Today is the start of a two part series about a very special event this week. I’ll discuss the upcoming event in this column, and provide a very cool “after action report” on Sunday about my experiences. Anyone want to guess what Catholic feast day we’re covering this week?
If you answered, “Epiphany”, congratulations! You win today’s trivia question. As I’ve noted in recent columns, the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th, and I will be going on a pilgrimage on the eve of the Epiphany. Why and where it’s occurring is what makes this column unique.
Let’s start with the origin of the Epiphany. For most Catholics, we associate the feast day with the three wise men visiting baby Jesus. Still, that’s not really what the holiday is about. As I’ve mentioned in the past, early Christians considered the Epiphany even more important than Christmas, as shocking as that may seem to us today. That’s because the Epiphany is a traditional Christian feast dating back to the earliest days of Christianity, one which celebrates the 'shining forth' or revelation of God to mankind in human form, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Epiphany takes its name from the Greek word “epiphania”, which means a visit of God to earth. In short, the day commemorates the manifestation of Christ as the Son of God. Early Christians noted three major events in which “the Lord our Savior…made manifest to the world”: the adoration of the Magi; the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and the first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. When it was first marked as a holy day, Christians commemorated all three simultaneously – the coming of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and the wedding at Cana – on the Epiphany.
Eventually, these became separate holy days. Although the Feast of the Epiphany originated in the east, it became associated with the coming of the Magi as it spread throughout the western world. For Roman Catholics, the Baptism of Jesus is still commemorated around this time of year, and indeed, the baptism of Jesus is one of the Luminous Mysteries sometimes added to the Rosary. Pope Pius XII instituted in 1955 a separate liturgical commemoration of the Baptism, which occurs a week after the feast of the Epiphany, (Jan. 13). Pope John Paul II initiated a custom whereby on this feast the Pope baptizes babies in the Sistine Chapel on this day, and it marks the end of the Christmas season (sorry, secular media, we’re still not taking down those Christmas lights yet!)
For Eastern Christians, the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan became the main event commemorated during the feast of the Epiphany, and it remains so to this day (the coming of the Magi is celebrated during Christmas Day in eastern Churches, as it is depicted in Nativity scenes – though historical evidence shows they probably arrived much later). These include eastern Catholic Churches. Although such churches have Pope Benedict XVI as their spiritual leader and are in full union with Roman Catholics, they inherited many of their religious traditions from Eastern Orthodox Christians. Associating the Feast of the Epiphany with the Baptism of Jesus is one such example.
This leads us to the coming church pilgrimage mentioned at the start of this column. Within driving distance of most Chicagoans is Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Whiting, IN; usually simply called “St. Mary’s” by the locals. It is a parish of amazing historic significance to many Catholics in the Chicago area, whether they’re aware of it or not. St. Mary’s is located at 2011 Clark St. in Whiting, Indiana.
For starters, it's the oldest Byzantine Catholic parish in the Chicago area, and is considered the mother church to a number of Catholic parishes, as well as ethnically Slavic churches in both Indiana and Chicago. The parish was founded in 1899 by eastern European immigrants, at a time when the Calumet region that spans northeastern Illinois and northwest Chicago wasn’t exactly a hotbed of organized Catholic activity. (In the 1890s, immigrants of Slavic origin made up over ninety percent of Whiting's population, and many weren’t Catholics). In 1899, Rusyn immigrants (not to be confused with Russians, although they are a related culture), bought a local church and parish house which had been erected by the German Reformed Lutherans and established an independent organization. They renamed the parish “St. Mary's Greek Catholic Church”, and it came under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church in Lake County, Indiana, in 1907.
The priests assigned to this first incarnation of the Catholic parish were Fr. Seregelyi, Fr. Satala, and Fr. Parscouta. The first permanent pastor, Fr. Balogh, in 1907, came through Rt. Rev. S. S. Ortynsky, who had been selected from Rome as bishop of the Greek Catholic Ruthenians in the United States. He took active charge of the church in May 1908, and since that time the parish has been continually been an active center of Catholic worship. The current church building was dedicated in 1918, as a corner stone shows. St. Mary’s has had its ups and downs over the last century, but remained a focal point of Catholic worship in Whiting.
The faith community of St. Mary’s has invited Chicago area Catholics to visit their parish on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to formally showcase their newly renovated church. The parish building has been drastically restored after a century, and they have chosen this particular weekend to bring it to the attention of the public.
The “Parishes Pilgrimage” begins at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 5th. There will be an evening Vespers, Liturgy, and the Solemn Blessing of Water for the Eve of Sunday (this service fulfills the weekly Sunday obligation for Catholics). This will be followed by dinner at 6:00 p.m., and Christmas caroling in downtown Whiting at 7:00 p.m. All events for the Saturday pilgrimage are being offered by the parish free-of-charge.
There are many Catholic parishes around Chicagoland that predate 1899, but for Catholics in southeastern Chicagoland, none offer such a rich history or unique liturgical and/or culturally eastern European heritage as St. Mary’s. It is certainly a one-of-a-kind Catholic parish around the Chicago prairieland, and one that deserves perhaps a bit more media attention as they celebrate their newly renovated building that has stood strong for over a century of change.
I can’t think of a more interesting way that I’d like to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany this year. I’ll be on the pilgrimage to St. Mary’s, and I’ll be back here on Sunday to tell my faithful readership all about it.