St Paul's, Chicago (Exterior)

St Paul's, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul's
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 January 2016, 10:00am

The building

A spectacular all brick Gothic church designed by the late 19th-early 20th century architect Henry Schlack, who founded the architecture department at the University of Notre Dame. St Paul's was built by the German immigrant parishioners, many of whom were skilled bricklayers and stonemasons. Dedicated in 1899, it is often referred to as "the church built without a nail" and was one of the only fireproof buildings in Chicago at the time. The wonderful bell towers were completed in 1900. The interior, featuring outstanding mosaics and stained glass, was not completed until 1930. In 2012, the dirt crawl space beneath the floor, damaged by dampness and humidity, was dug out and a new undercroft built to make a magnificent gathering space for the congregation.

The church

Founded in 1876 to minister to the small German immigrant community, today St Paul's serves a multi-ethnic congregation who are predominantly Hispanic. Weekday masses are in Spanish, with English and Latin Saturday vigil masses and Sunday masses in English and Spanish. Zumba classes are held each Tuesday. There is a Men's Club, a Women's Club and a youth group, as well as a group for seniors. The Guadalupañas, a group who promote devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, maintains a full schedule of spiritual and social activities.

The neighborhood

St Paul's is in the Pilsen neighborhood of southwest Chicago. Once home to Czech and German working class folk, the area is now predominantly Hispanic but in the process of gentrifying due to its close proximity to downtown and affordable housing. There is a booming bar and restaurant scene.

The cast

The Revd Robert R. Perez, associate administrator of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Chicago, but who regularly helps out at St Paul's. There were two lectors, a young pony-tailed male server, and a young wild-haired eucharistic minister.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass (English)

How full was the building?

About one third full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

St Paul's is the most friendly parish we have ever visited! Just about every person who caught our eye said hello or welcome. A woman greeted us at the door and gave us prayer books. A gentleman also then greeted us and recounted a brief history of the church and recent renovations. After mass, another man came up to us and said, "I'm here to give you the tour" and proceeded to show us the whole church, the lower level brand new gathering space, the sacristy, and the rectory. Wow!

Was your pew comfortable?

Slatted pews, like a park bench. This is the first time we have ever encountered this particular style of pews. They were beautifully carved and really quite comfortable. A metal plaque with a number was affixed to the end of each pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

We were rubbernecking and taking photos but others were quietly praying or greeting others.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Our opening hymn is 'As With Gladness.'"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Celebremos: Let Us Celebrate.

What musical instruments were played?

Guitar, small choir. The singers were OK and the cantor had a nice voice.

Did anything distract you?

I was mesmerized by the Bavarian stained glass windows – they were beautiful! The transept windows were of the life of Christ, while the nave windows were of the life of St Paul. The jewel tone colors were amazing. St Paul's is known for its mosaics and they were also distracting – I could not take my eyes off them! I was a little put off by the large statues looming over the crowd and the massive Stations of the Cross; however, my companions loved them. I was waiting for one of the statues to fall off its perch.

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

The mass was a regulation type mass. The three of us all commented on how nice Father's chasuble was – it was golden and very pretty. The lectors were very easy to hear and understand. No incense, but I always love the bells, which they rang during the consecration. We liked the guitar. The cantor sang nicely as did the small choir – but they were not anything special (we've heard some rocking gospel choirs and some pretty great regular choirs). The congregation sang along, and by that I mean they just sang along – again, nothing rousing. The kiss of peace was very friendly, just as it would be with such a welcoming parish.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 – Father Perez was speaking from the heart but he rambled a little and went off on a few tangents.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Since it was the Feast of the Epiphany, Father spoke of the light that was seen by the Wise Men and how we can be the light for others.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The friendliness of the parishioners, the windows, the mosaics. Oh, and the fantastically carved confessionals. Also, one young, wild haired eucharistic minister who patiently waited for an elderly parishioner and assisted him down the altar steps after communion. Very touching to watch.

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

We really had to scratch the dirt to find much we did not like about this church. But the looming statues and massive stations were not my style – almost scary!

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

We got our private tour! The undercroft was like a beautiful catacomb with brick walls and archways. The rectory had gorgeous woodwork, recently refurbished by the parishioners. They did an exemplary job of removing years of paint and restaining all the woodwork. The side and back private courtyards were just what you'd want for a party on a beautiful evening.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None. We had a fine lunch at the nearby Dusek's Board and Beer.

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

8 – The dedication and love of the parishioners to the church is so evident, it was heartwarming.

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 windows, the mosaics, the young eucharistic minister, and our tour. This was a wow church! Every Chicagoan should make it a point to visit St Paul's.

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