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A Cathedral in the Cornfields of Beaverville, Illinois

St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, Beaverville, Illinois, on the National Register of Historic Places. (Wikipedia)

St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, Beaverville, Illinois, on the National Register of Historic Places. (Wikipedia)

I was once a Morocco Beaver. Let the titters begin.

Morocco, Indiana High School, 1963-64, 7th grade: there was no middle school or junior high. I was on the basketball team, though I was terrible and seldom played. My oldest brother Dick, a senior, was the manager of the varsity team, which played nearby schools in Beaverville, St. Anne and Sheldon, Illinois, as well as Indiana schools, since we were only four miles from the state line. I’m sure he rode the team bus ten miles to Beaverville – maybe it was an intense rivalry way back when, the Beavers against Beaverville – but today was my first time setting foot in enemy territory.

Morocco doesn’t have beavers anymore, and neither do Beaver City or Beaverville. This whole area was once part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, a wetland the size of the Florida Everglades, until settlers started digging ditches to get rid of the water. They committed a terrible environmental crime – but when the land dried out it was good for farming, and that’s the way of life here.

Beaverville and Morocco don’t have high schools or basketball teams now either, but they still have farmers and a grain elevator, located on a highway, a railroad or both. The elevator’s really the only reason these towns still exist; Morocco’s current population is about 1100, while Beaverville’s down to 300. I live in a metropolis of 1800 and we’re all 70-80 miles due south of Chicago.

Now about that church: it’s really something, especially for a town that tiny. I would guess the building seats 300, the entire population. There aren’t any other churches, because the original settlers were French Canadians who didn’t like being oppressed by British Canadians. Someone built a church, they named it after Mary (and the village too, St. Marie originally), a town grew up, a few stores and the grain elevator. (The Post Office made St. Marie change its name, since there was already a St. Mary, Illinois.)

I was urged to check it out by local readers who saw my previous post, Visit to a Smalltown Catholic Shrine in nearby St. Anne, Illinois, and got a little jealous perhaps, because they’ve got a great church too. And they’re right, so I owed it to B’ville and my own education to visit.

Front of the church from St. Charles Street, June 27, 2013 (Josh Thomas)

Front of the church from St. Charles Street, June 27, 2013. (Josh Thomas)

The draw at St. Mary’s is the stained glass windows and the architecture. The origin of the windows, all by the same studio, is not certain, but likely they came from Lascelles and Shroeder of Chicago, which served French Canadian congregations in the city and downstate.

The architect is known, Joseph Molitor, a partner with Charles W. Kallal in Chicago, the city architect who restored the famous Water Tower, the most prominent survivor of the Great Chicago Fire. A brochure says the Beaverville church is an eclectic mix of styles, predominantly Romanesque Revival, with a central octagonal dome over the nave, surrounded by small windows. Its ceiling is a moderately dark blue sprinkled with painted stars to resemble a night sky; it needs some work, but the rest of the building is looking good.

Angel with a font of holy water - or a moist sponge, anyway. (Josh Thomas)

Angel with a font of holy water – or a moist sponge, anyway. Gorgeous blue robe. (Josh Thomas)

The windows use a lot of opalescent glass made in Kokomo, Indiana (where my mother’s family are from) in the Munich Style as developed and refined by Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge. The windows are rare, numerous, and the parish was able to restore them ten years ago at a cost of $320,000 – or more than $1000 for every man, woman and child in town.

That was some prodigious fundraising, even miraculous, considering that first they had to spend another 465 grand redoing the roof. Those bake sales must have multiplied like Jesus feeding the 5000.

Windows and arches, with a glimpse of the central dome. (Josh Thomas)

Windows and arches, with a glimpse of the central dome. (Josh Thomas)

It makes a visitor wonder where they got such dedication. But they’ve always had it, from the beginning in 1851 when the town was founded, through erecting the present building in 1909, to today. Surely this reflects very strong family and community ties – as well as a succession of priests and nuns who flogged those poor folks mercilessly to empty their pockets, punching every guilt button they could find.

It’s the same way at nearby St. Anne; both French Canadian towns, devout in their beliefs, stuck in the middle of nowhere, just raising their crops, taking their kids to church every Sunday, watching them intermarry, and obeying the Fathers, Sisters, Bishops and Popes as much as humanly possible, when they weren’t out getting in trouble.

Regular readers know I am a sharp critic of the Roman Catholic Church – that is, the hierarchy, not the People. What these folks in Northeast Illinois built in their humble surroundings is two small versions of a great cathedral in Europe. So what if they’re on the prairie next to a cornfield? Their churches gave them an identity, a purpose, a mission. And they’ve stuck to it.

Comparing the shrine at St. Anne with the church at Beaverville, I see they both had their advantages. St. Anne always has been a place of pilgrimage, while St. Mary’s had a school for many years called Holy Family Academy, staffed by nuns from an order in France; the cemetery at St. Mary’s has a special section of the sisters’ graves, dozens of them, whose headstones are sensitively carved with both their religious and birth names.

The front of St. Mary's Cemetery was reserved for the Sisters. (Josh Thomas)

The front of St. Mary’s Cemetery was reserved for the Sisters. (Josh Thomas)

The school is gone now, with only mentions and artifacts available to visitors, but it must have been thriving in its heyday; I imagine, since it was an academy, it may have been more than just a parochial school, but drew from all over the area. Meanwhile nearby St. Martin’s, Martinton is only a simple frame building like you’d expect in such an isolated, rural spot.

Corinthian column under the organ loft, topped by gold leaf (Josh Thomas)

Corinthian column under the organ loft, probably topped by gold leaf. (Josh Thomas)

Martinton is on the highway (U.S. 52), as Saint Anne is but Beaverville is not. I took a county road to get there, called 2950/3000 North; tourists never see the light of day in Beaverville. Instead what it had (and still does, three tracks right next to the elevator) is the railroad – specifically the Kankakee, Beaverville and Southern Railroad. Amazing!

There ain’t no Chicago and Morocco Railroad, lemme tell ya. But Beaverville has always been on the line; David, one of my correspondents, said the stop there shows up as “St. Mary” on the old maps, from before the Post Office intervened to change the town’s name.

My point here isn’t a travelogue, much less an architectural review; I’m a layman. Instead it’s all the things the People built.

They’re not quite my people – my family and my town are English Protestants, not French Catholics – and yet they are my people; my drive today cost 50 miles and two gallons of gas round-trip. These folks were and are farmers, and wherever they started out from, I know where they ended up. We can still see today most of what they built, and we can guess at some of the reasons why. Nationality played a part – all the windows at St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s are inscribed in French – but so did faith, family, business and pure survival.

Organ loft and rose window (Josh Thomas)

Organ loft and rose window (Josh Thomas)

As much as I tease the Roman clergy and sisters about mashing all the guilt buttons, let’s think about their motives, too; it’s inherent in the Catholic religion that churches be as beautiful and edifying as possible, so they can reflect the glory of God and teach us who our Creator is.

That’s a very worthy project.

The rectory, behind the church before you get to the cemetery, has been updated a little since it was built; the pastor serves Martinton, too.

The rectory, behind the church before you get to the cemetery, has been updated a little since it was built; the pastor serves Martinton, too.

As an Episcopalian who is both Protestant and Catholic, I am used to beautiful churches in large towns. But I am awed by what these farmers did in these two villages. They built far beyond their means, but somehow managed to match their means to what they built – and all for a reason, the best reason, to glorify God. They didn’t go practical, as farmers usually do; for practical, see that little “nothing” of a church at Martinton. At Beaverville and St. Anne, they built their ideals – and this area is richer because they did.

I’m richer because I went there. If you ever get a chance, you should go too.

All three of them noticeably contribute to the food pantry at Martinton, which is exactly how it should be. So what if St. Martin’s never had a gimmick; it knows what its ministry is, because there are food-insecure folks in all of these towns and it’s the Church’s job to feed them. So they do.

I still wouldn’t cross a county road to see the pope, even this new one Francis; but once you get past the Vatican’s sexual obsessions, the People are living out the faith despite it all. That’s my kind of church.++

Good work, Sister Holy Cross. (Josh Thomas)

Good work, Sister Holy Cross. (Josh Thomas)

4 Responses

  1. Our trip to Beaverville, by Josh Thomas. Thank you, Josh Thomas (I loved it, even our walks in the cemetery)…fascinating to me, the imprint, er, soulprint of people past.

  2. It looks like I haven’t read you in a while…this is my church! (Though I haven’t lived in Beaverville for a very long time.) My first communion happened there; my confirmation happened there; Dad’s funeral mass was said there (he’s buried at St Martin’s cemetery in Martinton); my youngest sister was married there. There’s a lot more history to the Cathedral in the Cornfields. It was built specifically to be the Cathedral to the new diocese which was born of Chicago. (It went to Joliet) There was a convent and girls school there. When they closed the school and demolished the convent our family bought several architectural pieces and a baby grand. There was a grotto which attracted some folks. “Founders Day” is in September which is a fundraiser for the church renovation.

  3. oh…and that statue in front of the church used to be on the roof.

  4. Fantastic, Bradley! I’m glad you got to visit again through my blog.

    Now as to that claim that St. Mary’s was built to be the downstate cathedral, I’m dubious. That may have been what everybody said, even what was promised, but you don’t take a village built on a swamp five miles from the state line and carve out a diocese around it, with the cathedral on the outer edge in a town that’s never been on the highway. That just doesn’t make sense, though I’m sure you must be right in what you were told.

    I want to know who the founding pastor was, especially if it was that flim-flam priest who built the Shrine of Ste. Anne.

    Joliet, on the Des Plaines River, would have had a much better claim, with a population of 2600 in 1850, when Beaverville got started, and 34,000 in 1910, when the current St. Mary’s Beaverville was built. Joliet is the seat of Will County and is located on historic Route 66. If I were a bishop, in Chicago or the Vatican, I’d plan on Joliet growing much bigger than Beaverville because of its proximity to Chicago; 150,000 people live there now, not the 300 hardy souls in B’ville.

    But how wonderful that I have a reader and friend who grew up Gay so close to my hometown that he might have seen my brother’s Morocco Beavers play ball. It’s a small world – and yes, no matter where we find ourselves, Gay people live there.

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