St. John Cantius turns steps into art for Corpus Christi

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

St. John Cantius turns steps into art for Corpus Christi

Volunteers from St. John Cantius Parish, 825 N. Carpenter St., paint a large image of angels and the Eucharist in a chalice on the steps of the church on June 13, 2020, for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi the next day. For several years, priests, brothers and parishioners have chalked or painted sacred images on the church steps to commemorate Corpus Christi. They are emulating a centuries-long tradition in European churches of creating outdoor carpets – usually of flowers or colored sawdust – along Eucharistic procession routes that are customary on the solemnity. Parish volunteers use tempera paint to create the image on the front steps. On the Monday following Corpus Christi, staff clean the steps and erase the image. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Helena Huelke paints part of the art on the stairs. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A volunteer paints detail on the image. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers fill in the image on Saturday afternoon, June 13, (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
An volunteer paints part of an angel on the steps. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When European Catholics celebrate Corpus Christi, they often make carpets in the street out of flowers or sand to honor Christ in the Eucharist.

In that spirit, St. John Cantius Parish, 825. N. Carpenter St., has created eucharistic images on its front steps for the solemnity and the procession that follows Mass for the past 10 years.

The tradition began with some of the brothers who are members of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius making images on the steps using chalk.

“Some of the brothers did a really basic stencil that was just a chalice and a host. Then it’s grown,” said Canons Regular Brother Nathan Ford. “Each year it grows bigger and bigger.”

Volunteers working on the images June 12 and 13 drew the attention of neighbors who stopped by and asked what they were doing.

“We explain that we’re doing a prayer procession and they ask if they can come. We say, ‘Absolutely,’” Ford said. “It’s just really great for them to talk with us. We invite them to stop inside the church, things like that.”

This year, with the pandemic and the protests across the city, the effort has taken on a new importance, Ford said.

“We think now more than ever people need beauty, because there’s been so much ugliness, hurt and pain,” he said. “This year more than others, this project is just really necessary.”

A team of parishioners began working Friday evening by projecting the image on the steps and sketching the outline of two angels flanking a chalice holding the Eucharist. In the days before, parishioners also stenciled carpets in the alleys on both sides of the church where the eucharistic procession would travel.

In recent years, the parish changed from using chalk to tempera paint to expand the colors available. The whole design is washed off Monday after Corpus Christi.

Parishioner Julie Streeter, who is an illustrator, created the image in Photoshop using elements from a sacred painting. She then converted it to a paint-by-numbers drawing that the volunteers used to fill in the image. They skew the image so it lays out well on the stairs. 

The volunteers, many of whom have art backgrounds, worked on the image all day and into the evening Saturday, June 13, to finish.

“It somehow miraculously comes together at the end of the day,” Streeter said. “We started with the prayer, ‘Lord, please help us not make you look bad.’”

Because the art is applied to the risers and not the top of the steps, from close up the image looks like abstract art. To get the full image, a person has to stand in the street in front of the church and look at the steps all together.

Corpus Christi was the first weekend that Masses at the church were open to all parishioners since they had had Mass for first Communions the week before. Having the art on the steps to greet parishioners is extra special this year, Streeter said.

“Part of it is a welcome home, part of it is just how spectacular God is and we want to honor him with some insane amount of effort,” she said. “And it’s just fun to look at.”

Michelle Yarbrough, one of the volunteers who works on the piece, said people love seeing it every year.

“It’s very unique to this place. This is very traditional Catholic,” she said. “The more that we can do to honor our Lord the better. We couldn’t possibly do enough. As elaborate as this seems, it’s not nearly enough.”

The temporary nature of the art on the steps mirrors the temporary nature of a eucharistic procession, Yarbrough said.

“The Eucharist is eternal. The Mass is eternal, but the procession is finite, so this is as well,” she said.

Some people question why they put so much effort into something that only lasts a day, but Yarbrough disagrees.

“A lot of people look as us and say this is just a waste of time. It’s going to be washed off on Monday,” she said. “It’s not, though, because if it honors that eternity in the Eucharist and in the Mass, and brings glory to God and touches hearts and brings about the salvation of souls then we’ve done our job.”


  • corpus christi
  • st john cantius
  • art

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