A Renaissance in Chicago: How a Dying Parish Came Back to Life

Rev. C. Frank Phillips rescues antiques. Wearing a soutane with the black cords of a Resurrectionist priest, he sits in the office of his Chicago parish surrounded by old objects and images. The furniture here—as throughout the rectory and sacristy—puts one in mind of 16th- century France. On a pedestal by the wall, a brass statue of the Cure d’Ars looks humbly over our conversation. “I bought that in an antique shop,” Father Phillips says. “He was being used as a doorstop.”

Happily, many objects rescued from churches slated for destruction or bought at flea markets are now in use in his church—or stored in a modest museum upstairs near the choir loft. For Father Phillips, this is a very personal mission.

Not so long ago, his parish, St. John Cantius, was itself slated for destruction. He was assigned as pastor there more or less in order to close it. The neighborhood was shot, and the church’s two Sunday Masses attracted about 40 people. Fifty years of deferred maintenance had left the physical plant in shambles. Fifteen radiators were missing, and the heating system was held together with duct tape. A rose window was bowed out from tons of pigeon droppings that had accumulated during the Depression, when the priests had raised the birds for food.

“I had no idea how bad it was,” Father Phillips remembers. Fresh from teaching music and religion at Chicago’s Weber High School, he felt called to get into parish work, and the assignment at St. John Cantius was open. “The former pastor was walking out of the provincial’s office while I was walking in, and he asked me if I’d like St. John Cantius.”

Built by Polish immigrants in 1893, the church had a glorious past. At its peak just before World War I, some 23,000 parishioners each Sunday passed the cornerstone, which read, “Awesome is this place: It is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.” With a length of 203 feet and a seating capacity of 2,000, the Renaissance-Baroque church in Chicago’s River West section is larger than the city’s Holy Name Cathedral. Its school was brimming with more than 2,000 youngsters, taught by 30 School Sisters of Notre Dame.

But it was not to last. The construction of a superhighway that cut through a once-solid Polish neighborhood and the flight of families to the suburbs hammered away at the parishioner base. The school closed in 1967, and crime began to invade the once-safe neighborhood. Sunday collections yielded $50 while annual heating bills soared to $42,000.

Arriving on the Feast of the Assumption in 1988, Father Phillips seized the opportunity to make St. John Cantius a viable parish again by focusing on the central event in the life of the Church: the Mass. It would be celebrated with reverence, care, and strict attention to the rubrics laid down by the Church. There would be no improvising.

“In the seminary, I had the good fortune to be trained by Msgr. Martin Hellriegel, the first promoter of the liturgical reform,” Father Phillips says. Msgr. Hellriegel, who wrote the hymn “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King,” instilled in the young seminarian an appreciation for precision and orderliness in the liturgy.

Father Phillips was intent on restoring a sense of the sacred to the liturgical practices. In January 1989, he introduced the Latin Novus Ordo on Sundays. Soon the parish offered the Tridentine Mass as well. Most Sundays, the Schola Cantorum of St. Gregory the Great renders the propers and ordinaries of the Mass in chant. Once a month, the Resurrection Choir sings settings of the Mass in the Viennese classical tradition. Both groups had been founded by Father Phillips at Weber High School and continue under his direction. On greater feast days, the St. Cecilia Choir sings Mass settings from the Renaissance polyphonic tradition.

The Coalition in Support of Ecclesia Dei, which has lobbied bishops in the United States to grant permission for more Tridentine Masses, was born in the midst of the rebirth of St. John Cantius. Mary Kraychy, executive director of the coalition and a parishioner at St. John’s, said she and other devotees of the Tridentine Mass were hoping the U.S. bishops would have a plan to implement the 1988 papal directive. They were disappointed when Rev. James Downey, O.S.B., and Rev. Dudley Day, O.S.A., then-director and associate director, respectively, of the Institute on Religious Life, came back from the November 1988 bishops’ meeting reporting that the bishops had no plan.

Some of the coalition’s earliest meetings were held in the basement of St. John’s, which, with the dilapidated heating system, was “cold as hell,” parishioner Will Hegner recalls.

“We had to figure out how to make missals for people and how to spread the word,” adds his wife, Audrey.

They did. St. John’s quickly became known for its Tridentine Mass. And on December 8, 1992, a large group of Catholics who had worshiped with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X at their Oak Park mission began attending the Tridentine Mass at St. John’s. Many have stayed.

In keeping with his vision of restoring the sacred to the church, Father Phillips revived devotions such as vespers and benediction on Sunday, the Corpus Christi procession, stations of the cross, Tenebrae, First Friday and Saturday adoration, the blessing of flowers on the Assumption, and novenas before Christmas and Pentecost.

Mild-mannered and blessed with a good sense of humor, Father Phillips is nonetheless a leader who uses his authority for the good of souls. “A Catholic parish exists to make saints,” he states plainly. He thinks it’s good that a parish should be known for the way it celebrates Mass and for its sacramental life.

“You can get the sacraments here at any time,” says Heg¬ner, a retired engineer. On a recent Sunday morning, there were long lines outside three confessionals.

Renewing the Family

According to Father Phillips, the family needs to take a primary role in restoring the sacred in society and the Church. To that end, he challenges parishioners to “achieve a greater degree of holiness in their daily lives.” He admonishes them to “connect the altar in church with the altar at home.”

“A lot of people today don’t say family prayers,” he notes. “For many, it’s because they have no regular place or time to do so. So I advise that they have a special shrine set up for that purpose. And where better to put it than the living room? If there’s a sacred presence in your house, you’ll be less likely to watch questionable material on television.”

Father Phillips and Rev. Burns Seeley—an associate at the parish—instruct couples preparing for marriage only after a solemnization of engagement ritual in which the man and woman promise to live chastely during the time of their betrothal and to continue praying to discern their vocation to the married life. The couples also pray the novena to the Holy Spirit before their wedding day. There are roughly 20 nuptial Masses each year, and many of the couples initially met at St. John’s.

For a couple years now, baptisms have outnumbered funerals. In the darkest days, there was only one child in the parish; now there are scores. Religious education is of prime importance.

Parents like Joan and Dick Dziak find it easy to bring their children to Mass. “We always have to sit up front—at the kids’ request,” Mrs. Dziak says. “It’s such a beautiful Mass, with a lot going on…. We’ve never had to pull teeth to go.”

During my interview with her, Mrs. Dziak has to yield momentarily to her seven-year-old daughter, who wants to tell me how she thinks “all the pictures and saints are so pretty.” She has a particular affection for the stained-glass window of St. Bernadette because of the way the sun shines through it on Sunday mornings. And, she adds, “I like Father Phillips’s sermon and the choir.” She already knows how to sing the Gregorian parts of the Mass because of a recent chant class Father Phillips gave for families.

Dorothy Amorella, the head of the parish’s religious education program, says that the most important thing she wants to instill is belief in the real presence. She also aims to develop a sense of obedience to God out of love rather than obligation.

There are 25 children preparing for first holy communion. Part of the instruction takes place in church, where children are taught that “the whole focus is toward the altar.” St. John’s is, in Amorella’s view, “the largest, most excellent audiovisual you could take a child through.” It’s brimming with statues, paintings, and symbolism.

Children have to be able to recite basic prayers and know the commandments. Those preparing for first confession are given a tour of the confessional and then a script to take with them. That gives them security for what could be a frightening experience.

Using a Mass kit, teachers explain all the elements of the Mass, “so they know there’s a plan that has to be followed,” Amorella says. Father Phillips takes students to the altar and explains the altar stone and the vestments.

Pupils become familiar and comfortable with the Novus Ordo because it’s the norm, “the Mass the pope says,” Amorella explains. They’re taught how the Mass is supposed to be celebrated so that if they see it performed otherwise, they can go elsewhere. Amorella teaches that reception on the tongue is the most humble way to receive the Lord and that kneeling while doing so is “the best form of adoration.”

Of course, youngsters aren’t the only important family members at St. John’s. Adult education classes are held at the nearby Institute on Religious Life, where the late Rev. John Hardon, S.J. taught canon law and the Catechism. Father Phillips wants his parishioners to be familiar with the documents of the Second Vatican Council so they can engage in intelligent arguments about Church teaching and practice.

A New Order for the Church

Parish zeal isn’t the only thing Father Phillips brought to his flock. Over the years, about 100 men from the parish have become priests and 200 women have become sisters. Recently, an increasing number of men have expressed interest in the priesthood. “Their bent is a little too traditional for many orders, so we started the Society of St. John Cantius,” Father Phillips says.

Francis Cardinal George has been supportive of the new community and gave it his approval as a public association of the faithful, the first stage in becoming a religious order. That was on December 23, 1999, the feast of St. John Cantius, a 15th-century Polish philosopher who embraced the spirituality of St. Augustine. Stephen Menes, a member of the society, points out that it was also the day before the pope opened the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, initiating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. “So the Society of St. John Cantius is the first order of the third millennium in Chicago,” Menes says.

The cardinal recommended that the members be formed as Canons Regular following the Rule of St. Augustine. There’s emphasis on community prayer and apostolic work—in that order. “Even in religious communities, the basic elements of communal life are gone today,” Father Phillips says. “The apostolic life has taken precedence over the community life, but the community life and prayer should support the apostolate.”

Not surprisingly, the mission of the Society of St. John Cantius is the restoration of the sacred. Father Phillips tells aspirants that he needs priests who will be good confessors and obedient to liturgical norms. They will celebrate the Tridentine Mass—but not exclusively. In addition to being trained to celebrate the Novus Ordo, the men might also learn to celebrate the Eastern Divine Liturgy in order to respond to the needs of the Byzantine Catholic Church.

At St. John’s, novices receive formation instruction from Father Seeley and Rev. Thomas Nelson, 0. Praem, who was director of formation at St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California, and is now director of the Institute on Religious Life.

Beauty in Worship

At the heart of St. Cantius’s renaissance is the beauty of the church itself. The restoration of the structure has included cleaning and repair work, regilding the two side altars—one of which has an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa—and re electrification of the tower bells.

The church also employs artists and is considering a workshop to teach the liturgical arts. A couple of summers ago, after a heat wave buckled the church’s vinyl floor, Father Phillips commissioned parishioner Jed Gibbons to design and execute a wooden floor containing symbols of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And to celebrate the Jubilee Year, in which he dedicated the parish to Mary, Father Phillips asked parishioners to donate gold, silver, and precious stones for a “Millennial Monstrance,” designed by Gibbons and fashioned in Spain.

The restoration of the sacred at St. John’s has been accompanied by a restoration of the neighborhood. In areas once dangerous after dark, luxury apartments are being built, bringing back a small geographical parish community. Though St. John’s is only a four-minute subway ride from the down-town Loop, parishioners drive for as long as two hours to get to the church. They come for Mass and stay for classes in doctrine, Latin, and Greek; sodalities; browsing in the Seat of Wisdom Library; or simply socializing in the downstairs café.

Most importantly, the parish has come back to life and is giving life to all who ask for it: cradle Catholics, converts, and those returning to the fold. The attention to the liturgy and rubrics, whether in the Tridentine Mass or Novus Ordo, is not a question of “going back to some distant day of nostalgia,” Mary Kraychy says. Rather, recovery of the sacred—in the faith, in liturgical traditions, and in the arts—represents the future of the Church, the thing that will hold it together.

“What’s been done at St. John Cantius,” she says, “will be exemplary to other parishes.”


  • John Burger

    John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

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