St Bonaventure, Chicago

St Bonaventure, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Bonaventure
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 March 2006, 8:30am

The building

I'm not sure of the age of this practical-looking brick structure, but it probably dates from around 1910, when Chicago was still experiencing a considerable wave of Catholic immigration from most places in Europe. The main entrance is flanked by two towers that enclose stairways leading up to a low choir loft. The worship space occupies the whole main floor. Corner stairways continue up to classrooms whose windows clearly delineate a separate level when viewed from the street. I could see children's art projects in those windows. The worship space has the original pews and stained glass, but the sanctuary and altar have that stripped-bare, post-Vatican II look. A simple table was "complemented" by some bolts of fabric draped asymmetrically at the back, with a group of boulders toward the front on the floor. There probably was a more elaborate altar 50 years ago, but only the old Italian ladies of the parish would remember it now.

The church

It has been reported that this church may be closing soon due to the shortage of priests. The parish rolls list fewer than 500 members, which is too few to justify the services of a priest. The attendees at this early mass were a mix of old and young, mainly white folks, but a later mass is offered in Spanish. The parish sponsors a few organizations such as the Council of Catholic Women.

The neighborhood

St Bonaventure is located in the area called Lakeview, even though it is a good mile and a half from Lake Michigan. Originally a working or middle class white ethnic neighborhood, the area now enjoys a strong Latino influence, and new posh townhouses and condo buildings for the affluent have filled most of the empty or under-built lots.

The cast

The pastor is the Revd James Heneghan, but no announcement was made of who celebrated today's mass, nor were the altar party and musicians identified.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

About 50 people in a room that seats about 300, which was more than I expected at such an early mass in a parish rumored to be closing.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I walked in and was looking around wondering where to go, I heard a "Psst!" at my right. I turned to see a tiny little lady trying to get my attention to hand me a service sheet and take a missalette and hymnal. Not a welcome precisely, but at least an acknowledgement of what I was there for.

Was your pew comfortable?

The old wood pews have stood the test of years and much use, and still do the job.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was pretty quiet. Maybe given the early hour most people were just waking up, but some of the quiet may have been prayerful.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Please stand," said the music leader. A hymn followed immediately. The celebrant's first words were, "We gather together in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Gather hymnal, with the parish name stamped on in gold, and the paperback Seasonal Missalette. The hymnal has the melody line only, even for hymns that beg for the parts to be available.

What musical instruments were played?

Piano. Organ pipes were visible in the choir loft, but I suspect the instrument is merely a relic of more glorious times past.

Did anything distract you?

A couple in the pew in front of me had a baby with them, who made a few of the utterances that even contented infants make, but that really was no problem. There was a cry room at the back, but probably no child care at that hour. More distracting were the drabness and gloom around the altar. I wasn't sure if the boulders on the floor were intended to be reminiscent of the empty tomb, but since it was only Lent 4 I didn't get it. Also there were no lights on in the apse area at all. Very lenten.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Minimally staffed novus ordo. To their credit, though, having both a pianist and a leader of song at an early morning service isn't doing badly.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

It came in at just under two minutes, making it possibly the shortest homily I have ever heard.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – I was reminded of the photographer whose task it was to photograph Abraham Lincon as he delivered his famous address at the Gettysburg battlefield. The photographer took his time setting up, as he assumed that Lincoln would speak for hours, but as it turned out the poor man barely had time to snap Lincoln as he was leaving the podium.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The gospel was John 3:14-21, which includes perhaps the most famous passage of the entire New Testament ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."). The priest likened being in darkness, removed from the light and love of Jesus, to suffering from a migrane. I was just getting ready to take notes as Father expanded on this striking metaphor – but then he left the podium!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The lay reader was good, and showed some signs of training and preparation. The selection of music was pretty good also, even without printed harmony. It was heavenly to have a service sheet and not have to fumble with my least favorite Catholic thing, the throw-away Seasonal Missalette.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The drab altar was far from heavenly. And the music leader relied heavily on a microphone that, to put it mildly, made certain we were all awake. The room wasn't all that large, and my hearing is pretty good.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Everyone was invited to proceed to the gym for coffee and doughnuts, so I went. Father Heneghan greeted everyone on their way out the door, but begged off all hand-shaking and hugging, explaining that he was feeling flu-ish. To tell the truth, he did look a bit gray and sweaty, and that might explain the brevity of his homily.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The group in the gym was comprised entirely of little old ladies. I helped myself to coffee in a styrofoam cup, and managed to give the doughnuts only an appreciative glance. After a decent amount of smiling and wishing the little old ladies good morning, I departed. Good for them to include a social component (not many churches do) at the early morning mass.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

3 – If St Bonaventure really is about to close, I guess that won't be an option. But if this were my parish, I'd be angry over the prospect, as probably some of these people are. There may be fewer than 500 parishioners on the parish rolls, but they appeared to be genuinely fond of their church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

That Roman Catholic churches with fewer than 500 members aren't allowed to remain open. If my own Episcopal church had 500 members, we'd probably hire a junior curate. On the other hand, while driving away I couldn't help noticing how close St Bonaventure is to the larger, more propserous looking St Alphonsus parish.

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