“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, or “IDIC”, is a slogan that was once used on Star Trek to describe the philosophy of the Vulcan people. Of course if you look around the Chicago area, it might as well be used as terminology to describe Catholic communities in our region. One of the criticisms I’ve often heard leveled at the Catholic Church is that the church uses a “top-to-bottom” hierarchy to organize itself rather than a “bottom-to-top” model used in Protestant churches. What this essentially means is that the highest level of the Catholic church – the Pope and the Vatican – wield the most power and decision-making, decreasing steadily downward until you get to the local parish and its pastor (whereas in many Protestant churches the opposite would be true.).
As such, critics charge that the Catholic Church demands conformity more than anything else, and that local churches are not free to adjust their parishes to the needs of the community they serve. We’re told that all Catholic churches look alike, sound alike, act alike, and are generally prohibited from any sort of freedom of expression. As I noted in an earlier column, defenders of renegade priest Fr. Pfleger of St. Sabina’s in Chicago argue that he is being “oppressed” because he reaches out to an afro-centric parish (I argued that he was actually being “oppressed” because he was preaching hatred from the pulpit and refusing to teach Catholic doctrine).
The truth is that the Catholic Church cherishes BOTH unity and diversity. The western traditions in the church empathizes unity, whereas the eastern lung empathizes diversity. This may sound contradictory to some people. How can the Catholic Church accomplish both goals? The answer is that although the Church uses many different traditions and methods to express itself, but it teaches the same doctrines worldwide. To use the McDonald’s analogy again, McDonald’s in Tokyo and McDonald’s in New Jersey probably feature some very different décor and specialty items on the menu, but they both focus on being known as hamburger restaurants that provide fast food at a cheap price.
Given that Chicago itself has so many different cultures, perhaps this is the one of the best examples in America of type of Catholic parishes you can encounter. Many of these are not even well known or promoted within the Archdiocese of Chicago, so I’ve decided to write an ongoing series of articles about different Catholic parishes in our region. For this debut article, I am going to skip the suburbs for now and focus on three parishes within Chicago city limits: St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on Chicago’s west side, St. Columbanus Parish on Chicago’s south side, and Mart Miriam Chaldean Catholic Church on Chicago’s north side. How are these parishes alike and how they do they differ? Let’s find out.
St. Joseph, located at 5000 N. Cumberland Ave., is one of the most striking but ironically least known of Chicago’s Catholic parishes. The present building was completed in 1977, but its history begins in the 1950s when Ukrainian Catholics immigrants arrived on Chicago’s northwest Side. Father Joseph Shary met with Cardinal Samuel Stritch about purchasing land for a church that would meet the new communities unique cultural background. His Eminence promised all possible assistance in this endeavor. This proved to be rather difficult because the Ukrainians were eastern-rite Catholics that conducted services in the style of an eastern orthodox church.
In 1958, construction began on Cumberland Avenue. The upper portion became the church, with the addition of pews, altars, etc. all gifts from nearby Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. The building was completed with an ultra-modern look, including thirteen gold domed roofs symbolizing the twelve apostles and Jesus Christ as the largest center dome. The interior of the church is completely adorned with Byzantine style icons (frescoes). Inside the church is a traditional Byzantine iconostasis (wall separating the alter from the rest of the interior) with two tiers and is in the Modern Cossack Baroque Style. The church was designed by architect Zenon Mazurkevich.
Across the way from the church is a grotto (shrine) set up to Our Lady of Hoshiv with an altar sometimes used for outdoor services (such as the “Pascha”, or Easter Blessing). In 2006, the late Fr. Pavlo’s wife, Christine, led a restoration and re-landscaping of the grotto into a memorial garden to deceased parishioners. You might have paused at that sentence. Wife? Yes, you read it correctly. Several of the priests at St. Joseph (specifically, those ordained in the old country) are married. While this is normally forbidden and extremely rare in most Catholic traditions, it is permitted (and actually common) in a handful of Catholic denominations – including the Ukranian Greek Catholics that founded the parish. Of the three priests that serve the parish, both Fr. Volodymyr Kushnir and Fr. Mykola Buryadnyk are not only married but have young children.
The lower hall of the church is the hub of numerous events and activities such as many cultural, social and fund-raising functions. Parish praznyks, sviachenes, bake sales, choir rehearsals, rummage sales, children’s programs, Ukrainian dance lessons, dances, and countless other activities. Another element that attracts a great of attention is a large rock near the ramp leading up to the entrance of the church. It is a piece of the Canadian Shield that found its way to the site where the new church was built. It was retrieved by the contractors during excavation of the site.
Over the years, St. Joseph’s has maintained and promoted many unique elements of Ukrainian Christianity, including their “Irmos” Parish Choir, “Kheruvym” Chamber Choir, Pyrohy Committee, Sts. Cyril and Methodius Youth Group, Vyshyvanka School of Ukrainian Dance, School of Boyovyj Hopak (Ukrainian Martial Art), “Ridna Schola” School of Ukrainian Studies, and Branch of the Barvinok School of the Cultural Arts. The church’s choir groups have performed in their native tongue for not only the Ukrainian community, but at numerous events throughout the city, including for Roman Catholic parishes and at the Museum of Science and Industry. One of the most momentous performances by the choir was for the visit of Pope John Paul II in Grant Park, in 1979.
On every Sunday, St. Joseph’s offers the Divine Liturgy (eastern-rite equivalent of the Mass) three times a day. Once in English, once in Ukrainian, and once blending the two languages (at their 8:00 a.m. Liturgy). As proud Catholics unified with the Vatican, any baptized Catholic is welcome to join and participate fully in their service.
Over on 331 E. 71st St., in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, you’ll find quite a different Catholic community than St. Joseph’s. This is area is home toSt. Columanus parish, one of the oldest and largest black Catholic parishes in Chicago. Once a predominantly Irish neighborhood known as Park Manor, today the area is about 97.8% African-American. Despite the fact that not many black Chicagoans are Catholic, St. Columbanus is a growing and thriving community. In the past decade, church membership has grown 20% and school enrollment has increased by 24%.
In 2009, St. Columanus celebrated its 100th Anniversary. Near the church on 7120 S Calumet Ave is St. Columbanus School, a private Catholic grade school. It enrolls nearly 300 students and is one of the more popular private schools in the neighborhood.
The people of St. Columbanus attribute the continued success of the parish when the neighborhood changed due to the parish responding to the needs of the neighborhood. Following the example of Christ’s command to feed the hungry, one of St. Columbanus’ well-known outreach programs is the church’s food pantry. In December 2004, St. Gelasius Food Pantry in the Woodlawn area of Chicago merged with the Food Pantry at St. Columbanus to form the St. Columbanus and St. Gelasius Food Pantry. Today, this combine program ministers to 50 households per week and has expanded to provide weekly clothing drives, and social services to more than 500 at–risk families in the grand crossing area. Since its inception, the pantry has served more than 29,760 families. The church’s website invokes Matthew 25:35-36 “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me”.
The parish also gets involved with the locals by sponsoring many faith initiatives popular on the south side of the city. St. Colombanus hosts “The Good Life” to discuss neighborhood problems and issues, Chicago CAPS : Career Advising and Planning Services, the St. Columbanus Athletic Center, “Holy Name Men” to host fellowship breakfasts and minister to the sick and shut-in, Bible Study classes, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. At the same time, St. Colombanus maintains traditional Catholic customs, albeit with an African-American focus including The Knights of Columbus, providing Eucharistic Ministers, communicating the Catholic Faith, and daily use of an Adoration Chapel.
St. Columbanus remains one of the most vibrant and large parishes on the south side, a rare Catholic parish in a largely protestant neighborhood, and shows no signs of slowing down. Well known Chicago figures from Obama family to Governor Pat Quinn have visited and helped volunteer for their acclaimed. food pantry program.
“And now for something completely different”, as Monty Python would say. At 2849 W. Chase Ave., you’ll find Mart Miriam Chaldean Catholic Church. This parish was established in 1986 and stands on its original site. “Mart Miriam” means “Saint Mary” in Arabic, and as you may have guessed, Mart Miriam parish is an Arab Catholic community. Specifically, they are one of two Assyrian Catholic churches in Chicago. The other – and much older parish – is St. Ephraim’s at 2537 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. St. Ephraim’s was founded in 1904 but become far overcrowded over the decades as generations of Assyrian/Chaldean Catholics grew in Chicago, so Mart Miriam was built to accommodate the growing faith community.
If you only speak English, you might have an awkward time visiting Mart Miriam. The 9:00 a.m. Mass is offered in both Arabic and Aramaic, but not in the English language (although the parish website is in both English and Arabic). This is because most of the parishioners are not American born. For example, the head pastor, Fr. Sanharib Youkhanan, was born in November 23, 1968 in Mosul, Iraq. He graduated from Duhouk in 1986 and entered the renowned Saint Peter Seminary in Baghdad. In 1992 he was ordained a priest by Mar Youhanan Kello of Dohouk, Iraq. Fr. Youkhanan served the community of Dohouk for over a decade before he was recruited by Mar Ibrahim N. Ibrahim in 2006 to serve the Assyrian community in Chicago, since then Fr. (now Monsignor) Bikoma was in his 80s at the time and found it difficult to serve as pastor of both Mart Miriam and St Ephraim. For those having difficulty with their churches’ native traditions, Mart Miriam offers Shamasha (Deacons) Classes at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, and Assyrian/Chaldean classes on Thursdays.
If the terminology is confusing (what is a Mar? what’s a Shamasha?), it’s because Mart Miriam isn’t a Roman Catholic Church. This does NOT mean they are in schism with Rome or any type of maverick parish, as they are fully united with the Pope. Instead, it simply means they come from a different tradition. For example, rather than Francis George serving as their Cardinal, Mart Miriam answers to Emmanuel III Delly. He is a Cardinal from Tel Keppe, Iraq who serves as patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and Primate of the Chaldean Catholic Church, but like Cardinal George he is a member of the College of Cardinals and answers directly to the Pope.
While you can encounter many Catholic traditions you’re familiar with at Mart Miriam (the parish websites features pictures of their 2010 First Communion ceremony and their Assumption of Virgin Mary celebration), you also might find some Christian traditions you aren’t too familiar with, such as the way they celebrate St. Stephen’s Day and the Chaldean Mass). A visitor to Mart Miriam also might want to familiarize themselves with Arabic and Arabian cuisine, as most of the parishioners hail from Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.
So the next time a non-Catholic complains that all Catholic churches look and sound alike, you might want to invite them to stroll into some of the more interesting parishes you can find here in Chicagoland. At first glance, the three parishes profiled today seem to have almost nothing in common. However, you would find they are preaching the same message if you stayed for a while. All of these parishes will pray for Pope Benedict on Sunday mornings. All of them will teach the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in communion. All of them will print articles from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemning aborti0n funding, and so on. All of them practice the seven sacraments and recite the Nicene Creed. All of them venerate the Virgin Mary and believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. This unified theology is what makes them part of the universal Catholic church.
I hope this provides a good introduction about what brings together Catholics in Chicago. I will be profiling many more churches throughout the Chicago area in the coming months. Is there a particular parish that you feel deserves greater attention or that you’d like to learn about? Let me know. The possibilities are endless: Infinite diversity. Infinite combinations.