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January 20 - February 2, 2013

Ever want to visit that church? Company offers tours of local, notable Catholic worship sites

Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, is one of several sites that participants visit through Church Tours Inc. Catholic New World file photo

By Michelle Martin

STAFF WRITER

Want to visit a magnificent Romanesque church topped with 9- foot-tall angels? A Polish Cathedral-style church that recalls the Polish glory days of the 15th and 16th centuries? An Italian church decorated in the Corinthian style?

There’s no need to leave Chicago to visit — or pray in — any of those churches. St. Mary of the Angels, the largest church in Illinois, towers over the nearby Kennedy Expressway. St. Hedwig Church, built by Polish immigrants, has anchored its Bucktown neighborhood since its dedication in 1901. Assumption BVM Church, on Orleans Street, was dedicated in 1886 and served the first Italian parish in Chicago.

People who want to find new architectural and spiritual treasures, or maybe learn a little more about the gems they pass every day can get some help from Catholic Church Tours Inc., a Chicagobased business that organizes pilgrimages to several area churches.

While some tours are open to the public, most are planned for groups who might have a specific agenda, said Nell K. Andrzejewski, the company’s director.

Andrzejewski has been leading tours for about four years, after first developing an interest in the art and architecture of Catholic churches while studying in Rome. She hopes to help people find a way to open not only their senses, but also their hearts and souls, to a deeper encounter with God.

“Pilgrimage is really the main idea with the tours,” she said. “It’s the journey to know God through the ordinary and everyday — although it might be the glorious ordinary. Beauty, truth and goodness all come together.”

The tours allow pilgrims to visit several of the culturally and historically significant churches, mostly in the city of Chicago. In addition to having the doors unlocked and the lights turned on for them, pilgrims learn something about each church and its place in the local landscape.

Chicago was built mainly by Catholic immigrants who arrived from all over Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and each group put their own stamp on their parish churches, leading to a diversity of expression not often seen in a single city.

“Chicago is a treasure trove of churches,” Andrzejewski said. “It’s a place where Catholics have made their home for generations.”

So many of the churches were built by immigrants, who might have been struggling to make ends meet in two-room, coldwater apartments but still helped build magnificent edifices for worship, Andrzejewski said.

“They put their cathedral ceilings in the cathedrals,” she said.

Tour groups have included everything from families to school field trips to park district groups. Andrzejewski tailors each tour for what they want to see, and runs a limited number of set tours open to the public.

Many of the pilgrims have been seniors, some of whom are surprised to recognize the church where their parents were married, or where their grandmother was baptized. Others have been teens on field trips. One later wrote an essay with a line expressing her gratitude for a period of silence in a place where she could feel God.

Pilgrims often come from Chicago and its suburbs, but have included visitors from other cities and other countries. One memorable tour for pilgrims from Russia included several Eastern rite Catholic churches, Andrzejewski said.

The churches that agree to participate do not get any financial gain out of it, Andrzejewski said, at least not yet. But some have received donations from pilgrims after the fact, and some have gained a greater understanding of their own history after Andrzejewski spent some time poring over the archives so that she could better share the church’s story.

Many of the parishes are happy just to have the opportunity to share their churches with people who appreciate them.

The pilgrims, Andrzejewski said, come away with a tighter bond with those who share the experience with them, and many receive individual graces from the way a particular church, or even a particular icon or statue, touches them.

“Some places strike people more deeply than others,” she said. “We like to open up the place to them, not just by literally opening the doors, but by sharing some of the meanings. There are some people who really do get the mission aspect of it.”

For more information, or to book a tour, visit www.catholic-churchtours.com.