Chicago's Cathedral

Holy Name Cathedral is the spiritual heart of Chicago.


This single word aptly describes the Catholic clergy and faithful of Chicago, particularly at Holy Name Cathedral.

In just two years, this community has twice endured the closing of their church for months at a time.

In February of 2008, a large piece of the cathedral’s decorative ceiling fell to the floor and required every square foot of the roof to be restored and refitted (23,000 pieces in all).

Not even a year later, an early-morning fire ravaged the church’s roof, destroying many recent repairs and leaving more than a foot of water in the sanctuary.

Amidst the utter destruction, however, hid a silver lining.

Engineers and firefighters later relayed that without the broken ceiling and its ensuing structural renovations in 2008, the water from the fire in 2009 would likely have collapsed the roof in its entirety.

Rising From the Fire

Amazingly, this isn’t the first time Holy Name has risen from ashes.

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire claimed what was then Holy Name Church. Although it didn’t house the bishop’s chair, Holy Name often hosted official liturgies because it offered more space than St. Mary’s Cathedral. When the same fire destroyed St. Mary’s as well, Bishop Thomas Foley deemed Holy Name to be the site of the future cathedral.

In the meantime, parishioners crowded into a makeshift “shanty cathedral” for Sunday Mass. The crude wooden structure even utilized two doors from homes that had been burned in the city-wide catastrophe, reflecting the plight of so many neighborhood families.

Four long years later, Bishop Foley dedicated the new Holy Name Cathedral: the same Gothic stone landmark that stands today.

Spiritual Skyscraper

When I visited the Windy City for the first time last fall, I was pleased to find Holy Name Cathedral within steps of the public transportation system. Along with my mother and sister, I enjoyed a walking tour of the Lake Michigan shore and Navy Pier and planned to attend Sunday Mass before heading home.

As we entered the cathedral from State Street, I was amazed at the enormity of the bronze doors. In fact, each door weighs over 1,000 pounds!

When we approached the sanctuary, my eyes were immediately drawn toward the spectacular wooden ceiling, which I appreciated all the more knowing the magnitude of the damage just seven months earlier. The rich reddish-brown wood paired with intricately carved images and patterns.

Above the altar hung a unique crucifix; both the corpus and the cross itself appeared to float in mid-air. I couldn’t help but think of the saying “It wasn’t the nails that fastened Jesus to the cross, but his love that held him there.”

Even higher still — in the center of the apse — dangled several mysterious red objects. A closer look revealed five hats.

I later learned that these red galeros belonged to Chicago’s first five cardinals, among which were well-known names like George Mundelein and Joseph Bernardin. The old-fashioned caps are traditionally elevated to the rafters of a cardinal’s home cathedral after his death, as a reminder that all earthly glory is passing.

Although the galero has since been replaced by the scarlet biretta in clerical attire, it remains an important image on the coat of arms for present-day cardinals.

Strolling around the church’s perimeter, I discovered numerous bronze castings: two lecterns, the Stations of the Cross, a portion of the altar and shrines to the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Mother.

Finally, along the back wall, hang five panels illustrating the Holy Name of Jesus via life-size scenes such as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Christ’s resurrection and others.

According to the cathedral’s 150th anniversary historical volume, the original Holy Name Chapel — opened by Chicago’s first bishop at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in 1845 — provided a spiritual home primarily for the Irish and other English-speaking immigrants north of the Chicago River.

Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus was widespread in Ireland at the time as a symbol of fidelity to the Person of Christ.

While people from all walks of life now call Holy Name Cathedral home, during my visit, I sensed the same confidence in Jesus and trust in his care. Despite the major setbacks the community has endured in recent years, I noticed no trace of discouragement there.

Instead, I found only hope.

Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.