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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Alma Mater, or Not

Posted by on Thu, Feb 27, 2014 at 1:57 PM

The latest installment in the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress towards marriage equality in the United States: The news recently broke that Loyola University Chicago would not allow same-sex weddings to take place in its (literally) iconic Madonna Della Strada chapel. I forwarded the news to Dan, who suggested I write something about it. So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, follow me after the jump.

Madonna Della Strada, Loyola University Chicago
  • Photo by Bill Savage
  • Madonna Della Strada, Loyola University Chicago

The family connections to this place are generational. My maternal grandfather, Ed Schneider, graduated from Loyola in the mid-1930’s after being trainer for the basketball team, and later he was a sports information director and very active alumnus. My mother swore, when growing up, that she would go to Loyola, despite the fact that it was then an all-male school, and she was a staff member there for nearly 20 years in the Psychology Department and the Tutoring Center. My father and my mother met at Loyola, before dropping out of college to get married and make babies. Family legend has it that my mother nearly miscarried my brother Ed while celebrating Loyola's 1963 NCAA men's basketball championship. I attended St. Ignatius College Prep, the high school that had once housed the University before its 1906 move to Rogers Park. I never even considered applying to another university, and anyway the fix was in: the director of admissions when I applied was the priest who had baptized me (though by that point he was a former priest, married to a former nun). I can state with 100% certainty that four generations of my family—Savages, Schneiders, and Hollahans—have attended mass at Madonna Della Strada. Five generations, if any of my siblings' kids have gone unbeknownst to me.

Madonna Della Strada is an art-deco masterpiece, designed and built during the Great Depression, opening in 1938, though its interior was not finished until much later. That interior is the other familial connection: my late cousin, Melville P. Steinfels, was an ecclesiastical artist whose work fills the space. He did the altar art in the apse, the stations of the cross, as well as the mosaics in the lobby and the side altars.

Melville Steinfels at Work
  • from Facebook somewhere
  • Melville Steinfels at Work

I haven’t set foot in a church (except as a tourist in Quebec City and Montreal) since my mother’s funeral at nearby St. Ignatius almost 6 years ago, but taking Dan’s suggestion, I dropped by yesterday, about half an hour before the daily 5:15 afternoon mass. Three people were there: a 20-something man and woman, maybe a couple. Maybe planning a wedding. And the organist, who was aloft playing music that some religious person would surely recognize, maybe an audition for the wedding music of the young couple. I was glad for the background noise, as it would cover the faintly sacrilegious sound of my camera.

Organist at MDS
  • Photo by Bill Savage
  • Organist at MDS

I played believer (dipped a finger in the holy water, did the sign of the cross, lit a candle). Then I walked around and looked at the art my cousin had created. The altar piece was not my style, a sort of montage team picture of sainted Jesuits. The stations of the cross were great, though, a stylized ecclesiastical example of pre-Will Eisner “sequential art,” essentially a comic strip of Jesus’s last hours.

Station of the Cross VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
  • Photo by Bill Savage
  • Station of the Cross VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

I tried to connect this image of love and mercy to the rejection of gays and lesbians by the Church. Couldn't do it.

The mosaic in the side altar devoted to Mary transported me back to childhood, if not belief.

Altar to Mary Mosaic
  • Photo by Bill Savage
  • Altar to Mary Mosaic

The picture doesn't do it justice. With the flickering candlelight, the mosaic tiles seemed warm as life, and the cross between Orthodox and Medieval styles in the portrait of Mary and Jesus blew me away:

Iconic Mary
  • Photo by Bill Savage
  • Iconic Mary

Why would any believer want to keep anyone away from this image of maternal love and transcendence?

The particular brand of formal and cultural Catholicism I was exposed to in both school and at home was of the inclusive variety. Liberation Theology was all the rage, and in high school and university I heard more teachers talk about death squads in El Salvador and the Polish Solidarity movement than I did about abortion or homosexuality. Catholic politics was progressive politics. Easter and Christmas dinners at my family home always included random heathens and pagans, and sometimes half a minyan, not to mention the atheists who were raised there.

So as I looked at the art on the walls of Madonna Della Strada, I still could not get my head around why would anyone want to keep people away from this beautiful place. I pondered the hope so many people seem to have for Pope Francis, a Jesuit, to put an end to the rigid and exclusionary actions of so much of the church and its unofficial allies. Well, they haven't gotten the memo at 6525 N. Sheridan Road yet. I wondered if Loyola bans the second marriages of divorced-but-not-annulled Catholics from this place, or if they were just anti-gay.

Then I re-read the news story and noted that the university continues to be happy to host wedding receptions of any variety on campus. Just not the ceremonies of any gays or lesbians or, presumably, Protestants or Jews or atheists. Ah, the Jesuits, always finding a way around the rules if there’s money to be made.

It was all too depressing to continue. I walked out onto Chicago’s lakefront, and took one look back at the Art Deco beauty of the place.

Front Entrance of Madonna Della Strada
  • Photo by Bill Savage
  • Front Entrance of Madonna Della Strada

Such a beautiful place, being used to exclude people. It’s just sad.

UPDATE: to everyone in the comments thread who points out that the Church has every right to deny its sacraments and its sacred spaces to people whom it considers sinful, of course. Sure, yeah. My point here is that I find it sad that the Jesuits would continue to do so. Their right. So wrong.


Comments (18) RSS

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emma's bee 1
Thanks for this nice piece. As a kid who attended catholic schools during the same era in the Chicago 'burbs (Benedictines, not Jesuits), I didn't have quite the same exposure to liberation theology and theological liberalism (our high school principal, a monk who took an ostensible vow of poverty, drove an Excalibur).

Nevertheless. Loyola ranked high on the typical Chicago-area catholic high school kid's list, second only to Notre Dame in attracting my classmates.

As for me (like Dan, I think), I hightailed it to that large downstate public university to get far, far away from the catholic milieu and strictures.

Given your family connections, I can see how you would feel betrayed by this latest swipe against treating our brothers and sisters with humanity and for me? Nope. It's all of a piece with my past and current experience with that most peculiar institution.
Posted by emma's bee on February 27, 2014 at 2:34 PM · Report this
I respect your personal connection to this building, but I don't think we should take it too hard if a religious institution with an obvious position on marriage equality chooses not to open its doors.

The world for gay-marryin' folks is so much better today than even yesterday. Let's not complain that the boulangerie doesn't have any gluten free bread.
Posted by JAT on February 27, 2014 at 2:35 PM · Report this
I'm actually on-board with churches themselves opting to allow/not allow same-sex (or other) marriages; at least then the battle is being fought on it's natural battleground, rather than within US law. Whatever "sanctity" marriage has is bestowed by a house or worship rather than the IRS; so it could be correctly said among christian conservatives that it's the churches themselves destroying the sanctity of marriage, rather than "activist judges" or whatever other excuse.

Ultimately, we can all vote with our feet, and there are is no handwringing about "rights".
Posted by fetish on February 27, 2014 at 2:49 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 4
Have to agree with @2, sadly
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 27, 2014 at 3:03 PM · Report this
Max Solomon 5
"My Lady of the Street"?

That sounds like a prostitute.
Posted by Max Solomon on February 27, 2014 at 3:09 PM · Report this
delirian 6
This is an actual religious liberty situation (unlike selling cakes). There is no reason to get married in a church other than for religious reasons. And if the religion doesn't support that (or remarriages, or cross-religion marriage, or whatever), then just let them be. One of the famous bullshit cries made by the bigots in the past years was that gays were going to force the churches to marry them. This is not a battle that needs to be fought. No civil rights are at stake here. So let's move on and pick smarter battles. Worry about gay teachers getting fired by the Catholic Church, not that some gays want to get married in a Catholic chapel.
Posted by delirian on February 27, 2014 at 3:25 PM · Report this
Oh, why would anybody want to be married in a room decorated with pictures of torture and death?

At least this place doesn't seem to have severed heads or plucked eyeballs on a plate.
Posted by DNash on February 27, 2014 at 4:04 PM · Report this
Also with #2. I think it's wrong that the Catholic Church anathemizes Gay folks, but it's somewhat unfair to Loyola to spend a thousand words and a half-dozen photos rhapsodizing about this Catholic chapel that denies equality to Gays, as if this were some spiteful and unexpected act by Loyola - it's merely a reflection of Catholic doctrine! Terrible, awful Catholic doctrine, that should be changed, by a reform movement within the Church! But: the people you're implicitly criticizing aren't the ones in charge, and you risk people conflating your criticism of this religious institution with the recent criticism of and movement against discrimination by secular businesses.
Posted by Warren Terra on February 27, 2014 at 4:04 PM · Report this
dwightmoodyforgetsthings 9
That catherdral looks like the rebel's power generator on Hoth.
Posted by dwightmoodyforgetsthings on February 27, 2014 at 4:25 PM · Report this
I really think religious people who do not like their church's politics or treatment of gays/women/minorities/etc should always preface these complaining essays with "This is why I am no longer a member of this church". I mean, can you really contribute that much money (especially tuition-levels of cash) to a known homophobic organization and yet claim outrage?
Posted by wxPDX on February 27, 2014 at 5:15 PM · Report this
marymc 11
Got to agree with all those posts above--this is not a battle we need to be fighting. I believe that the right to religious liberty is for real, even if I think most religions aren't. Same-gender couples have the right to civil marriage, and all the benefits and responsibilities that come with it. It's a wonderful thing that so many faiths and churches have welcomed lgbt couples and celebrated their marriages. But if a church decides not to--even if it's the beloved church of your youth, even if it's a glorious historic and architectural gem and one of the city's treasures...they have the right. They have to be able to decline to bless anybody's union, and to refuse to let them celebrate it on church property. That's as much guaranteed in the constitution as is our right to marry the consenting adult of our choosing.

I know too many religious idiots who might actually be able to let same-sex civil marriages slide--you know, let those sinners have their way and leave them to their sins--but all their pastors and televangelists and talk radio hysterics have convinced them that if they do, "those people" will soon be holding all-nude wedding/orgies in their churches, and their ministers will be forced by law to preside. Nothing I've been able to say has convinced them otherwise. They don't need any help from supporters of marriage equality who actually want churches forced to let everybody in.
Posted by marymc on February 27, 2014 at 5:16 PM · Report this
"Then I re-read the news story and noted that the university continues to be happy to host wedding receptions of any variety on campus. Just not the ceremonies of any gays or lesbians or, presumably, Protestants or Jews or atheists. Ah, the Jesuits, always finding a way around the rules if there’s money to be made."

I am a lapsed / cultural catholic and the beneficiary of a Jesuit education, so make of this what you will...

While acknowledging that the Jesuit's mission does tend to leave them looking for funding, I would tend to think that this discrepancy would have more to do with doing what is right without specifically violating church doctrine, than with anything else based on the multitudes of Jesuits I have known.
Posted by Jesuitical: dissembling or equivocating; crafty; sly on February 27, 2014 at 5:25 PM · Report this
so we learn that danny's little brother is just as much a whiny pussy as he is....

and what the fuck happened with those two and the catholic church?

they would probably be better adjusted if their mother had rented them out to bike gang pedophiles.....

Posted by is it too late for counseling? what do you think, gang? on February 27, 2014 at 5:34 PM · Report this
venomlash 14
@9: Funny you should reference Hoth in describing part of Chicago at this time...
Posted by venomlash on February 27, 2014 at 6:27 PM · Report this
Posted by Hanoumatoi on February 27, 2014 at 6:33 PM · Report this
Yeah, I liked this post (and that church does not look that attractive on the exterior), but I agree with the others. A church is not a bakery. We wouldn't expect a mosque to perform a Jewish ceremony, and if the religion of the church is opposed to gay marriage on principle, we have to follow their rules. If they lose (or gain) parishoners, then so be it.

And why would a gay or lesbian couple want to host their wedding in a place that rejects them?
Posted by floater on February 27, 2014 at 10:13 PM · Report this
rob! 17
While you wouldn't want to force a religious organization per se to perform a ceremony that went against their values, it might be fun to figure out if the RCC had relinquished legal control of the building through some complicated leaseback scheme designed to put assets beyond the reach of sex-abuse lawsuits...
Posted by rob! on February 28, 2014 at 8:11 AM · Report this
rob! 18
...The lessee generally controls the property for the duration of the lease, but it would be a snarky opportunity to point out just how far the Catholic Church has gone in legal maneuvers to avoid full culpability.
Posted by rob! on February 28, 2014 at 8:25 AM · Report this

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