Church Hop Chicago: St. Thomas of Canterbury in Uptown

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


Church Hop Chicago: An Introduction

By Melissa Redmond

For a number of years now, my mom has been engaging with Chicago in commendable ways. From taking courses about the city’s cemeteries and burial cultures to walking the Illinois Prairie Path she manages to see more and learn more about Chicago than many people. Of all her activities two stand above the rest: her monthly visit to a different Catholic parish in the Chicago Archdiocese with a close friend and the walks she began last summer, where she plans to travel the length of different city streets (both sides to be sure) exploring the neighborhoods along the way.

I’ve since encouraged her to write about these experiences for publication on Urbanelijk. Initially she began writing about her ‘Church Hop’ in letters sent to my siblings and me during college, which frequently included related family history. Her experiences are worth sharing with a much larger audience, because they offer such a unique perspective on the city.

As my mom and Carol continue their Church Hop articles about the experiences will be periodically published here. They will be categorized as ‘Church Hop Chicago’ and will include musing on past and present church hops.

Chicago’s neighborhoods are a wonder to explore. So much to see, so many places to visit, so many people to talk to.

For the last six years, a friend (Carol) and I have been visiting Chicago’s Catholic churches and for the last year I have been walking the streets of Chicago.

On our ‘Church Hop’, Carol and I attend Mass or a special liturgy or activity at one new church every month. A staple of the Church Hop is Holy Thursday, when we visit seven churches to pray at the adoration altars. Holy Thursday begins the last period of Lent prior to Easter and celebrates the Last Supper.

Church Hopping as a hobby started when Carol and I discovered we both had an interest in attending services at Willow Creek Church—a non-denominational evangelical mega-church in South Barrington. On the way home we stopped by St. Anne Catholic Church in Barrington, which is where we got the idea to begin visiting new churches every month.

When we first started we took our share of teasing about our hobby. Now however, no matter where we go, people always ask what new churches we have visited. Everyone inevitably wants to know if we have visited their childhood parish or encourages us to attend their church.

We have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people, visit some great neighborhoods and eat at some fantastic restaurants. We use our restaurant time after our visits to fill out our rubric about the best things about the church. Our rubric includes our thoughts on things as various as the church campus, the stations of the cross, the altar, the font, the windows, the homily, the welcoming feel of the parish and so much more. Our church folder contains all our thoughts, along with every church bulletin and various parish publications about the church architecture or history.

What amazes about the visits to these parishes is the insight you get about the history of the neighborhood, the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the church’s communities—past and present.

One such example of this is a stained glass window in the baptistery of Queen of All Saint’s Basilica in Sauganash. Billy Caldwell, also known as Sauganash (one who speaks English), was a American Indian-British figure who acted as a diplomat between American, British, and American Indian interests during the formative years of the United States. He had a reserve in the area and is now the namesake for many places and things. The window depicts the baptism of his children, Helene and Susanne, by Father Stephen Badin, who built a cabin on St. Mary’s Lake near South Bend, on the site of the present day campus of the University of Notre Dame.

The window shows a Catholic heritage in the neighborhood that stretches back to the early 19th century and before and has a connection to other strong aspects of Catholic heritage in the Midwest including Notre Dame.

Carol and I never tire of our Church Hop and we always look forward to what’s next in our exploration of the city. Since we started we have hopped to parishes with special personal connections and began to do hops along certain themes or following certain streets. It is an opportunity to delve deeper into our histories as Catholics and Chicagoans and learn about the great diversity of stories and places at home in this city.