If you build something truly beautiful, the people will come of their own accord. So it was for the tenth annual Festival of Lessons and Carols at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, which – in the presence of Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago – saw an enthusiastic and capacity crowd. Many were there in a spirit of deep Advent piety, while others were there just to hear some of the finest choirs in the Midwest. Yet regardless of their intent, all came away evangelized.
St. John’s, or “Cantius” as it is often called amongst regulars, boasts a large and diverse congregation who is attracted to the deep liturgical life and mission of “Restoring the Sacred” followed by the Canons Regular who run the parish. When not giving some of the most reverent and beautiful liturgies around, the Canons Regular are busy renovating their beautiful and historic Church while also constantly increasing the quality of their numerous parochial activities, not least among the a multifaceted and highly dedicated music program. Singers can begin learning the art of sacred music in youths here, eventually having the opportunity to perhaps sing with the most excellent “St. Cecilia Choir.” While the parish is more than willing to hire musicians where necessary, they have also done the great work of raising up an entire generation of qualified sacred musicians. The fruits of this intense labor were on full display during the Lessons and Carols, during which St. John’s numerous quality choirs were often accompanied by their newly restored and installed Casavant organ, affectionately nicknamed “Tina Mae.”
After a healthy helping of organ preludes and the Bidding Prayer recited by Bishop Perry, the first lesson was read from Genesis 3. For those who have never attended such a service, nine “lessons” are read (generally of the crucial scriptural variety), and are buffered by both performed works and sacred carols in which the congregation can sing along. Attendees had the opportunity to join in with standards like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night,” but were also treated to immaculately performed lesser-known works. This reviewer thought that one of the highlights of the evening was a nod to the eastern tradition in the form of Pavel Chesnekov’s deeply moving “Salvation is Created.” The work was sung with remarkable maturity by the younger “Magnificat Choir,” a talented group full of the Church’s promising musical future.
One thing you gain from attending any liturgy or musical event at St. John Cantius is a full appraisal of the length and breadth of the Church’s magisterium. Musically this is represented by works ancient and new, from Gregorian Chant to (on this particular evening) the premiere of a new setting of “O Magnum Mysterium” by Chad McCoy. It is a Church where Catholics can so easily come home again, and a Church were Catholic musicians can breathe easily and simply absorb the tradition that they have come to love. Little wonder that here in Chicago, this particular Church is not only full, but it is attracting ample vocations as well.
If you will be near Chicago and wish to experience some of this grandeur, worry not: every Sunday Mass and major feast day at St. John Cantius bears this signature of beauty and reverence. In fact this very night there will be a Midnight Christmas Mass, preceded by an hour long concert of carols and sacred music. It’s no wonder, then, that people near and far will brave the elements to once again pack St. John Cantius to overflowing. If it takes great time, dedication, and money to support beauty as an essential element to the liturgical life, St. John Cantius is a steady witness of the wondrous fruits of such a labor.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam!
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He has taught music at various schools including Christendom College, the University of Maryland, and the Jagiellonian University of St. John Paul II (and Copernicus) fame. He currently serves as the Curator of Music for the Foundation for Sacred Arts, and lives near Chicago with his wife and children.