Thursday, September 4, 2008

And Still She Remains

There's a touching article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune that beautifully captures the continually enduring popular piety in the neighborhood surrounding the former site of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish on Western & Walton Avenues on the Near West Side:

The massive red-brick church has been converted into condos. The choir loft is now a dining room. The altar has been replaced by a kitchen island. Even the towering steeple has been transformed. It's a rooftop patio, suitable—the developer suggests—for a Jacuzzi.

Nothing is sacred anymore at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Nothing, that is, except a small white statue of the Virgin Mary, at the corner of Western Avenue and Walton Street, which was left in its original spot and continues to draw steady visits from the faithful. Some people lay flowers. Others kneel and pray.

"The first time I saw someone stop, it was an older gentleman," said Nathan Skillicorn, 28, whose second-floor balcony overlooks the statue. "He was just walking by like everyone else. Then he stopped and made the sign of the cross. It looked like he said a quick prayer, and then he walked on. It was kind of weird to see, but it was also nice."

There's nothing new about churches turning condo. ...

But the red brick church on Western Avenue was different. Even after the building was desanctified (the altar and tabernacle were removed, and the archdiocese released a written decree that "what was sacred is no longer sacred"), even after the pews were taken away and the tall stained glass windows were hauled off, people still came to pray.

Today, the faithful often pause before the concrete, 3-foot statue of Mary, which has watched over the bustle on Western Avenue for decades.

"Living in the neighborhood, you go by her so many times. You just look at her and feel like she's looking right back at you with a smile," said Lillian Penar, 91, a white-haired great-grandmother who passed the statue several times a week for many decades, before moving to the suburbs. Every time Penar went by, she said a prayer, even after the church was shuttered.

"Think of how many people have prayed to her," said Penar.

Read the whole thing.

It seems to me that grassroots devotional practices like these are what Mark Shea has in mind when, in response to the question, "Do you belong to an organized religion?" he says, "Nope. I'm Catholic."

No comments: