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Unexpected Faith

From Chicago to Rome

The Millennium Project in Rome is an effort by Vicariato di Roma, the Archdiocese of Rome, to build 65 new churches to serve the rapidly growing, immigrant-dominated suburbs surrounding the old city. Modern architecture is a critical component of this building program, and the Vicariato recruited a long list of young Italian architects for these commissions. The exception to this rule was the architect for the crown jewel of the program, the Jubilee Church in Tor Tre Teste neighborhood of Rome, designed by Richard Meier, the New York architect. Architecture is clearly seen as part of the answer for a program that has an important social mission.

This widely known building program had a little-known precedent in Chicago--the Archdiocese of Chicago's commitment in the 1950s and '60s to build new and emphatically modern churches and schools.

More than 350 parishes compose this archdiocese. Not surprisingly, in those postwar years, there was a major building program to respond, in part, to the flight of Catholics from the city. The suburbs were exploding and investment in the city had come to a near standstill.

World War II was a major dividing line in the history of American architecture and the development of American cities. Although Modernism became a major movement in Europe after World War I, it didn't become important in America until after WWII. At the same time, every American city was undergoing a wrenching transformation.

What was surprising was the commitment of the tradition-bound archdiocese to the city and to modern architecture. It could be said that it all started with two policies of George Cardinal Mundelein. During his tenure as cardinal (1916-1939), he developed an organization to professionally manage the building program, an approach that was truly ahead of its time. The cardinal also surprisingly favored a new design approach over the more traditional ecclesiastical styles. Although his tenure pre-dates the rise of Modernism in the United States, Cardinal Mundelein favored the Georgian styles, the architecture of the English Enlightenment from the 18th century.

Thus followed a succession of committed cardinals. Samuel Cardinal Stritch (1940-1958) set the agenda for the post-war expansion program. In a speech to local Catholic priests in 1952, he said, "As things are going now, we are building a new archdiocese on the perimeter of Chicago," but he went to explain the program would extend to the city proper by saying we "can not only reclaim some of the blighted areas, but we can prevent other areas from becoming blighted."

This surprising statement makes a great deal of sense within the context of the expressed urban and social mission of the archdiocese. It also seems to reflect the intentions of the Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, which began in 1962 and ended in 1965. In announcing his intention to convene the Council in 1959, Pope John XXIII said, "I wanted to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in."

If Vatican II modernized the Roman Catholic Church, then it was taken as an architectural lesson when Albert Cardinal Meyer (1958-1965), who followed Cardinal Stritch, embraced modern architecture and said, "The Church must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened a new avenue to the Catholic apostolate."

The delightful results of this building program can be seen on the streets of Chicago. St. Mark's, at the corner of Campbell and Thomas, follows the tradition of Expressionistic Modernism. When Albert Cardinal Meyer dedicated it in 1963, he said the building symbolized the "courage and confidence in the future of the inner city." There is St. Helen's, Santa Maria Addolorata, with its delightful circular chapel, and St. Aloysius, which is a classically modern box with a south-facing wall of stained glass running the entire length of the sanctuary. There are many school buildings, including St. Patrick High School on the Northwest Side and St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic School.

There was a building for every community. Professional management was evident, but there was little dogma in the design. Modernism was encouraged, but the parish priest played an important role in the process and often drove the design in new and different directions. The architects were not famous, but they were good. The work ranged from quiet Modernism to a highly colored Expressionism, but most of all, it was a building program that was optimistic, focusing on the future rather than the reality of the immediate past.

Chicago is an exceptional place today, and its success as a city means a great deal to its residents and to their success. Chicago is the sum of many different moving parts that came together to make a successful whole. One of those moving parts was the unexpected faith the Archdiocese of Chicago had in the city and in architecture.

Elisa Dennis assisted in research for this piece.

Published: August 07, 2007
Issue: Fall 2007