A Short History of St. John Cantius Parish
Saint John Cantius Church, one of the most beautiful sacred spaces in Chicago, boasts a fascinating parish history that mirrors the life of our Savior, a life of growth, suffering, and glory.
Saint John Cantius parish has served as a channel of God’s graces to His people for over one hundred years. This grace has come through the sacraments of the Holy Catholic Church, as well as through the various events that have shaped and defined this church’s history and identity.
The steady arrival and settlement of Polish immigrants in the area, known as “Expatriate Poland” (Wygnana Polska), necessitated the foundation of a new parish which would become Saint John Cantius Church. In 1892, these immigrants petitioned the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka, the mother church of all Polish parishes in the Archdiocese, for a new church. Fr. Vincent Barzyński, C.R., saw the validity of this request and immediately purchased several lots at Fry and Carpenter Streets for the sum of $75,000. He then appointed Fr. John Kasprzycki, C.R., as pastor.
A postcard showing St. John Cantius Church, Rectory, and School from 1909.
The task of building the new church began. The architect, Adolphus Druiding, drew the plan, and work commenced in the spring of 1893. The cornerstone was laid and blessed in July of that year, while the crudely finished basement church was completed by Christmas. The new parish community held its first Mass in the basement on Christmas Eve.
However, a depression began to settle over Chicago, and it became financially difficult to complete the superstructure. After much fundraising and little progress, the parish prayed a novena to St. Joseph to implore his intercession in completing the church. Soon after the novena, on March 28, a sum of $3,000 arrived and brought construction to a successful close. Archbishop Patrick Feehan presided at the Blessing and Dedication ceremonies on December 11, 1898. The parish flourished and reached its peak in 1918 with about 23,000 parishioners and 2,500 children in the school.
In the 1920s, the construction of Ogden Avenue disrupted the parish and set the pace for decline. The Great Depression, starting with the stock market crash of 1929, brought a further decrease in registered parishioners. By 1943, about 5,000 parishioners and 376 school children remained. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the construction of the Kennedy expressway also dealt a hard blow to the parish. Most of the neighborhood’s residents left what was rapidly developing into a ghetto. In spite of the many negative factors working against the parish’s future, a good number of those who moved continued to attend Mass and support the parish. These, along with the competent leadership of various pastors, made it possible for the parish to continue.
On August 15, 1988, Fr. Frank Phillips, C.R., became pastor and reintroduced a more disciplined and reverent liturgical life to the parish. This, coupled with his prudent guidance and personal charisma, caused the ranks of parishioners, as well as financial resources, to increase. With improved finances, Fr. Phillips could begin restoring the physical church to its original glory while preserving the many treasures the parish already had. In 1998, with the approval of Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., Fr. Phillips founded the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, a community of religious brothers and priests who strive to restore the sacred in parochial life. He did so for the express purpose of ensuring that the work he had begun as pastor would not end with him.
Left, 1933 and right, 2015. This church has changed very little in the last 100 years.
A gradual gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood has further contributed to a bright future as the parish enters its second century. The area that was once known as “Expatriot Poland,” and even the “Polish Patch,” is now called “River North,” a developing upscale area with fashionable town homes and luxury lofts. All this comes at a time when renewed interest and enthusiasm for traditional Catholic values and teaching is growing. The parish, and the religious community that blossomed from it, are striving to respond to this eager longing for the fullness of our Catholic faith.
Saint John Cantius Parish has adopted a policy of historical preservation and restoration not only of the physical plant and artwork, but also of the liturgy itself. Following the dictates of the Second Vatican Council, the parish has preserved and given place of pride to the traditional music of the Church. Its repertoire includes not only Gregorian chant, but also choral and orchestral settings of the Mass ranging from Renaissance composers, such as Palestrina and Victoria, to the Viennese style, including the compositions of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Beethoven, to other Contemporary works consonant with the Roman Rite’s musical tradition, including many premieres of newly written liturgical works. The parish also maintains the customs and traditions which relate to its Polish heritage.
In February of 1990, the Archdiocese of Chicago chose Saint John Cantius Church as the site for the renewed celebration of the older form of the Mass mandated by the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei in 1988. When Pope Benedict XVI more amply opened the treasures of this “Extraordinary Form” of the sacred liturgy to the universal Church in his own motu proprio of 2007, Summorum Pontificum, the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius responded by developing a website tutorial on the Extraordinary Form called Sancta Missa. They also began conducting a series of workshops to assist seminarians and priests wishing to learn how to celebrate this form of the Mass.
The parish offers both forms of the Roman Rite liturgy daily. The Extraordinary Form of the Mass, otherwise known as the Tridentine Mass, the Missal of Blessed John XXIII, or the Roman Missal of 1962, is the liturgy most Catholics prayed until the implementation of the liturgical reform in 1970. The Ordinary Form of the Mass, also referred to as the Missal of Paul VI, the Missal of 1970, or simply as the Novus Ordo, is the Mass normally celebrated in the majority of Catholic parishes today. Saint John Cantius Church celebrates this latter form of the liturgy in both Latin and the vernacular, in full continuity with the universal Church’s liturgical practice and discipline.
Throughout the year, the parish offers a diverse selection of presentations and classes in Latin, Greek, church heritage, catechetics, and Catholic culture. The parish’s imposing historic church, solemn liturgies, devotions, treasures of sacred art, and rich program of sacred music have helped many Catholics rediscover a profound sense of the sacred.
Saint John Cantius truly stands as a unique parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Both now, and in the years to come, the parish hopes to continue its noble mission of imparting God’s grace to as many people as possible by faithfully passing on our Catholic heritage in all its richness.
Excerpted from Art & Architecture of St. John Cantius. © 2010. Biretta Books, Ltd.