St. John Cantius in Chicago: Longtime Centre for Liturgical Arts

Photos: Canons Regular of St. John Cantius

St. John Cantius (they also operate Biretta Books, suppliers of everything from books to vestments) is one of the most impressive parishes in the United States and reputedly has one of the finest sacred music programs in North America.  Every time I have found myself in Chicago I have made a point to stop here for Sunday Mass.  St. John Cantius has long been one of my favorites, an unbreakable community known for its solemn liturgies, wealth of art and architecture and rich program of sacred music.  It is one of many historically Polish churches in Chicago, located close to downtown, a monumental structure that is a flagship parish and a model for other regular parishes in North America.  It has been called by many the American version of the London Oratory.  

Thankfully the unique baroque interior survived the iconoclasm of the sixties and has remained intact with original decorations.  In many ways it is reminiscent of the sumptuous eighteenth century baroque churches in Poland that have survived the destruction of recent centuries.  The imposing church tower is seen from the Kennedy Expressway, towering 130 feet (40 meters) as a familiar city landmark in Chicago's West Town "Polonia" neighborhood.  In 2013 the church was completely restored, brining the interior back to its original splendor.  

The church was founded by Polish immigrants, and thus the titular name.  St. John Cantius (1390-1473) was a popular Polish saint who was a priest, philosopher, theologian and physicist.  Construction began on the church in 1893 and was completed in 1898.  The church from the beginning has been under the spiritual care of the Congregation of the Resurrection (C.R.), an institute of consecrated life for men that was founded in Paris in 1836 to minister to cultural Poles who had emigrated from their motherland. 

The laying of the cornerstone in 1893 was attended by some 50,000 people.  The architect was Adolphus Druiding, a German-born American architect who died in 1900.  The church took five years to build and was dedicated in 1898.  By 1918 the parish had some 23,000 registered parishioners and 2,500 children in the school next to the church.  Around that time parish numbers peaked, with the rectory and convent and school full to capacity.  All of this enhanced the parish culture in a city surrounded with countless similar parishes and booming schools.     

The exterior of the church is a unique composition with a share of rusticated Bedford limestone and flat stones influenced by Neo-Classical and Renaissance designs.  Three Romanesque portals are set in receding arches that lead to the interior of the church.  At the top of the facade is a pediment decorated with the coat-of-arms of Poland's famous January Uprising (1863-1864), with an inscription that reads in Polish, "God Save Poland."  Just below this is an entablature with in large stone letters the words, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, proclaiming that the building is for the greater glory of God.  The entrance is flanked by two asymmetrical towers topped with copper cupolas, one 200 feet (61 meters) and the other 100 feet (30 meters) in height, styled after the Basilica of St. Mary in Krakow and influenced by Chartres Cathedral.  The entire structure is 230 feet (70 meters) long and 107 feet (33 meters) wide.  It can seat approximately 2,000 faithful in its white oak pews.    

The baroque interior of the church draws the visitors attention to the magnificent high altar and two side altars, framed by eight stone columns throughout the church that support the vault.  Once the church was completed, it took many years decorate the interior.  The visuals in the interior are the result of several interior artistic beautifications that took place within the first first forty years of construction.  The matching altars reputedly originated from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which exhibited a great deal of beautiful ecclesiastical art.  The interior plaster walls were finally painted in 1903, just after the plaster and wood ornament was completed, giving the church its visual character that it has today.  The interior murals were by a Polish artist by the name of Lesiewicz, dating from 1920.  The murals depict religious scenes such as the Resurrection under the main altar while the side walls are adorned with paintings of prominent Polish saints.  The incredible stained glass windows are American made by Gawain Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.    

Through the years the parish retained its Polish character.  As with many other inner city parishes, the neighborhood began to decline as many longtime residents relocated in the 1960's with the arrival of urban blight and decay as well as the arrival of the freeway system which caused many families to relocate to suburbia.  The parish school closed and the nuns left.  Vocations plummeted.  The church itself fell into debt, disrepair and decrepitude.  

By God's grace, a revival of the parish began in the late 1980's when the new pastor arrived, Fr. Frank Phillips, C.R.  He helped spark a renewal to save the parish, through a program of reintroducing an incredible program of traditional liturgy and sacred music, preserving the spirit and general character of the Classical Roman Rite.  This gamble worked.  It was a model plan to revive a parish that was inspired by the church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota, a similar parish saved by its pastor who was a renowned church musician, Monsignor Richard J. Schuler.  By maintaining standards of high church liturgy and stellar sacred music, both the parishes became again viable and were repopulated by young families.  This formula naturally improved the financial situation of the parish and caused an uptick in vocations, thus helping to guarantee its preservation from the wrecking ball.  

The renewal of the parish coincided with the comeback of the neighborhood.  Urgent repairs were made on the physical structure of the church, restoring it to its former glory.  Antique treasures, some of immeasurable value, were preserved within the church and rectory.  St. John Cantius became a destination parish.  People came from everywhere for Sunday Mass with some families driving a great distance.  This led many young men to consider a possible call to the priesthood.  With few options, many of these men had no where to go.  

Fr. Philips saw a need for a new male religious order and in 1998 founded the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius.  This new religious community of men was founded with the approval of Francis Cardinal George, the Cardinal Archbishop of the See of Chicago.   As canons they follow the rule of St. Augustine and take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  Some of them wear the mantelletta, a clerical garment that dates from the latter half of the fourteenth century, matching the color of their religious habit.  Part of their charism is to live the common life and offer the sacraments within the context of parish ministry, with special care and attention to the liturgical apostolate, offering both the EF and OF of the Roman Rite.  Their motto is Instaurare Sacra, "to restore the sacred."        

Today the neighborhood once known as "Polish Patch" is now called "River West," a developing up and coming area with fashionable lofts and new construction.  There has been a gradual gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood that has further contributed to the renewal of the parish.  Today, St. John Cantius continues its crucial role as the focus of a renaissance of Traditional Catholic liturgy and liturgical arts.  Under its roof traditional Catholic devotions and rituals that have all too often fallen out of use have been reintroduced, preserved and fostered with great devotion and piety.       

 This has included Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the annual Corpus Christi procession, the annual Forty Hours Devotion,  the Lenten Stations of the Cross according to St. Alphonsus, Sunday Vespers, Tenebrae services during Holy Week, the public recitation of certain novenas, the Solemn High Mass sung in Latin and more.   Further it has included a corps of expertly trained altar boys and professional choirs.  The musical program is top notch with eight parish choirs and an orchestra for orchestral Masses.  There have been many memorable events and liturgies over the years at St. John Cantius.  In 1998 Cardinal Glemp, the Primate of Poland, celebrated Pontifical Mass and blessed the church's new copper cupola and later returned in 2003.  Bishop Joseph Perry has also been a frequent visitor, an eminent canonist and eloquent speaker, a friend to all.    

In 1997 a precious new inlaid hardwood floor was installed in the church, designed by master craftsman Jed Gibbons.  It is a true work of art and has won three national awards.  It is made up of sixteen varieties of wood taken from all around the world that were placed in beautifully decorated inlaid medallions.  The floor is a noted example of contemporary art, set up as a teaching tool to instruct the faithful on the genealogy of Christ.  The medallions on the main aisle reveal the story of salvation: the Star of David is Jesus, a member of the Hebrew nation.  The Three Crowns, with the arrival of the Three Kings Jesus was made manifest to the world.  The Instruments of the Passion, Christ's suffering and our salvation.  The Banner of Victory, the Resurrection of Christ.  The Star, Christ is the Light of the World.   

Another beautiful addition to the church that came in 2003 is a new side altar that was completed as a replica of the renowned Veit Stoss Altar of the Basilica of St. Mary in Krakow.  It was carved by a Polish artist by the name of Michael Batkiewicz over a period of eight years.  It is an imposing and immensely intricate altar, perfect for the space, a one-third scale copy of the original.  It is the largest and most detailed work of its kind, commissioned to pay tribute to the Galician families who founded the parish in 1893.  The altar was blessed by Cardinal Glemp during his visit to the parish in 2003.  

Each year on Pentecost Sunday the parish maintains a tradition from Rome where thousands of fresh red rose pedals are released from an opening in the ceiling during the Sunday High Mass in commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost, the birthday of the. Church.  This custom began at the Pantheon in Rome in celebration of the first class feast, a custom that is still preserved in Rome today, attracting many thousands to see the beautiful sight, reminiscent of the "parted tongues as of fire" that descended from heaven in Acts 2: 1-11.  

The parish rectory is beautiful and houses the Canons of St. John Cantius.  The historic old parish school house is currently occupied since the fall of 1990 by the Chicago Academy of Arts, an independent high school for the performing and visual arts founded in 1981.  Perhaps one day Deo volente the building can be returned to the parish as it would greatly contribute to parish life.  

A permanent exhibit of sacred art is on display in the church's north tower, open every Sunday and by special request.  The collection's centerpiece is an elaborate Neapolitan Christmas scene or presepio, from the famous Christmas market in Naples, made in the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  Other treasures in the exhibit include a nineteenth-century copy of the precious icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, adorned with jeweled crowns that were personally blessed by Pope John Paul II.  There is also a rare reproduction of the miraculous crucifix from Limpus, Portugal.  Further there is a nineteenth-century Pieta from Germany, a hand-written altar missal, as well as several hundred authenticated relics of canonized saints.

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