TOUR OF OUR CHURCH
Photography by Brailey
The portals, or entrance doors, serve as much more than mere functional "passageways" through which one passes from outside of the church to inside. The Saint Gregory portals, as in all Gothic architecture, have a deep significance intimately bound up with the Christian's faith journey. The portals are the means through which we enter from the earthly realm into the heavenly realm, the New Jerusalem, which the sacred space so magnificently mirrors. We are taken from the world of matter and sin to an ethereal place, a place set apart, expressly reserved for communion with and worship of the Living God. In Gothic architecture there is always an elaborate relief sculpted above the portal, giving some manifestation of the power of the Incarnate Word, more often than not the Last Judgment showing Christ in majesty with the saints, prophets and angels. The Saint Gregory portals are decorated with the image of the Crucifixion, the glorious event in which Christ "bore our infirmities" and endured death to forever break the power of death and secure our redemption.
Around the portal are carved the instruments of the Passion, including the crown of thorns, the reed, and even the dice that were cast for Christ's seamless garment. The skull at the base of the cross does not represent death on Golgotha - the Skull Place - but actually symbolizes the bones of Adam from which tradition holds the wood of the cross grew. This completes the circle of death to life, begun by our sinful parents, Adam and Eve, and completed by Christ the 'new Adam' whose death bought our redemption.
The rear, or narthex, of the church, contains two monumental shrines that act as devotional 'nodes' in the space. Despite their size and awesome intricacy, the shrines invite quiet prayer, reflection and petition symbolized by the many constantly burning vigil lights. The first shrine is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and was only recently restored to its original grandeur. Devotion to the Sacred Heart dates to the 17th century and the revelation of Our Lord to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. But the searing, sacrificial love of Christ for all humanity has been written about since the Patristic Age. Flanking the central image of Christ with his exposed and outpouring Sacred Heart are angels carrying the instruments of His passion and death. The Latin verses at the base and top of the shrine are taken from the Divine Office for the Feast of the Sacred Heart.
Opposite the Sacred Heart is the shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. One of the oldest images known of the Blessed Mother, the central icon is a flawless reproduction of the original housed in the Redemptorist Church in Rome. As legend holds that the original image was painted by Saint Luke when the Virgin was in the care of Saint John in Ephesus, this image could be said to be the closest thing we have to a photographic likeness of the Mother of God. Surrounding the central icon are six panels showing various manifestations of the Blessed Mother around the world, from Guadalupe in Mexico and Lourdes in France to Aberdeen in Scotland and Czestochowa in Poland. The Latin verses around the shrine, like those on the Sacred Heart shrine, are taken from the Divine Office celebration of the Mother of God.
Proceeding down the nave of the church (nave is the Latin word for boat and reflects the image of the Church as the ship of salvation tossed about the earthly seas of trial and temptation) one is absorbed in the vast, dusky space, illuminated by the prismatic glow of the stained glass windows. On either side of the central nave are ambulatories, or walkways, down which people may enter pews unobtrusively during liturgies, view the stained glass windows or pray the Stations of the Cross during Lent.
Above, the soaring vaults and beams of the ceiling are held firmly at the base by images of the Twelve Apostles, signifying their unique role as Christ's hand-picked pillars upon whom the earthly structure of the Church rests. On either side are the shrines of memory, more nodes of worship not so much reserved for individual petition as for general remembrance of the dead and the suffering. The north shrine is the Pieta, the somberly majestic image of the Blessed Mother cradling her dead son in her arms. One of the most moving and most replicated images in Christian art, the Pieta serves as a reminder of the suffering humanity of Christ as well as the maternal love of Mary for all her children as they endure the pains and sufferings of life.
On the south side of the church is the shrine to the souls in Purgatory. Honoring the dead, whom the Church teaches will see God only after purification for their sins, the shrine is executed in a high Gothic style combining painting, intricate woodwork and a relief at the base of the altar known as a predella. This particularly fine bit of artistry shows the death of Saint Joseph, who is tenderly attended by Our Lord and the Blessed Mother.
Proceeding down the nave one comes to the steps of the sanctuary, which traditionally represent exactly what the name implies, a truly hallowed spot reminiscent of the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem. This space is purposely set apart from the congregation to symbolize the sacred nature of the mysteries enacted within, a theological and architectural norm in place until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). To emphasize this sacredness, this otherness, architectural devices employed in the Western Church were derived not only from Judaism but from Eastern Christianity as well. In Byzantine churches, a standing wall of icons, or iconostasis, separates the faithful from the eucharistic mysteries unfolding within.
In Saint Gregory's - as in all Gothic churches - the place where the sanctuary begins is generally the crossing point of two sections flanking outward on either side of the church. This is called the transept and is created so as to form the church into the shape of a cross. In Saint Gregory's the transept is modified but present nevertheless, and is formed by the flanking altar of Mary to the left and one to Saint Joseph on the right.
High above the transept crossing point is the rood, which is the Old English name for the cross. The rood is placed on a beam marking the separation of the congregation from the sanctuary, and is flanked by statues of the Blessed Mother and Saint John the "Beloved Disciple." In some Gothic churches, the rood was an entire structure that ran the length from the floor to the top of the cross, and thus earned the name the 'rood screen.' In modern church architecture this was modified into the communion rail, which eventually was abandoned in the post-Conciliar period as an archaic impediment that separated the people from the Table of the Lord. The altar of Saint Gregory's is made from a surviving piece of the altar rail and is an example of the intricate beauty and attention to detail that went into the church thanks to the vision of Monsignor Klasen.
The pulpit of Saint Gregory Church is undoubtedly one of the most sublime masterpieces of liturgical art in the Archdiocese. Hand-carved by German artisans of the Black Forest region, the pulpit is a dynamic Table of the Word that proclaims the ever-new and young message of redemption while retaining the grace and beauty of the Gothic mystery. The hand-carved full-figure images of the Four Evangelists are supported by hand-carved busts of the Church Doctors St. Ambrose, St. Bernard, St. Gregory and St. Athanasius. Today, with the people of God rightfully united around the Lord's Table unobstructed, the sanctuary conveys an even deeper sense of majesty and mystery underscored by all the artistic elements. These elements are, as to be expected, eucharistic by nature and are clearly intended to act as a visual counterpoint to the central mystery unfolding on the altar. Topping the length of the three walls of the sanctuary are panels that repeat the eucharistic motifs of grapes and vines. These symbols represent not only the offering of Christ's blood during the Mass, but the image of Jesus as the True Vine and us, the assembly, as the branches. This motif is continued in the six rounded reliefs flanking the high altar, which show not only the grapes but sheafs of wheat as well. The high altar itself, called the reredos, is not merely a decorative or structural element, but as with all other pieces of the Gothic space, needs to be read in order to be understood. The center of the base of the reredos holds the tabernacle, the repository of the Blessed Sacrament and the point of worship towards which all eyes are naturally focused in a Gothic sacred space. On either side of the tabernacle are reliefs from both the Old and the New Testaments, either prophesying or manifesting the priesthood or the Eucharist. These images include the priesthood of Melchizidek and the feeding of the multitude with a few loaves and fishes. These images are not randomly chosen but are expressly portrayed to point towards a eucharistic longing present in the people of God from the time of Abraham to the fulfilling of the New Covenant.
Surmounting the reliefs is the central image of Christ triumphantly vested in priestly robes, surrounded by four doctors of the Church. An intricate stone filigree tops the stone reredos, which in turn is flanked by the Archangels Raphael and Michael, who has emblazoned on his shield the Latin Words Quis ut Deus ("Who is like unto Thee, O God").
A recent addition to the sanctuary of Saint Gregory's is a new processional cross that is, in fact, the first commissioned work of art to be installed in the church since its dedication. Created by artist Joseph Malham, the Croce San Gregorio is based upon a Gothic cross that dates from the 13th century. Rendered in egg tempera and gold leaf, the cross has been created to boldly complement the Norman Gothic interior of the church and to act as a proper node, or focus, of the liturgical life of the parish.
From the portals through the nave and ultimately to the sanctuary and beyond, Saint Gregory Church draws people gently deeper into a space that is both solid and warm, mysterious yet illuminating, ancient yet ever new. However, Saint Gregory Church, like all spaces sacred and secular, is made of stone, wood and glass. Sacred Spaces are living spaces, and are animated not only by the Spirit of God but by the faith of the people of God. For nearly 100 years, people of all backgrounds and social strata have enlivened and invigorated Saint Gregory with faith, with hope and with love. It is with these three virtues that the church has flourished in the past and will continue to grow and serve in the future.
In 2004 St. Gregory the Great Church was almost destroyed by a fire that broke out in the choir loft. While devastating to the parish, the fire was actually a curse as well as a blessing in many respects. In the nearly nine months that the church building was closed for renovation, the temporary worship space, set up in the basement of the gymnasium, proved a catalyst for unity and hope among the parishioners, who prayed together in a renewed sense of purpose and joy.
The renovation of the church building, undertaken by the Chicago firm of Daprato-Rigali, gave expert craftspersons and technicians the opportunity to take the interior back to the original look of the building as designed by Mr. Perry in 1924. Not only were years of soot and grime removed from the intricately stenciled ceiling and roof beam, but many decorative accretions such as the carpet from the nave and high altar and the red horsehair ceiling panels were likewise taken away. While the original cork floor was destroyed by water damage the insurance allowed for the installation of a new cork floor which restored a rich amber glow to the interior of the church. The floor, along with the installation of new gold colored cloth acoustic panels in the ceiling, gave a rich resonance to the sounds of the organ, choir, and congregation.
The magnificant murals of the archangels Michael and Raphael, damaged by years of dirt and poorly undertaken conservation attempts, were completely conserved by parishioner/iconographer Meltem Atkas and St. Gregory the Great artist-in-residence Joseph Malham. The newly refurbished St. Gregory the Great Church was re-opened and blessed by Bishop Francis J. Kane on December 14, 2004.