“Christ is baptized!” announced the priest. “In the river Jordan!” responded the congregation. This exchange at the start of the homily pretty much summed up the main theme of my parish pilgrimage to St. Mary’s Assumption Byzantine Catholic Church on Saturday.
As I noted in my previous examiner column, I traveled from Chicago, Illinois to Whiting, Indiana for a Feast of the Epiphany celebration. The pilgrimage to St. Mary’s was to showcase the parish’s newly renovated look, and was rather unusual for Catholics in that it celebrated the eastern tradition of marking the Baptism of Jesus on the Epiphany – rather than mark the gift of the magi to the baby Jesus as most Roman Catholics normally associate with Feast of the Epiphany and January 6th.
Now here’s the after action report: St. Mary’s physical address, 2011 Clark St. in Whiting, is really not all that far for those of us in the south suburbs. It was about an hour travel time, and that’s without toll roads. Perhaps in a strange bit of karma, Saturday was a clear and sunny day until I journeyed out to Homer Glen in the afternoon to begin the trek to Whiting. Once I was out the door, I experienced what should have happened on December 25th: a white Christmas. There was a heavy snowstorm as I made it out to church, only to discover that no one else from the Chicago area opted to go as a group – they would be driving out to Indiana individually. But that was alright: having signed up for the event in the past I went straight out to Indiana with the pastor of Annunciation parish, Fr. Thomas J. Loya.
We arrived around 4:00 p.m., right when the liturgy was beginning. Having missed the vespers service, I had to quickly take some photos of the exterior while it was still daylight out. (I hope my readers appreciate it!) The first thing I noticed about St. Mary’s is that it certainly doesn’t look its age. While the parish could hardly be confused with a modern post-Vatican II Catholic parish, neither does it look like the nearly century old building that is. The renovation of the parish is a remarkable effort and both the exterior and the interior of the parish look great. In contrast to other Catholic churches I’ve been in that date from that era, the church didn’t seem dimly light, musty, or quaint. In fact, the interior of St. Mary’s is extremely brightly lit and full of vibrantly colorful scenes. It is very befitting for this byzantine rite Slavic parish.
The Feast of the Epiphany service was celebrated by Fr. Stephen J. Muth, with Fr. Loya and several deacons assisting. I had actually met Fr. Stephen two years earlier and forgotten it until I saw him, because my previous visit to St. Mary’s had just been a brief stop in Jan. 2011 on the way to Washington D.C. for the March for Life. Fr. Stephen has had a career as a Catholic priest over 25 years and his ministries have been spread throughout many Catholic parishes, both Roman and Byzantine. Over the years, his pastoral experiences have included teaching, monastic formation, parish work, hospital chaplaincy, drug and alcohol counseling , prison chaplaincy, work in residential support of discharged psychiatric patients, and spiritual direction. One of his former students described Fr. Stephen as “the best teacher I have ever had”, and a “brilliant mind”. Having only met him twice, I came away quite impressed.
However, it wasn’t Fr. Stephen but Fr. Tom who gave the homily at the service, and began with a shocking statement to the parishioner’s of St. Mary’s: “This is not your church. St. Mary’s does not belong to you”. He went out to explain his statement by talking about a problem that the village of Homer Glen had had with water overflow over a decade ago, and how no government official wanted to deal with it because the location overlapped the boundary of Cook and Will County in Illinois. It wasn’t until Annunciation parish was founded that the parish came up with a sustainable water management plan, and received several environmental awards for doing so. Fr. Tom noted that like his parish, St. Mary’s is called upon to be a beacon of hope to northwest Indiana and to make their parish the go-to place for the local community to find inspiration, whether they are Catholic or not.
After Holy Communion, the blessing of the waters followed in an elaborate ceremony. As you can see from the photos, some of the rituals included dipping the lit candelabra into the waters and the priests “breathing” a blessing into holy water font. This ceremony ended with the creation of new holy water for the 2013 liturgical season, and with Fr. Stephen walking around the pews and blessing the crowed with a goblet that sprinkled some holy water on those in attendance. After the dismissal, those in the pews were invited to come up to kiss the crucifix and to take additional blessed bread. Another custom that is probably little known to Roman Catholics is the drinking of holy water. Byzantine Catholics came up and were invited to poor the water into glasses and consume it. This was the only part of the day that didn’t go smoothly, as there were four spigots but two rows of people. This led to confusion on where to go, as well as difficulty in turning the flow of the water on and off. But aside from the Keystone Cops like coordination at that point, everything else played out beautifully that day.
Afterwards, Fr. Stephen invited the crowd to the evening meal across the street in the hall, noting they had prepared food for 75 guests. After the blessing, we were treated to a traditional Slavic meal of wine, grilled fish, mushroom soup, Caesar salad, sour kraut, mashed potatoes, a variety of different pierogies (mushroom, potato, cheese, apples & raisins, cherries, etc.) and poppy seed rolls for dessert. On the table was another Slavic Christmas custom: clear plastic cups of garlic and honey – to remind us that “life on earth has both sweet and bitter experiences, and we often experience both together” We were invited to drip the garlic cloves into the honey, which I finally did reluctantly.
Finally, about two dozens of guests (which included myself); either drove down or walked down (in my case, the latter) three blocks from the parish grounds to the Whiting City Hall to sing Christmas Carols. Both traditional Slavic Christmas carols from the old country (So nebes Anhel, a.k.a. “Angles from Heaven”, Nebo i zeml’a , a.k.a. “Heaven and Earth”, Nova radost’stala, a.k.a “Joyful News”, etc. ) were sung, as well as family English language Christmas Carols in American society (Silent Night, O come all ye faithful, Hark! The herald angels sing, etc.) Having sung many of the Slavic carols in both English and Old Slavonic, someone suggested in jest that we should try rendering a couple of the tunes from the British Isles in Gaelic. Of course, none of us spoke it, and I didn’t even attempt the Slavonic words despite them being rendered phonetically in English in our booklets. At the conclusion, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the experience and felt uplifted, although we noted that singing Christmas Carols outdoors on the eve of the Epiphany sounds nice on paper, but isn’t quite as fun in the freezing January weather we get in the Midwest.
So what did I learn from my experience? St. Mary’s may be a congregation that has existed for over a century, but it shows no signs of slowing down. The parish has a very enthusiastic congregation and a beautiful building that perhaps offer clues why they have continued onward in the same form for nearly 100 years while many other Catholic parishes in the area have died off, moved, merged with other congregations, or vastly changed forms. Chicago area Catholics can and should take pride in the fact that St. Mary’s is one of the oldest Slavic parishes in southern Chicagoland, and the oldest Byzantine style Catholic parish in all of Chicagoland. Congrats on your renovation, St. Mary’s, and here’s to 100 more years!