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September 29 - October 12, 2013

A church designed for the modernist movement St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park was designed by Barry Byrne, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright

By Michelle Martin

Staff Writer

Photos by Karen Callaway

Photo Editor

A view of the interior of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park, 5472 S Kimbark Ave. Architect Barry Byrne was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time, Byrne's design of St. Thomas — almost as wide as it is long, with the sanctuary jutting out into the nave and no pillars to interrupt the sight lines of anybody in the congregation — was "a radical departure from church architecture in the 1920s." Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

This triptych of the Holy Family is located in the back of St. Thomas the Apostle. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

A view of the church baptistery. After the church was finished, Cardinal George Mundelein, who was not considered a fan of modern architecture, reportedly said it was 20 years ahead of its time. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

The 14th station of the cross, Jesus is laid in the tomb. These stations were designed by artist Alfeo Faggi. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

The 13th station, Jesus is taken down from the cross. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

A depiction of Mary in the back of the church. The church contains more than 30 pieces of art from major American artists that are listed on the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

The sanctuary of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park. According to author Vincent L. Michael, Byrne was influenced by Pope Pius X's movement towards encouraging more frequent Communion for lay Catholics. As a practical matter, he wanted to create a longer Communion rail to make it easier for more people to receive Holy Communion. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Hyde Park has plenty of architecturally significant buildings, among them is St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 55th Street and Kimbark Avenue, designed in 1922 by Barry Byrne, a native son of Chicago who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright before embarking on a career that would bridge Wright’s Prairie School and the modernist movement.

What’s more, St. Thomas the Apostle, the first Catholic Church Byrne designed, was created in the spirit of a liturgical renewal movement that had not officially started yet, at least not on this side of the Atlantic.

Vincent L. Michael, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund, spoke about Byrne’s work at St. Thomas the Apostle on Sept. 19.

Michael, an Oak Park native, expert on historic preservation and the husband of Byrne’s granddaughter, Felicity Rich, wrote “The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe” (University of Illinois Press, 2013). In it, he explores Byrne’s progress from being a teenage tracer in Wright’s Oak Park studio to his own career, including what he called “his best building,” Christ the King Church in Cork, Ireland.

But before that building, there was St. Thomas the Apostle. “A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago” notes that its design — almost as wide as it is long, with the sanctuary jutting out into the nave and no pillars to interrupt the sight lines of anybody in the congregation — was “a radical departure from church architecture in the 1920s.”

Clad in a warm, yellowish brick, with serrated walls and chevron windows echoing a more traditional Gothic motif, the exterior is attractive, but not strikingly modern. It’s the interior space that marked a new way of creating a church.

According to Michael, Byrne was influenced by Pope Pius X’s movement towards encouraging more frequent Communion for lay Catholics. As a practical matter, he wanted to create a longer Communion rail to make it easier for more people to receive Holy Communion. The polygonal shape of the sanctuary brings it out toward the congregation. At the same time, the shape of the church, and the lack of visual barriers, emphasized that during the sacrifice of the Mass, the priest, the people and the sacrifice on the altar are one unified whole. Many of his design concepts would not become common in church buildings until after the Second Vatican Council, some 40 years later.

Functional design

The design of St. Thomas the Apostle echoes the liturgical reform that had started to take place in the monasteries of Europe — mostly Germany and Belgium in the late 1910s. The first book written about it was published in German in 1918 or 1919, Michael said, but not translated into English until 1926, two years after St. Thomas the Apostle was dedicated. There is no evidence that Byrne was aware of the European movement at the time, said Michael.

Instead, Byrne was devoted to the idea of functional design, or creating a building based on what it was supposed to do, not what it was supposed to look like.

“The function of a church was to house the altar and the priest,” Michael said in an interview before his talk at the church. “In fact, he probably would have said the church was not finished until the priest was standing at the altar.”

“In St. Thomas the Apostle Church Barry Byrne united his two beliefs — modernism and Catholicism,” Michael wrote in his book. “This fostered, as great art does, conflict. …”

The pastor, Father Thomas Shannon, who had been a friend for years, fired Byrne before the church was complete, probably at least partially at the behest of a major donor to the project. He was reinstated and then fired again. Shannon was, at the time, the editor of The New World.

Still, the church was completed with his design, and the art incorporated into its interior, including the Stations of the Cross by Alfeo Faggi. The church contains more than 30 pieces of art from major American artists that are listed on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture.

After the church was finished, Cardinal George Mundelein, who was not considered a fan of modern architecture, reportedly said it was 20 years ahead of its time, and banned Byrne from further work in the archdiocese.

More church designs

Byrne, an involved and practicing Catholic his whole life, went on to design churches around the United States and the one in Cork, the only building in Europe designed by a Prairie School architect. But he had no further commissions from Catholic institutions in the archdiocese until Cardinal Samuel Stritch became archbishop.

While Byrne had designed buildings in the Archdiocese of Chicago before St. Thomas the Apostle — both St. Francis Xavier School in Wilmette and the former Immaculata at Irving Park Road and Lake Shore Drive were designed by Byrne — many of his later commissions in the archdiocese were for Catholic Cemeteries.

In the meantime, he made his name designing churches in Racine, Wis.; Tulsa, Okla.; Pierre, S.D.; and Kansas City, Mo., as well as schools, seminaries, convents and other church-related buildings. He wrote articles on church design for Liturgical Arts, America and Commonweal, and won the approbation of architecture critic Lewis Mumford.

Unfortunately, Michael said, he’s not terribly well-known in his own back yard. When Michael first met his wife and told her that he was involved in historic preservation in the Chicago area, she told him, “My grandfather was an architect, but you probably wouldn’t know his work.”

It turns out, he did.