When I told my father that I was going to visit and write about the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows on Chicago’s West Side, he told me about his aunt Esther.
Every Friday during World War II the devout Catholic mother took a street car, commuter train and two buses from the suburbs to the city to pray the Sorrowful Mother novena for the safety of her two soldier sons and the whole country.
It turns out that my great-aunt Esther was not alone on those Fridays. When I went to the basilica, I learned that she was usually joined by more than 70,000 fellow “novenites” who made the weekly pilgrimage to join in the novena started by Servite Father James Keane in 1937. They usually had to wait in line for hours, wrapping around the imposing edifice on West Jackson Boulevard, a few miles from Chicago’s Loop, before they could attend one of the 38 separate Friday services.
The Sorrowful Mother novena continued strongly throughout the Great Depression, the war years and the tumultuous expansion of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s and is still prayed today. Pilgrims continue to be welcomed by the Servite Fathers, who have operated the parish since its inception in 1874.
A new shrine director was just named in June: Servite Father Robert Warsey, who was kind enough to give me a personally guided tour and talk to me about the shrine for more than an hour. Father Warsey has a wealth of information about the shrine, its meaning and its purpose. He hopes to make it a place that is more widely known, and he has a host of new programs and events planned for the coming years.
To enter the massive church is to enter into an architectural marvel that rivals the great cathedrals of Europe. It is a vibrant slice of Catholic American history and a source of deep spirituality related to the Blessed Mother, which flowed from the basilica by way of the novena booklet and prayers to more than 2,000 other churches throughout the world. It was because of its architecture, history and devotion that Pope Pius XII, in 1956, elevated the parish Church of Our Lady of Sorrows to the ranks of a papal basilica — a first for the state of Illinois.
The bright yellow and red canopeum, which is the sign that you are in a basilica and which resembles an oversized golf umbrella, is on prominent display in the sanctuary along with the papal bell that rings when the pope comes to visit one of “his” churches. Although Pope John Paul II did not visit the shrine during his one Chicago visit in 1979, he did bless the papal bell that will ring when the next pope comes to Chicago.
The Archdiocese of Chicago continues to use the basilica for large gatherings of priests, religious and faithful throughout the year. Various bishops of the Archdiocese of Chicago celebrate the annual feast day Mass of Our Lady of Sorrows. The feast day is Sept. 15, but this year, the annual celebration at the basilica will take place on Sunday, Sept. 20.
There are organ concerts, special healing Masses and other events planned during this 135th year of the church’s life.
‘Coated With Prayer’
The church is 180 feet long and has seating for more than 1,200 who, when seated, look upon a high altar made of pure white Carrara marble that is surrounded by balconies for the organ and vast mural paintings depicting various Eucharistic themes.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling is breathtakingly beautiful. It rises 80 feet from the floor and is covered by more than 1,000 square decorated panels. It reminds one of the great Italian Renaissance churches of Rome and Florence.
Off to the right of the altar is the legendary shrine to Our Lady of Sorrows that Aunt Esther and so many others made their way to in search of consolation, protection and encouragement. There are paintings depicting various chapters from the life of the Virgin Mary.
In his decree making the church a basilica, Pius XII wrote: “From this shrine, the devotion in the form of the novena to Our Sorrowful Mother spread everywhere like an inundating river.”
As Mary Gifford, a professional organist who volunteers her musical talent at the basilica, said to me, “The walls of this place are coated with the prayers of thousands of people; I can feel them when I come in this sacred place.”
Throughout the main nave of the church there is a dramatic set of the Stations of the Cross that are aligned over the “Via Matris” (Way of Mary, Sorrowful Mother) paintings. Everywhere one looks there is an experience of beauty, faith and devotion. One side chapel contains the National Shrine of St. Peregrine, a Servite and patron saint of cancer patients.
A replica of Michelangelo’s “Pietà” is on display in a side chapel. The replica is considered one of the finest in the world and may be examined up close.
One visitor recently called the basilica “the American version of St. Peter’s in Rome.” That is not an exaggeration. Visitors will be overwhelmed by the architecture, history and devotion of this church named Our Lady of Sorrows — and nicknamed the “Joy of Chicago.” Esther knew that joy when her two sons returned safely from the war and she continued to pray for all those who did not.
Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber is based in Weston, Massachusetts.
Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica
3121 West Jackson Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60612
Planning Your Visit:
The neighborhood does not enjoy the grandeur and security that it once did. It would be best to call ahead and make plans for your visit. When the parking lot is closed, enter at the front of the basilica on Jackson Boulevard or through the monastery next door.
Mass is offered on Sunday at 8:30 and 10:30 a.m., Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m., and Saturday at 11 a.m.
A wonderful history museum and gift shop, where lore and legend can be discovered and purchased, are available for pilgrim groups as part of their tours.
Heading west from the Loop, take Interstate 290 (Eisenhower Expressway) to the California exit. Continue west on Van Buren Street to the basilica parking lot, just past Albany Avenue. Heading east from the western suburbs, take Interstate 290 to the Sacramento exit, then go north on Sacramento and west on Van Buren Street to the basilica parking lot, just west of Albany Avenue.
The basilica is available from downtown Chicago by public transportation. Contact the Chicago Transit Authority for the best routes: TransitChicago.com.