If you ever use the Kennedy, you've seen it just west of the expressway near Armitage. It’s the big church with the twin bell towers and the massive Save the Dome sign up top: St. Mary of the Angels.
Few people are prepared for what they discover inside. According to City of Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, it's the church equivalent to the Chicago Theatre. There is gold leafing as far as the eye can see, murals, paintings, stained glass and the signature feature, a jaw-dropping, exquisitely decorated dome. It's widely considered to be the finest example of Roman Renaissance architecture in the country.
“People come into the church and they just, they are stunned, that's the right word. They sort of just look at the church and can't believe it all,” Father Hilary Mahaney said.
Father Hilary, the long time Parish moderator, appreciates the grandeur of his church, but more than that, the working class Polish immigrants who dared to dream and who opened the doors to St. Mary of the Angels in 1920 after nine years of construction.
“I think it's a real tribute to the faith of Polish people, you know, that they didn't have much money at all, and poured their money and their time into building the church, and I think it's a consequence of the deep faith they had and still have,” Mahaney said.
The world-renowned St. Peter's basilica in Rome played a central role in the Hollywood blockbuster Angels and Demons, and it's St. Peter's dome the community here tried to emulate some 90 years ago, the same dome that's the focus of a major fund raising campaign today.
“It was just their blood, sweat, and tears, putting this structure together. And they've done a fantastic job. Now it's our turn to make sure that we maintain the legacy that they started,” Church Business Manager Gary Bilinovich said.
Their project is well underway; $1.5 million has been raised, but $1 million more is needed to fix the dome and another million is needed to make other necessary repairs.
It's a bit of a workout just walking up the steps of the scaffolding. They hope to get the project done by January; they've been at it for more than a year.
Almost 19 stories above the ground, it's hard to imagine a better view anywhere. From the scaffolding looking south, you get quite a view of the downtown skyline.
They're trying to make the dome water-tight for many decades to come after a previous repair job failed to hold up.
Still, the restoration of St. Mary of the Angels in the 90s serves as inspiration today. The parish, now vibrant, was struggling in the late 80s. Attendance was low. The ceiling was falling in. If not for a last-minute fundraising campaign, this magnificent structure would have been demolished.
“For five years or so, they didn't do any repairs or anything. Water was pouring into the church because they thought well this is the end, we're going to knock it down, but thank God they didn't,” Mahaney said.
For more information, go to savethedome.net