A History of Saint Edmund Church

 Oak Park, Illinois

Although Oak Park had some fifty Catholic families, it still lacked a Catholic church in the year 1907 when thirty-nine-year-old Father John J. Code arrived to organize a parish in the predominantly Protestant community. As Code delicately put it, the community „was little in sympathyš with the idea of a Catholic parish in its midst. Refused the rental of a hall, Code was forced to say the first parish Mass in an abandoned barn which stood on what is now Scoville park. Moreover, he soon learned that the land he wished to purchase for a church building would only be sold by the owner with the stipulation that no Catholic church should be erected on the property.

But Archbishop Quigley had chosen with care the priest he had assigned to crack the religion barrier in Oak Park. The well-educated, oratorically-gifted Code was up to the challenging task before him. Boston-born, the son of a Civil war officer and an Irish mother, Code had come to Chicago at age five with his parents. Earning first a Master of Arts degree at the old Jesuit College of St. Ignatius, then a Bachelor of Theology degree at St. Mary‚s, Baltimore, Code was quickly promoted from his first job as curate at St. Malachy‚s to Holy Name Cathedral. During his assignment at the Cathedral his frequent public lectures proved remunerative enough to pay for Holy Name‚s striking marble pulpit. His earnings also financed his travels in Europe where he became acquainted with the greatest monuments of historic church architecture. Years later he wrote in his characteristic orotund style: „Enter any city in Europe and the first object to greet your eye is its lordly cathedral. Behold it foundationed deep and solid in the earth, enduring like its Divine Tenant, amid wars and the changes of time.š

During his European travels Code also became aware of how the Church, from the time of the catacombs, had „called to her aid the noble art of painting.š Code‚s European travels took place in the era of the great Gothic revival pioneered by Viollet-le-Duc in France and A.W. (Augustus Welby) Pugin in England. No European traveler of that time with an interest in architecture could have been unaware of the work of these two scholars and architects in restoring the authentic medieval colored and gilded patterns to the walls of Gothic cathedrals and chapels ravaged by time and vandals. Code‚s ideas of church architecture and décor were deeply influenced by what he observed during his travels in Europe.

The year Code arrived in Oak Park, 1907, had witnessed a serious economic depression, a depression as ominous, according to Code‚s later reminiscences, as the one of the 1930s. Nevertheless, Code, nothing daunted, less than a fortnight after arriving in Oak Park, was sitting in the office of  local millionaire John Farson and before leaving had persuaded Farson to lend the lawn of his spacious estate at Pleasant Street and Home Avenue for a lavish fund-raising fete for the new parish.

This very successful fundraiser attended by two thousand persons (including two ex-mayors of Chicago) marked the turning point in public relations between the community and the new parish. To the assembled guests, Mr. Farson „although not himself a Catholic, gave a gracious welcoming speech expressing his admiration for the Catholic Church.š Largely because of the prestige of Farson, who in Code‚s words was a man „without prejudice,š resistance to the new Catholic parish abated, or at least went underground. Code purchased the land he wanted through a third party and in less than two years paid off the debt on the chosen site at Oak Park Avenue and Pleasant Street.

Code‚s choice of St. Edmund of Canterbury for the patron of his new parish was significant. Although he himself and the majority of his flock had Irish blood in their veins, he nevertheless chose not an Irish but an English saint for the parish patron: Edmund Rich of Abington, Archbishop of Canterbury. By this choice of titular saint, Father Code announced to the world that his new parish intended to step out of the ethnic ghetto, reclaim its lost English Catholic heritage, and take its rightful place in the mainstream English-speaking world. Wrote Code: „How incredible it would have seemed to him [Edmund of Canterbury], dying in exile on November 16, 1240, if some prophet should have told him that 700 years later, across the seas, in a yet undiscovered continent, thousands of miles beyond the scene of his labors, on the outskirts of the third city of the world, a noble Gothic pile would stand in witness to his memory. . .š

Not the least of Code‚s accomplishments in founding his parish was his inspired choice of Henry J. Schlacks as the architect of his new church building. Born in Chicago of German parents in 1868 (the same year Code himself was born), Schlacks had studied at MIT, apprenticed in the offices of Adler and Sullivan, and had eventually gone on to become the Director of the Course of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. What is more, Schlacks had „traveled extensively, immersing himself in European church architecture,š notes historian Edward Kantowicz, who calls Schlacks „the master of Catholic church architecture in Chicago.š

By 1903 Schlacks had already built forty-nine ecclesiastical buildings including schools, convents, rectories, three hospitals, and an orphanage; during his lifetime he succeeded in building a total of twelve full-scale churches in the Chicago area alone. His largest Illinois church is St. Mary of the Angels which, curiously, is misattributed to other architects in Lane‚s Chicago Churches and Synagogues. According to Kantowicz „at least five of his churchesųSt. Paul‚s, St. Adalbert‚s, St. Mary of the Lake, St. John of God, and St. Ita‚sšųqualify as masterpieces.

In any architect-patron relationship it is the patron who calls the tune and has the last word. Kantowicz notes that though Schlacks made his early reputation in Gothic, he „actually preferred the Renaissance forms he had observed during his European sojourn.š In the period surrounding World War I Schlacks usually managed to talk his patrons into choosing the Renaissance style. So it seems that the choice of fourteenth-century English Gothic for the style of the first Catholic church in Oak Park must have been dictated by Father Code. Indeed certain aspects of the ribbing and vaulting of the apse and the choice of triplet windows over the altar appear to consciously emulate Canterbury Cathedral and may have been requested by Code as a tribute to the English see of which St. Edmund had been archbishop.

A handsome donation by the widowed Mrs. Mary Mulveil allowed the new church to be completed and dedicated in 1910 as the Mulveil Memorial. Faced with blue Bedford stone, the Gothic building with its simple fourteenth-century lines and single, asymmetrically-placed tower and steeple is today a landmark in central Oak Park. The marble statue of its patron St. Edmund of Canterbury, crosier in hand, „gazes downward from its high niche upon passersby below.š

The windows of St. Edmund‚s, like those of other Schlacks churches such as St. Martin‚s, St. Mary of the Lake, All Saints, St. Adalbert, and St. Boniface, are by F. X. Zettler of the Royal Bavarian Art Institute of Munich. Such windows in which the whole surface constitutes one large picture, instead of  multiple small pictures, are a distinguishing feature of the Gothic Revival style and show the influence of Englishmen William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones on the glass artisans of Munich.

The large pictorial windows are intended to be read in a clockwise sequence beginning with the Nativity window above and to the right of the high altar. They follow not chronological order but rather liturgical order, portraying scenes from the Sunday gospels and major feasts of the church year. This explains why the Annunciation window in the north transept (depicting the conception of Christ on March 25 nine months before Christmas) is located after the Last Supper window but before the Resurrection window. The Annunciation window‚s position alludes to the  ancient practice of celebrating the Annunciation and Good Friday on the same day and perhaps also to the later belief that Christ would return in a year when the Annunciation would fall on a Good Friday.

One might note that the Gothic Revival style of using a Crucifixion window over the altar as the reredos instead of the usual Crucifixion painting evidently appealed to Father Code. One finds the similar use of a Crucifixion window as the reredos in Henry Schlacks‚s St. Ita‚s church, so it is possible this concept was proposed to Code by Schlacks. Because the Crucifixion window at St. Edmund‚s serves as the reredos, this window is deliberately placed out of sequence in the clockwise progression of windows; that is to say, it is placed after the Resurrection window instead of before it as one would logically expect.

It is interesting to note also that Schlacks‚s St. Martin‚s Church in Englewood originally boasted a soaring carved oak altar (since destroyed) which deliberately overlapped and partially obscured the window behind it. This „overlappingš or „layeredš look is a Gothic Revival stylistic feature which one finds also at St. Ita‚s and St. Edmund‚s. Both the original altar of St. Edmund‚s as well as the larger, more expensive altar which Code, now a monsignor, installed in 1947 were deliberately designed to partially overlap the reredos window in the Gothic Revival style.

Both at St. Martin‚s in Englewood and at St. Edmund‚s in Oak Park, Schlacks used the overlapping look on the façade as well. In both churches the altar-like stonework over the front entrance overlaps the façade window thus preparing the eye of the viewer for the sight of the altar within which overlaps the apse window.

As in the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, the directions of the compass have a symbolic value at St. Edmund‚s. East stands for life. For this reason the cruciform church is so positioned that when the worshippers are seated for Mass, they face the direction of the rising sun whose light symbolizes the risen Christ and floods through the windows of the apse towards which they gaze. The direction of the setting sun, on the other hand, signifies death: it is out the west door that the casket of a departed parishioner is carried.

As Code wrote in his 1922 essay The Church and the Arts, „Catholics in every age are always eager not only to build [Our Lord] a house, but to enrich it with all that their taste can suggest and their means supply.š True to this tradition, both the 1920 and 1943 decorations of St. Edmund‚s were done in the Gothic style with great attention to detail. Both the earlier and later decorations used similar floral motifs and vivid colors. The May 1920 parish bulletin describes the just-completed work of artist John F. Sturdy: „The ribs and arches were covered with pure gold leaf, embossed with floral treatment of many designs and encrusted with oak leaves and crosses of Venetian blue and gold.š In keeping with the rationale of Gothic architecture, the chief attention of the decorator was always lavished on the aesthetic focal point of the church: the apse. As the 1920 bulletin states: „the ceiling of the apse is the crowning feature of the decoration. Amid a wealth of wheat and grape foliation, clad in priestly garments, holding the Sacred Host and the Chalice of His Precious Blood stands the figure of Christ upon a miniature altar. . . . On either side of Him, surrounded by hovering and adoring angels are the kneeling figures . . . of the Jewish high priest, censer in hand, and Melchisedech with bread and wine.š

These identical figures appear again in the 1943 decoration, indicating that when John A. Mallin was hired at that time to re-do the church he was instructed by Code to keep and restore these figures in the apse ceiling of Christ the High Priest flanked by Aaron, Melchisedech, and angels. The 1943 Golden Jubilee of the Pastor parish book describes the same figures previously described in the 1920 bulletin, which are also the same figures one still sees today on the apse ceiling of St. Edmund‚s.

The 1943 Golden Jubilee book, moreover, describes the decoration of John A. Mallin as being: „in the Gothic style of ornament in which red, blue and gold colors predominate. The cobalt blue and vermilion red are made from expensive minerals and are very durable, while the gold color is real beaten gold leaf over 23 carats fine.š To judge from particular motifs of his floral and geometric stenciling, Mallin, like many other decorators and architects, may have owned a copy of  the 1849 pattern book of A. W. Pugin, Floriated Ornament, now long out of print. Pugin‚s immensely influential pattern book was based on his antiquarian research into medieval Gothic designs. His aesthetic premiseų that shapes found in nature (such as grape leaves) should be used, not naturalistically, but rather in two-dimensional, geometric patternsų had a profound influence on the later Arts and Crafts movement and also on such Prairie School architects as George Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright.

An example of John A. Mallin‚s Puginesque work is the stylized grape-and-grape-leaf pattern he did on the ceiling of St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Washington Boulevard in Austin. Mallin‚s color scheme at St. Edmund‚s of cobalt blue, vermilion red, and gold described in the 1943 Jubilee book likewise shows the influence of Pugin who in his church of St. Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire (1841-6) uses a similar color combination. In the Chicago area, Gothic Revival interior church décor was, as witnessed by Mallin‚s work, still at its zenith in mid-twentieth century.

Henry J. Schlacks died in 1938 at the age of seventy, his reputation secure, but his inner-city churches eventually becoming vulnerable to neglect and vandalism. Msgr. John J. Code lived on to 1956, his church well-cared-for until his death and the end of his long pastorate. The collaboration of Schlacks and Code in building St. Edmund‚s is a revealing chapter in Oak Park‚s architectural and social history. Revealing, also, is the common thread between certain of the Puginesque wall decorations at St. Edmund‚s and the Pugin-inspired decorative motifs of the Arts and Crafts and Prairie School movements in Oak Park. This common thread illustrates that elements of the new formalism of the artisans and architects of the Arts and Crafts and Prairie School movements can be traced, by way of Pugin, to medieval Gothic antecedents, antecedents still alive at churches like St. Edmund‚s.

January 1999

PO Box 1298
Oak Park, Illinois 60304



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Edmund Echoes (St. Edmund Parish Bulletin). Vol. VI, Nov.18, no. 10, 1951.

Golden Jubilee Celebration of Monsignor John J. Code, Pastor. Saint Edmund Church. Oak Park, Illinois, 1943.

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