East Meets West: St. Clement Catholic Church

posted by Michael Raia

The beautiful neo-Byzantine Romanesque St. Clement church built in 1918 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago is one of a relatively small number of churches of this style in the US. Inspired by the iconic Hagia Sofia in modern day Istanbul, Turkey, St. Clement was designed by the same St. Louis architect, Thomas P. Barnett, as the larger Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis on which it was modeled. Like the Cathedral Basilica, St. Clement was conceived as a blend of eastern and western styles which is the hallmark of the Byzantine Romanesque style and traces back to the crossroads of eastern and western cultures of the ancient Christian city of Constantinople (Istanbul). The church also houses a beautiful and impressive collection of mosaic artwork, most prominently viewed inside the central dome and in the apse dome – a replica of that in the ancient church of the same patronage: San Clemente in Rome. The parish is home to several thousand parishioners and households, and boasts an extremely active and robust young membership.

The exterior stonework of the church is sturdy and handsomely-proportioned, with the finer details reserved for a select number of column capitals and decorative bands, particularly at important locations such as the triumphal entry portal. Similar to many other churches in the Chicago area, the interior utilizes rich faux marble finishes on plaster as a backdrop to the many rich mosaics inlays, which include both vivid icon imagery and decorative elements replete with ancient Christian symbolism. An interesting historical detail is the inclusion of eight female saints, two on each of the four primary pilasters supporting the dome just below the pendentives. This was a major statement for the time period. The brilliant stained glass – particularly the three spectacular rose windows – adds even more color to the interior, but simultaneously achieves balance and brilliance with the entirety of the interior imagery. Whereas some more well-known churches in the Chicago area such as St. John Cantius – this year voted 'Most Beautiful Church in America' in a poplar poll – favor ornate detail on virtually every surface, St. Clement's careful placement of areas of restraint in decoration and contrasting levels of detail provide a welcome harmony and visual hierarchy that is difficult to achieve. The effect is breathtaking. For those who might evaluate using the classical model, the church embodies completeness, proportion, and clarity. 

A visit to Lincoln Park, which houses the Zoo and Conservatory, definitely warrants a quick trip down the street to see this magnificent church. In a city where many of the ethnic shifts in once-thriving neighborhoods have led to under-maintained and sometimes shuttered churches, it is wonderful to see this architectural gem still proudly serving its thriving population and so wonderfully representing the union of heaven and earth in the liturgy.