Part 2 of 2 (read Part 1 here)
A renovation and restoration of the original interior of Old St. Patrick’s Church, undertaken by Booth/Hansen & Associates and mostly completed by 1996, once again made the interior very similar to the one that artist Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy had envisioned, but not identical. Unfortunately, much of the glorious interior stenciling with its intricate interlace ornament was covered with paint over the years. The paint job supposedly happened 1945-1946 because the pastor at that time, a Father Byrne, thought the interior too dark and wanted to lighten it up and make it more modern. A mistake, in hindsight, at the expense of some of the artist’s work; and in any case, the neighborhood, too, was severely deteriorating by then, and St. Patrick’s itself was in danger of demolition.
In 1993, restorers began carefully scraping away the ill-advised paint and uncovering the stencils. However, they could not repair or duplicate all of the deteriorated stencils accurately without inordinate expense (and the restoration was quite expensive as it was: $9 million, with $1 million of that in matching funds donated by Chicago financier, philanthropist and preservationist Richard H. Driehaus). So, the restorers had to take motifs directly from the source of the artist’s inspiration to replace what they could not reproduce. Now, the design of every individual ceiling panel in the church is taken from a different page of the Book of Kells. The resulting stenciling is in harmony with O’Shaughnessy’s remaining work and the stained glass.
Speaking of the glass, O’Shaughnessy also designed a stained glass ceiling panel inset just above the altar. Its design is taken literally from the most famous illuminated page of the 1,200+-year-old Book of Kells, the one on Folio 27v depicting the four evangelists – except that O’Shaughnessy’s version made the image horizontal instead of vertical, so that the images could be seen from the nave without turning one’s head sideways. It had been so covered in grime before the restoration that most people didn’t even know it was there. Now a translucent feast for the eyes, it fills the sanctuary with gently filtered light.
The magnificent stained glass in the church seems to glow of its own accord, even on a rainy day. O’Shaughnessy took 10 years to create and install the windows because he kept refining both his images and his technique along the way, destroying what he didn’t like and starting over. Moreover, he had a very large color palette, which ranged from a great number of pastels to some middle hues. The overall effect is much brighter and more luminous than is typical with liturgical stained glass, rarely venturing into the dark jewel tones we usually associate with traditional stained glass windows.
The artist was one of the very few who ever used a predominantly pastel palette for his windows. The renovated stenciling uses 54 colors, but O’Shaughnessy used far more for the glass – at least 100 colors in each window and 2,000 colors in all, most of which he used in the famous MacSwiney window – which made restoring the glass in recent years exceedingly difficult. Some supplies of O’Shaughnessy’s leftover glass were available through the original contractor, but in the case of other colors, the original glass had to be very carefully mended using conservation-grade epoxy. The glass restoration was done by Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, WI, the fine art and architecture restorers in suburban Milwaukee (who also worked on the National Shrine of St. Therese in suburban Darien, IL and supplied the more modern stained glass windows at the shrine as well as other liturgical art at the shrine).
When the church reopened in 1996 after the initial phase of the restoration, the old altar was still present, as were the original wooden doors. Renovation continued, directed by Booth/Hansen & Associates (now just known as Booth Hansen). The front doors were replaced, and a modern stone holy water font was installed at the rear of the nave, near the entrance. The pews were replaced with the current cherrywood ones, which feature a series of nine different Celtic designs carved into the ends. The light fixtures, which are reminiscent of the designs of Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, are actually inverted replicas of the famous St. Patrick’s bell.
The glorious stone Celtic Revival altarpiece present today was completed in 2000; the original altar is tucked behind that, and the back of the sanctuary has been turned into a separate private chapel. Its ornament was made possible with the help of computer-aided design, aka CAD. Also added were elegant plaster reliefs surrounding two niches for statues at either side of the altar (these echo the bas-relief designs on the altarpiece); stone flooring for the nave; and a raised marble floor and steps for the sanctuary, where the floor features a Celtic circle of inlaid colored marble surrounding the freestanding altar (the old altar rail was removed earlier). This remarkable floor design was achieved using CAD and a high-tech technique called supersonic water-jet cutting. The best view of the sanctuary floor is from the rail of the choir balcony.
The block party proceeds, which go toward various parish programs, were used from the beginning to expand the church’s outreach programs and, Father Wall hoped, the number of parishioners, especially younger ones under age 30. And that, the block parties did – but the proceeds were never enough to fund the massive restoration of the church; thus, the fundraising campaign involving Richard Driehaus. Now that the church is mostly restored, the next project will be to renovate the 1881 red brick rectory on Adams Street, which looks like a blend of Queen Anne style and Second Empire with a mansard roof, round turret and limestone trim.
Old St. Patrick’s, Chicago’s oldest church and public building, was listed on the
National Register of Historic Places in 1977, before its current glory could be appreciated. Fortunately, to get the full effect of the restored church interior, you don’t need a sunny day – as we discovered for ourselves, the stained glass is still quite luminous even on a rainy day (a bright day would be almost too much) and easily illuminates the delightful stenciling on the walls and ceiling. Drop by for Sunday Mass or, if you’re not one of the faithful, just as weekday 11:15 am Mass is ending while the lights are still on to get a good look at the fabulous stenciling and the mosaic-covered niche (also by O’Shaughnessy) in a back corner of the nave. Don’t forget to look closely at window number four on the right side of the nave, where O’Shaughnessy inserted a self-portrait of himself on the left side of the image (apparently, the artist’s receding hairline had gotten worse since 1912).
Be aware, however, that Sunday Mass attracts a big crowd, especially on holy days (total attendance at the Easter Masses was between 4,000 and 5,000 in 2014, and the attendees came from about 200 different zip codes, with no more than 5 percent of them coming from any single zip code, according to lead docent Jim McLaughlin – which means the vast majority aren’t locals from the West Loop). The Daleys are still parishioners, by the way; the late Maggie Daley was instrumental in bringing about the new Francis Xavier Warde School next to the church on Desplaines Street. Parking in the neighborhood is very limited, and some of it is zoned for residents only. Perhaps a weekday is better for a visit, if you’re in the area. Tours with a docent are available by appointment between 8 and 11 am on weekdays; consult the church’s website for details. And don’t skip a visit to Heritage Green Park across the street, with its statue of the Celtic figure Grainne.
Our sincere thanks to Jim McLaughlin, who kindly gave us a most informative tour.
Incidentally, if you want to see other examples of O’Shaughnessy’s sophisticated stained glass, try the St. Procopius Benedictine Abbey near 55th Street in suburban Lisle or the modified Greek Revival Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downstate Springfield. Both of those projects were completed after his work at Old St. Patrick’s was finished.
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Until next time,
Your Route 66 scrivener, Marie
Note: This post is partially excerpted from our upcoming book, tentatively titled The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago: A History of the Eastern Terminus by Maria R. Traska, Joseph D. Kubal and Keith Yearman; copyright 2014 by Maria R. Traska; all rights reserved. No portion of this text may be used or reproduced by others without express written consent of the authors.