Our Ladies of the Kennedy Expressway: Chicago’s Polish cathedral style

I admit it is weird; I’m all crazy for church architecture and I travel great distances to see it, but until recently I didn’t know about the Chicago Polish cathedral style. Perhaps I overlooked it because these churches are located in my unofficial no man’s land—west of the Kennedy Expressway. There are many adorable neighborhoods west of the Kennedy, but it has often felt so unpleasant getting to them, though pee-smelling viaducts under scary speeding cars.

I did, of course, know that Chicago is loaded with people of Polish descent. I mean, you can’t throw a pierogi here without hitting someone whose last name ends with “ski”. I moved to Chicago in 1994 at the tail-end of a post-Cold War mini wave of Polish immigration, but a much larger wave started in the 1860’s, just as Chicago’s population began to explode. Most of the Poles clustered in communities on the the northwest side, near the Kennedy.

So anyway, during that fleeting but glorious time last summer and early fall, when Covid numbers were low enough that we felt slightly safer taking public transportation, HOB and I stumbled on these Polish churches during our forays into less visited neighborhoods. After our initial discovery we sprinted through them, taking slow buses underneath the dreaded Kennedy, chased by an ever-climbing Covid positivity rate that finally cut off our non-essential local travel a few months ago.

What is the Polish cathedral style? Well, the churches are grand, and on the fancy side—not gaudy, just full of ornament. Most refreshing of all, they are not Gothic. Not like I’m a Gothic hater or something but man, is it overplayed in Chicago. No, these Polish churches are Renaissancey-Baroquey with a heavy dose of Polish patriotism.

Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church

This is Holy Trinity, located in the Noble Square neighborhood (which I am pinching myself for not having spent more time in). It was designed by William Krieg and Herman Olszewski in 1906. It has that Roman Baroque thing going on, with a classical pediment, but look closely and you’ll see some funky modernist doors.

The interior of Holy Trinity is similar to all the Polish cathdral style churches; wall paintings, stained glass, fancy organ—though this one in unusual in that it has no columns.

Me walking out of my apartment once I’m able to get my Covid vaccine.

St. Stanislaus Kostka

St. Stanislaus Kostka is just up the block from Holy Trinity. I was only able to photograph one tower, as the rest of the church is under restoration (yay!) I love this façade for being constructed of Chicago Common Brick, a mottled brick normally used only on the rear sides of older apartment buildings. The tower was designed by Adolphus Druiding in 1892.

The murals inside St. Stanislaus Kostka, by Thaddaeus Zukotynski, celebrate the life of the titular saint, Stanislaus. (I wrote this part as an excuse to use the word “titular”.)

From the peaceful interior, you wouldn’t realize that the rear of the church practically backs into the Kennedy Expressway.

St. John Cantius Church

The same dude, Adolphus Druiding, who designed the towers of St. Stanislaus Kostka, was also the architect of St. John Cantius, c. 1893-1898.

That glorious organ!

Confession: social distancing style.

St. Hedwig Roman Catholic Church

St. Hedwig Roman Catholic Church was closed when I visited, so I don’t have interior shots. Our old friend Adolphus Druiding also designed this one in 1902, with Renaissance flair.

St. Hyacinth Basilica

St. Hyacinth Basilica was my favorite. Normally I don’t dig churches that hint too much of classical revival, but this one, designed by Worthmann and Steinbach in 1921, has an especially alive feeling.

We got lost trying to find St. Hyacinth (fortunately the Avondale neighborhood is full of charming old houses that we admired while walking in circles, squinting at google maps). By the time we arrived, after a day running around Chicago, we were tired, and glad to sit under the dome in the later afternoon light while other folks from the community trickled in for a quick break and a prayer.

What attracts me to these Polish cathedral style churches in not the architecture, as grandeur is not my thing, or the ornamentation, but more how these things are combined with absolute care. This care, and pride in Polish heritage, will bring us back to see the churches we missed once Covid is over, even if we have to cross the Kennedy Expressway.

Stained glass window depicting Saint Salomea of Poland. Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church

29 comments

  1. Lovely places. The pandemic is giving us all an opportunity to discover unexplored territory close to home.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is an advantage. And the masks keep my face warm in this frigid weather.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I hadn’t thought of that. Has masking visibly improved due to the weather?

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yes, it has improved a great deal lately. However, the weather also causes our glasses to fog up while wearing a mask, so there’s a new problem. I stopped wearing my glasses altogether outdoors.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Yes, anyone who solves the problem of glasses fogging up when masked will be richer than Bill Gates.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. If I returned to Catholicism, I would give St. John Cantius a hard look. Latin mass, no guitars (thankfully). If I could only find my mantilla …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No guys in plaid shirts with rolled up sleeves playing guitars in front of a video montage anywhere in St. John Cantius. I want to go back for the sacred music choirs in non-Covid times. We did see a lady in a mantilla—so deliciously old school!

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  3. It’s amazing that you’ve found so much to go look at in your own city. I do feel that after a year of this I have well and truly seen everything here. often multiple times.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well there’s plenty more I’d like to see, but I haven’t gone anywhere outside of where I can walk since early November. The city is so huge that we could well be on public transit for 5 hours round trip for some of the more interesting places, and that’s too much exposure. Hopefully in the Spring.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Stunning churches…well worth crossing the expressway to see them – and the neighbourhoods sound interesting too. Worth another trip once the bug oermits.
    You could do an alternative guide to Chicago….people like going off the beaten tourist track.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am looking forward to the return of tourists, which are a large part of my job. Many ask for advice, but what they really mean is that they want to go somewhere in a 5 minute walk.

      Occasionally I get a special sort of tourist, who does actually want to go off the beaten track and those I especially enjoy. Some of these churches could be accessed by a straight forward bus ride, and none of them are in neighborhoods that involve a higher degree of street smarts. A smart tourist would stick around and eat a Polish pastry as a reward for their adventurousness.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I can’t recall ever using the word “titular”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Operas, Cycling, and Titular Travels” has a good ring to it….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “Operas, Cycling, and Titular Travels” has a good ring to it….

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  7. I have been enjoying all of your Chicago, North Side, Covid posts. Forgive me for not responding to each of them. I know these neighborhoods and places so well, but your walks brought me to places I did not know at all. Thanks. These Polish churches were beautiful. What we can build and create when we care about spaces of beauty and spirituality? So many beautiful buildings in Chicago have been lost. (Is it true that there are more Polish people in Chicago than in Warsaw?) Thanks for another wonderful time traveling with you. By the way, the window of St Salomea was fabulous. Any information as to who designed it? Keep warm and keep taking us to more places around Chicago. Your sharp eye and sense of humor are always refreshing. Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to hear from you, Bruce! I agree that the stained glass in Holy Trinity is lovely, once of a series of windows of Polish saints. I could find a reference to K. Markiewicz that I think means is the window designers, but that’s a new one to me—have you ever heard of that person?

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  8. Loved experiencing these lovely churches through your eyes. And Gothic overplayed in Chicago? Finally! Somebody else sees what I see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Wendy. The Gothic is so overplayed at the local Universities too. That’s why I’m lucky to live by Loyola campus—original art deco style and not a whiff of Gothic!

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  9. As the crow flies, I am about a minute west of the Kennedy…seriously. Like Sarah Palin and Russia, I can see the Kennedy from my bedroom! I love, love, love this post and can’t wait to get out to see the beautiful churches! By the way, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do for a living WOB?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I work for a museum—wanna visit?

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  10. Wow these are so beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to go visit the rest of them once I get my vaccine,

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Really love the way these churches open up the space with all those graceful arches. Having spent a lot of time in post-seventies florida nondescript box churches with their share of men in plaid strumming guitars i really enjoyed the “leave no surface unadorned” exuberance of these churches. Love the woodwork in that organ balcony and the pedestal/pulpit from which the priest speaks. I imagine Pope John Paul was pretty popular in those parts! Reminds me of the unabashed baroque of some places in Wuerzburg Germany.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When I was growing up there were these lovely stone churches getting ripped down for those non-descript, enormous parking lot churches you mention. Yes, we have lots of folks here with Polish ancestry and Pope John Paul is still might popular. I haven’t made it to Wuerzvurg yet—now I want to go!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. For a dose of baroque try the Residenz and die Kaepele (sp? Chapel)on the far bank of the Mainz river, over the bridge of saints (die Heiligenbrueke). The Festung or fortress is also on that side. Much of the downtown area was bombed during the war and rebuilt but was very quaint and charming in the late 80s. I was weirdly there on the 40th anniversary of the bombing by the Americans at a time when Reagan wasnt particularly popular in Europe. Hope to go back one day.

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  12. So..you just walk in?

    Yeah…there is no reason to go west of the Kennedy unless you’re flying out of O’Hare. Which is a snobbish thing to say but there it is. Now me and my friends will have to go check out polish Cathedrals….maybe some festival and a beer house can anchor the visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the churches were open and we walked in with no Covid restrictions other than masks and social distances.

      I think much of the west side is quite lovely—I’m especially fond of Avondale—but for some reason I just hate crossing expressways.

      Hope you are able to go to some festivals this summer!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Crossing the expressway means you are further from The Lake and the heart of the city. There is so much going on all over Chicagoland.

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      2. That’s true, I don’t think I could ever live far from the lake.

        Liked by 1 person

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