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975: St Gertrude's, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Other reports | Comment on this report
St Gertrude's, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Misericord.
The church: St Gertrude's, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: This simplified English neo-gothic church, oriented west instead of east, is one of the few built in Chicago during the great depression. The tower provides a beautiful accent to the neighborhood skyline. The building is actually a combination church and parish hall – several rows of pews at the back have been removed to make a place for socializing, and the area has been covered with ultra-drab gray carpet. The typical post-Vatican II renovation didn't much harm the beauty and sacred artwork inside. Restoration work where required has included restrained polychromy, stenciling and gold leaf. The stained glass is of a high quality. The altar, sanctuary furnishings, reredos, side altars, and stations of the cross are as nice as any you would find in an American church of this size and age.
The church: The church complex, including the rectory and school buildings, fill this and part of the next block. St Gertrude's may be one of the more diverse Roman Catholic congregations around town, reflecting the neighborhood. There was a nice mix of ages, complexions and family sizes at this service.
The neighbourhood: The Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago is on the north lakefront south of Loyola University and is one of the most integrated in the city. Many white and Latino folk are joined by African-Americans, African immigrants, and Asians of all sorts. Recent immigrant groups to the area include Bosnians, Poles and Russians.
The cast: The Rev. William G. Kenneally, pastor, was the celebrant. He was supported by William Coble, music director, and a volunteer mixed choir of about 20 adults. The parish bulletin listed the lectors for the coming week, but not those serving at this mass.
What was the name of the service?
10.00am Mass, Feast of Corpus Christi.

How full was the building?
At this service (one of four weekend masses) about 60 percent of the pews were occupied – let's say about 500 people in all. Given the warm weather and lack of air conditioning, this seemed impressive.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, nothing. There were no service sheets. I found a flier folded up and left in my pew, but it was a parish newsletter, with no order of service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Nice wood pews and kneelers. I am not a fan of padded seats in church, though I may change my mind in about 30 years.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were milling and talking, with children darting about. The choir supplied music reminiscent of late 1960s Catholic worship, miked-up to cover the din.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Lord fed the people with the finest wheat and honey and their hunger was satisfied."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A paperback missal published seasonally by the Oregon Catholic Press, and the paperback Today's Missal, Music Issue, 2004.

What musical instruments were played?
Live piano, switching to MIDI pre-recorded piano with some synthesized sounds when the music director was busy conducting the choir. The book Chicago Churches and Synagogues notes that there is a three manual 30 rank Kilgen organ in the loft which "has accompanied fine men and boys choirs through the years." I've heard, though, that it's been unplayable for many years. Too bad.

Did anything distract you?
I'm not used to celebrant, lectors and music being so heavily amplified. There were no technical glitches or feedback, but the overall effect was that of a railroad station. Also, I'm not sure if the Nicean Creed got dropped from the order for the mass by mistake.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
No clapping, but then again music didn't seem to play a big part in the worship. Definitely not stiff-upper-lip. As is common in novus ordo masses, each line of the Kyrie included a petition. It reminded me of Catholic churches of my college days except they didn't have MIDI pianos then. I couldn't tell if the congregation was singing, but the amplified choir sure took care of that. An announcement was made that the Rev. Jesse Jackson would be the guest speaker at masses the following week, and the pastor urged us to sing louder next week for Rev. Jackson.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Ten minutes. After the celebrant stepped up to the lectern, he launched into a commentary; I thought he was going to give the sermon before he read the Gospel. But it turned out to be just a brief commentary on the Gospel reading.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – It was quite rambling and anecdotal, and seemed to be completely off the cuff. I found it a bit dumbed-down and too soothing, and would have preferred to be challenged. Many might not share my reaction.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Spiritual nourishment – receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord as one of the unifying moments in our lives. Somehow this got tied to President Reagan's funeral. Father also commented on the recent move in our archdiocese (and others) to refuse communion to gays wearing rainbow identification or to pro-choice politicians. He called this a "benighted trend" and contrary to Christ's intent. This was when I decided to receive communion, even though I've been a practicing Anglican for several years.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The lay readers were very good, and their microphone technique was fine. Preparation and training showed here. I'm not sure this is heaven exactly, but impressive. And the stained glass windows, of course.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lighting was a little bright for my taste. The commentary before the Gospel was unnecessary. Singing only a portion of each hymn was disheartening to anyone who appreciates sacred music. The opening hymn, One Bread, One Body, was considered worthy of only one verse (out of three), and the closing hymn was cut to two verses. The music at this service represented neither good traditional music nor anything exciting and reflective of the diverse parish ethnicities.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Again, nothing. A few people smiled but no one spoke to me. The room cleared pretty quickly, leaving me in solitude to admire the splendid windows.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Neither coffee nor fellowship made an appearance on that acre of gray carpet at the back of the church.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – It seems like a typical large parish with an overworked priest, although people appeared genuinely fond of Father Kenneally. Someone should take the initiative to organize coffee hour and a greeters committee. If I lived two blocks away and had children in the school, I guess I would consider regular attendance, but there are a lot of other choices nearby.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – in spite of the disappointing music and aloof congregation (and did I mention the drab gray carpet?), the atmosphere was positive and the space was overall very beautiful and supportive of worship.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
(In addition to the stained glass, you mean.) The petitions of the Kyrie. The second of these was an understatement in light of the Church's penitential posture following recent events: "We pray for the Church and her various issues. Christ have mercy." That made me smile quite inappropriately. I am glad that, unlike Boston, Chicago doesn't have to close nice parishes like this one.
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