A few months ago, I attended a meeting out at Wheaton College. I decided to take the more scenic route, rather than the highway all the way. So, after getting off the highway in Oak Park, IL, I drove through the suburbs west of there, including Maywood and Bellwood. And it was in Bellwood, on Charles Road, that I passed this remarkable church and its newly constructed sanctuary. The Mar Thoma Sleeha Syro Malabar Catholic Church, its community, and cathedral in Bellwood are an extraordinary confluence of culture and religion here in Chicago. And present us with a rich, yet often complicated history of Christian denominational development around the world.
The Mar Thoma (Saint Thomas) Church is based in southern India, in the area of Kerala. It has a very long history, which was changed and altered to some degree in the 19th century, with the advent of Protestant missionaries in India. The church (or churches--since fracture among communities of belief became more common as communities grew and reacted to outsider theologies) is still primarily in India, but with the increase of diaspora communities around the world, the Marthomites (as they are often called) have continued to thrive elsewhere. Part of the confusion that has arisen out of the identity of the Mar Thoma communities comes from discerning which denominational tradition any given community aligns themselves with. And it was part of the confusion I held when I came to this very congregation on a cool and rainy autumn morning last fall.
When I drove by this magnificent structure, I was completely awestruck by its ornateness (that is, its ornateness and size in this particular neighborhood, which made it look rather out of place!). It was, I admit, the sign too, which drew my attention, because I had been wholly unaware that the Mar Thoma community was so extensive in the Chicago area. And to come upon such a spiritually wealthy example of this cultural community was a delightful morning gift for an itinerant biblio-tourist like me. It was exciting for me, because I knew there'd be something bookish inside or related to this place: there almost always is something bookish attached to cultural enterprises and establishments, especially if they are religious, because religions are enterprises themselves which pride "the book" in all of its temporal and spiritual manifestations.
I parked my car and walked up to the front door. I wasn't sure what or who I'd find. I don't recall seeing any cars parked in the lot, and it was after all a Thursday or Friday morning, if I recall accurately. These gorgeously carved doors were some of the most ornate architectural portals I've ever laid eyes on. Exquisitely carved and full of detail. It made me realize that the costs involved to build such a place must have been immense. Indeed, when I finally entered the sanctuary, it would be fully clear how expensive the structure must have been.
Finding the door locked and getting no answer, I walked along the "porch" of the church, then retreated down the steps. I walked back out into the parking lot to get a better view of the cathedral, then walked a bit toward the west side of the building.
Around the side, I found another entrance, and went up to see if it was open. It was. I knocked and entered. Inside was a little foyer and entryway. I wandered in, following the voices echoing through the vast chambers of the modern cathedral. Moments later, I found myself in an antechamber with two Indian men, clergy, each preparing vestments for an upcoming liturgy and meeting of bishops that evening. There were dozens of vestments, all neatly arranged on a handful or so tables. The two men were arranging each robe with its determined hierarchical accoutrements. "Hello!" I offered to them. They both greeted me. I told them who I was and that I was driving by and noticed their magnificent cathedral, and asked if they could tell me a little about it and the history of the congregation. The younger man was a priest, but still in training. He'd come from India for a couple of months to do work in the seminary. "Seminary?" I inquired. "What seminary? Where?" It was at this point that I realized how often we are made insular in our own religio-political communities. I'd never heard of this seminary, nor any related to the Mar Thoma community in Chicago.
Of course, though, perhaps being so small and not having much intercourse with other religious communities in the United States, such a seminary as this might easily fall under the radar. But I was still curious. The young priest told me it was a seminary dedicated to Mar Thoma Catholic education here in the US. There are not so many novitiates or young seminarians here, compared to, say, Lutheran seminarians at LSTC. But these young men do exist and are committed to their religious education. The young man was very kind and gracious, and showed me around the fine sanctuary, demonstrating all of its grandeur and trappings, including the beautiful stained glass windows (apparently, most of them were made and imported from India), as well as the multi-colored LED light display, which is inlaid throughout and above the sanctuary, and controlled from an adjacent room. The photo of the altar (a few images below) shows the fully illuminated area, in gold and yellow and green.
I found it very interesting to see how cultural elements of India had manifested themselves into the building and design of the cathedral, including the extremely large basement used for cooking huge community meals of curry and rice, something identical to the Hindu Temple in Lemont, which I visited last summer. The ornateness of the front door, the interior wood and glass designs, and even the books themselves were carriers of beautiful and meticulous design, as you may see from the embroidered cover of the book below. While being taken on this tour, the two priests introduced me to another man, who was in charge of the facilities and maintenance. I made a comment about the Mar Thoma community, and was quickly corrected that this was in fact a "Catholic Church." Again, the confusion came to the surface, and we spoke a bit more about the clarification of terms, the cultural and religious history of the community, and how to sort out the complexity of its community histories.
The liturgical languages of the Mar Thoma Sleeha Church include a form of Syriac and Aramaic, as well as more contemporary Indic languages; in Kerala, one of the main languages is Malayalam, and may have counted as one of the languages used in this sanctuary and community. Admittedly, I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of books in various languages, many of which I could not identify. I could tell they were languages of the subcontinent, but not the exact language, which is why I had to ask my good tour guide each time I found a new book or new language! The Syriac texts, on the other hand, were a bit more clear to discern, and I did find a couple instances of the ancient texts in the ancillary chapel, which may be seen further on in this article. You will also see that there were hymnals, lectionaries, and Bibles behind and in front of pews for the congregation to use during mass. What was striking, too, was the number of places that books were found in this cathedral: they were stuffed behind lecterns, under chairs, on tables and window sills, even next to the altar.
That altar, seen in this image, was rather extraordinary. When the priests were showing me the sanctuary, one many said: "wait, I will show you something--look up!" The sanctuary went dark, and then light-by-light, a palette of colors from well-placed LEDs glowed green, blue, red, orange, yellow, and gold! Each change in color illuminated the altar and images in a distinct way, eliciting distinct moods from the viewer. Now, before I continue, I will add this little nugget about the congregation and church. It is their website, and I am including a paragraph detailing their connection with Rome and the Catholic Church:
It was at this time that the great historical event happened. Holy Father John Paul II established a diocese for the Syro-Malabar faithful in America and it was based in Chicago. Rev. Fr. Jacob Angadiath, the Director of the Syro-Malabar Mission in Chicago, was made the first bishop of this newly formed diocese. His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, at his chancery office on March 13, 2001, did the formal announcement. Newly Elect Bishop Jacob Angadiath was also given the responsibility of being the Permanent Apostolic Visitator to Canada. Being the Director, Convention Convener and Bishop Elect, he had to do all these responsibilities single-handedly. Since the Convention was all set, the Episcopal Ordination and inauguration of the Diocese were integrated to the Convention. Thus the Inauguration of the Diocese and Episcopal Consecration of Bishop Jacob Angadiath took place on July 1, 2001, at Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago together with the convention. On July 3, 2001, on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, “Dukrana”, newly consecrated Bishop was enthroned at the Church by the Major Archbishop Mar Varkey Vithayathil and thus Mar Thoma Sleeha Church became Mar Thoma Sleeha Cathedral Church of St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago.
I hope this was somewhat helpful! Now onward to the stained-glass windows and other representations of books in the Mar Thoma Cathedral...
Above are two photos of the stained glass windows (notice books in the windows themselves!), as well as the pews I spoke of earlier. Below is a small chapel, used for smaller services.
Notice the piles of books on the lectern. Adjacent to this, we find the open pages of a book used for leading worship. Here we see on the right pages the ancient language of Syriac.
After taking the time to pull off the road and knock on a few doors, I was pleased to discover another great cultural and religious element of Chicago. I was even more pleased to find an open community, willing to tell me about their organization, church, and history. The younger of the priests, who was studying at this seminary told me more about his visit, that he'd be here for only a few more months before returning to India. But that he'd really enjoyed his studies and training here. He needed to get back to the preparations for the evening's meeting of bishops, which was why he and his cohort were assembling the vestments. They both told me to take my time and spend as long as I wanted wandering around the cathedral. I gave them my card and wandered slowly toward the exit. It was raining outside. And as I came out, I recalled what one of them had told me about the building. Before they built the Cathedral, they'd worshipped in the building seen below, an older, rough-hewn structure, just 20 feet away from the Cathedral itself. They'd spent decades in that structure worshipping, coming together, eating with various families, having community events. Then they'd finally raised enough money to build the new Cathedral. It may be no accident that one of their proudest rooms in the new Cathedral was the vast basement, where everyone gathers. Spartan, grey, and subterranean, it is in many ways the most interactive room for this community. And it gives us a new or different understanding of contextual theology. For some, God is in the words and books of scripture, but for many, God is in community, manifest by human interaction, speaking, acting, living, and being among others. This was a good mix.