By: Melissa Redmond and Michael Podgers
Tucked away just off the corner of Lawrence and Kenmore in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood St. Thomas of Canterbury Church is, for a Chicago Catholic church, a rather inconspicuous sight. Built in 1916, the church-school combination could easily be mistaken for a library, school, or other non-religious space. The parish is a rather intrinsic part of a diverse neighborhood with a history that runs the gamut however. A recent Sunday Church Hop to St. Thomas of Canterbury revealed just that, but more so how indicative the parish remains for a constantly changing part of Chicago.
St. Thomas of Canterbury at 4827 N Kenmore St in Uptown
Uptown has been called home by a wide variety of Chicagoans, especially in the decades after WWII when the area’s low rents drew white migrants from Appalachia, refugees from Vietnam and Laos after the Vietnam War, American Indians, East African immigrants, Latino peoples, and many more. This diversity is a keynote characteristic of Uptown and one that is reflected in the culture of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Even in its early years as a parish, this diversity was unique among Chicago’s Catholic churches, despite being commonplace today (it’s far from abnormal to find a church today serving mass in multiple languages). The choice of colonial style architecture was even seen as a reflective of a very “American” outlook rooted in social and cultural diversity when the church was first built. By the 1960s masses were being served in Spanish with Vietnamese following shortly thereafter and the communities being served only growing from there.
Melissa and Carol were enveloped in this unique diversity on one of their recent Church Hops. As Melissa put it:
We were in for a real surprise when we chose the English Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury in Uptown (Mass Schedule). Unknown to us, we were attending the Mass kicking off the year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the parish [which was established in 1916]. Instead of avoiding the Vietnamese and Lao, Spanish, Tagalog and Eritrean Masses, we were blessed to be attending a Mass celebrated in all the languages of the parish. It proved to be the highlight Mass of all our church hopping.
Everyone was given a beautifully printed Mass booklet. It was very easy to follow the readings, prayers, and songs, since all the translations for all the languages were included.
During the presentation of the gifts (Info: the Mass explained), members of the Eritrean community, dressed in colorful Eritrean clothing, processed around the church singing an Eritrean song welcoming everyone in the congregation to God’s house. As the wine and hosts passed each pew, the Eritrean women ululated as sign of honor and respect. It was the most spine tingling and unique procession we’ve every been a part of at a Mass in Chicago.
At the end of the Mass, a procession through the neighborhood occurred. The priest leading the Mass that day donned special vestments for the procession and a canopy was brought out to carry the monstrance
under. As this community of faithful proceeded through the neighborhood they stopped at each corner, where a prayer was said and a song was sung in the native language of each ethnic community represented at the parish. It showed the neighborhood St. Thomas of Canterbury is a vibrant, available community and resource that is open to all peoples.
For a church that has an unconventionally understated building, such a procession must play some importance to promote its services. In addition to its diverse culture, St. Thomas of Canterbury in Uptown is as much a part of this community because of its social organizing too. Uptown has long been a hotbed of social activism and empowerment of the underprivileged.
In The Archdiocese of Chicago: A Journey of Faith by Edward R. Kantowicz, the guide to each Archdiocese parish includes a brief history, lesson on the architecture, and names one “treasure” unique to each parish. Most of these are stained glass windows, pieces of art, or things like relics. In apt Uptown fashion, the “true treasures of the parish” at St. Thomas of Canterbury are also neighborhood institutions: the soup kitchen and food pantry.
For more information about involvement at St. Thomas of Canterbury follow these links: Volunteering and Donations.