We have always made visiting churches part of our travel plans when we go to big cities. We’ve visited the iconic churches of London: Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, right on down to St. Martin in the Fields (I-Nikki-was so excited about that because of the Neville Marriner connection. I’m a Class A dork.) We have visited the major basilicas of Rome, minus St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (due to time constraints) in addition to many other churches around the city, like St. Peter in Chains. On a recent trip to Montreal, we spent at least a solid day touring churches, taking in St. Joseph’s Oratory, St. Patrick’s Basilica, Mary Queen of the World, the Basilica of Notre Dame, Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours, and Our Lady of Lourdes. And finally, after years of curiosity, we visited the Mary, Queen of the Universe shrine in Orlando earlier this summer- spectacular and beautiful-definitely worth a visit next time you go to Disney World. The Rosary Garden there is an absolute must-see. One of these days, we’ll go back without a toddler and take full advantage of this amazing prayer oasis just down the street from Mickey Mouse.
On our yearly trek to Chicago this last week, we visited a handful of churches. This trip was especially meaningful since for the first time, we were visiting churches not just as tourists, but also as pilgrims.
Our first visit was to St. Timothy’s, a smallish parish church down the street from Nikki’s sister’s place off of Devon. This was our first Sunday Mass after being confirmed and received into the Church. By no means a tourist attraction, it was still really nice to see this little outpost, one of many, in the middle of a huge city. It was an ethnically diverse congregation, and there were quite a few older folks who we can imagine have grown up and spent their whole lives in the neighborhood. It was good to see some younger folks with kids, too. We thought it was nice that the priest took note of the strangers in his congregation and asked us after Mass if we were new to the parish.
We also took time one day to visit 2 of Chicago’s three basilicas. Our first visit was to St. Hyacinth’s, or Bazylika Św. Jacka, which was originally established in the late 1800’s for the booming population of Polish immigrants in the area. The late Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II, visited the church on one of his visits to the States, and there’s an amazing statue of him there. The inscriptions on the statue are written in both Polish and English, as is all of the signage and literature around the church. The church interior itself is a breathtaking example of the “Polish cathedral” style—highly ornate and decorative. “Baroque” is the best way we can think to describe it.
Queen of All Saints, in the Sauganash neighborhood, was the second basilica we visited. Words can’t describe what a beautiful place this is. Set back on a lush, green lawn, it looks like it was plucked out of pre-Reformation England and transported to suburban Chicago so it could be saved from Henry VIII’s land grab. The baptistery is filled with relics, much to our saint-loving son’s delight. Our daughter, Schuyler, had been talking just the day before about how she wanted to go to Rome so she could see a piece of the True Cross. And, what do they have at Queen of All Saints? A piece of the True Cross!! She was SO excited. (If you are puzzling over relics read this great little article.)
The stained glass at Queen of All Saints is also awe-inspiring. They have a window that includes Nikki’s confirmation saint, Saint Helena. And our son, Charlie, particularly liked the stained glass window showing St. Joan of Arc standing on the firewood used to
martyr her. On top of this, there are incredible mosaics throughout the basilica. The one of Mary above the altar is especially stunning.
On our way out of Chicago on Sunday morning, we made our way to Holy Name Cathedral, the seat of Francis Cardinal George. This was yet another splendid example of church architecture. We were nervous as we walked in with the ever-babbling Cate, our almost-two-year-old. It is truly impossible to get her to quiet down, and bringing her into Mass is always stressful for the person who is tasked with being her handler. Her favorite activity, without fail, in any large church is to test the acoustics-LOUDLY. As we took a seat
toward the back, an usher came over. “Oh great, he’s going to ask us to take her out,” we thought to ourselves. Instead, he very kindly asked if the kids and Nikki would be interested in bringing the gifts forward. What? Out of this quickly filling, massive church, we get asked to bring the gifts forward and all in the company of a squalling kid??? You betcha. What an amazing privilege!
We couldn’t help but notice how different this trip was from our prior experiences dealing with Sunday services when we were out of town. As Protestants, we never felt quite right about missing service when we were on vacation, but it didn’t seem to be seen as much of a big deal. If anything, it seemed like vacation was viewed as a time also to take a vacation from church. And even if we did go to church while traveling, we felt very much like “outsiders” in someone else’s local congregation.
Now, when we’re on the road, we feel like we’ll be able to visit any Catholic church and, even though it will reflect the local culture, we’ll still feel “at home.” We remember feeling sort of left out when we visited Rome five years ago. Visiting all of those churches was an intensely spiritual experience, and yet we felt somewhat like interlopers looking in on something we didn’t quite understand. We are so excited, now that we are officially and safely on the Ark, that as we continue to travel and stop by well-known (and even lesser known) Catholic churches, that we can admire the architecture and beauty, but also feel a spiritual kinship with the faithful who are and have been connected with these places throughout time.
For those of you who don’t know us, Nikki grew up in the Chicago area and will probably always consider it “home.”