin language, and that many customs and rituals are far more complex and reverent than are usually used in modern Catholic parishes. (“If the traditional Mass was good enough for the saints, it is good enough for us”, they write) The parish has a great deal of interesting and informative reading material on both their website and in the St. Theresa Library and the St. Francis Book & Gift Centerat their parish that explain the differences. One important thing to note about Our Lady of the Holy Rosary chapel is these AREN’T merely Roman Catholics who like to observe old traditions. They even advise AGAINST visiting their church if people just want to see a Tridentine Mass for “nostalgia” reasons. The clergy (and parish members) are traditionalist Catholics who explicitly REJECT all post-Vatican II changes to the Catholic church and even reject modern Masses as “not Catholic”. On their website, they write “It also became clear that many who attend the “modern Mass” or the “New Mass” as it is called, no longer believe in the historical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church….We do not believe that those who practice a modernist/liberal (updated) or “renewed” religion are really and certainly Catholic anymore. We resist the “renewal” and modernist thinking because our Catholic faith requires us to do that for the salvation of our souls.”
In short, Traditionalist Catholics see the pre-1960s Roman Catholic worship as the ONLY valid form of the Catholic faith. Our Lady of the Rosary differs from other traditionalist Catholics (such as Mel Gibson’s dad, Hutton Gibson – who hates the Pope) because they remain in union with Rome and accept the post-Vatican II Popes as valid (on their website, they even note that other traditionalist Catholics have emailed them and complained that they pray for the Pope during Mass, since traditionalist Catholics in schism with Rome believe the Pope is teaching heresy). Instead, these traditionalist Catholics remain united with Rome, but it is not a happy marriage as long as the Vatican II changes remain in effect for other Catholics.
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is a modest little chapel, located in downtown Elgin (across from the Elgin Community College campus), with amble free parking available. When entering the building, visitors immediately notice a great deal of reverence and respect in the building as soon as they enter the chapel. The church ask visitors to “prepare for Holy Mass in quiet and contemplative prayer, or reflection”. While they welcome Catholic visitors, they want people to know that they preach “no nonscene Catholicism” (“Our sermons are Catholic: no social nonsense, no liberal modernist babble here. If you are comfortable with the modern wimpy and whiny clergy, you won’t feel at home here”) and for their mission, “we challenge you to become a saint”. If traditionalism Catholicism is your thing and you’re REALLY serious about returning to pre-1962 Roman Catholic faith, this is the parish to check out. As a plus, they promise free donuts with Fr. Brown during the coffee hour after Mass every Sunday (“sometimes we have Filipino or Mexican food” as well). At Our Lady of the Rosary, it’s not JUST about experiencing the traditional Latin Mass, it’s about a return to the highest and most reverent form of Catholicism that was practiced in days past.
So, now you’ve heard about an ultra-modern Catholic church that reaches out to everyone, and a strictly traditional Catholic church that is extremely selective about membership and rejects any post-1960s changes. How could the third church differ from those two? Maybe they offer a happy medium? Sort of, but not really. Biserică număr trei (Church #3, do want to guess the language? It’s not Latin) is St. George’s Catholic Church, located at the intersection of Rural and Sheridan Streets in Aurora, Illinois. The parish is a modest sized regular looking church building that really doesn’t draw much attention from the outside. The pastor is Fr. Fred Peterson, OSB. It follows a reverent worship style that has been preserved for centuries, yet it’s vastly different from ANYTHING you’d see in a traditional Roman Catholic service. Confused yet?
It turns out that St. George’s is an eastern-rite Catholic parish, similar to St. Joseph’s Ukraine Greek Catholic Church discussed in my previous article. But make no mistake, while St. George has a similar liturgical tradition, their focus and heritage is quite different than St. Joe’s. St. George’s is a Byzantine Catholic Church, under the jurisdiction of the Romanian Catholic Eparchy of Canton, OH. Specifically, they originated in the Transylvania region of the Carpathian mountains… yes, the same place Dracula supposed hailed from. But the parishioners aren’t vampires, they’re some of the most faithful Catholics you’ll meet and have one of the most beautiful liturgies in the Catholic church. Don’t let the exotic ethnic origins fool you into thinking you won’t understand the service. In fact, the liturgies of St. George Church are chanted in English (as it is the first language of the most of the parishioners, Romanian hasn’t been used since 1975), following a chant tradition brought to the United States from the city of Blaj and its environs over a century ago. Many of the parishioners aren’t even Romanian, and some are even Roman Catholics who have opted to join an eastern-rite parish because they enjoy the service more.
An example is John Wiesner, who was raised Roman Catholic but became active as a member of St. George Byzantine Catholic Church and co-founded Transfiguration College in Aurora a few years ago to host Catholic seminar classes teaching about church literature written by the early church fathers. St. George’s also featured a rare treasure among Catholic parishes, they host regular Icon Workshops, due to the tradition of icons at thecenter of Byzantine worship. St. George has hosted an iconography workshop for nearly a decade now, where students are taught by Wiesner the techniques and theology of writing icons over the course 1-to-2 week sessions. The church states that “No previous artistic experience or training is required, and all are welcome”. Several talented iconographers have contributed to the iconography of St. George Church, including Greek iconographers like Dimitrios Mourlas and George Panagiotopoulos, who wrote the icons in the church’s iconostasis and the Pantocrater installed in July 2006. As an added cultural flair, luncheons following the Divine Liturgy frequently feature Romanian foods including garlic sausage (carnatz) and Romanian cookies. An icon made of chocolate complements the hall decorations in the colors of the Romanian flag – blue, yellow and red.
Surprisingly enough, St. George’s is one of TWO Romanian Byzantine Catholic Churches located in Aurora. It’s the “younger” (and smaller) of the two, having been founded in 1935 and the current church structure dedicated in 1966. The other is St. Michael’s at 609 North Lincoln Avenue, a large striking parish with a clock tower that was founded in 1906. The reason why two of the same rare type of Catholic parishes exist in the same town is simple… the local Romanian immigrant population grew too big to house everyone in the original parish, so a second Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church was created in 1930s – St. George’s. They originally met in a basement until a building of their own could be erected. “[We] to give thanks for the many blessing God has showered down upon this parish for 75 years”, said Benedictine Abbot John Brahill while giving a homily at St. George’s a few years back. Indeed they have come a long way.
So in closing, I hope you’ve discovered that a bunch of Catholic parishes filled with mostly white suburbanites can be vastly different experiences depending on where you go. Many times we assume the Catholic faith is too static and uniform because we simply don’t know where to look. Chicago has one of the richest examples of diversity in America. For my second article on Chicago parishes, I hope you’ll remember that I don’t merely speak of “diversity” due to ethnic or national origin, but more often than not thru the way they communicate the Catholic faith. Ironically, one could claim that the “all inclusive” atmosphere Holy Family is more in the spirit of the “universal” nature of the church and thus its more true to traditional Catholic outreach, or that Our Lady of the Rosary, in its mission to stridently uphold pre-Vatican II ideals, is actually the more ”renegade” and maverick parish despite the fact it’s far more faithful to Catholic traditions than many parishes today. Or one could argue that St. George’s Byzantine Catholic is reaching out to Roman Catholic faithful better than many of the Roman Catholic churches in the region. It’s all subjective. But remember this – no matter what tradition captures your heart, every one of them did so with the blessing and sanction of Popes like John Paul II. And that is truly miraculous.