FEATURE image: Chicago. St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.
At the western main entrance are the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag and the blue and yellow Ukraine flag. An avenue of trees lines the south side of the cathedral building. With its huge size and detailed architecture, St. Nicholas stands prominently on its 20 city lots.
The huge yellow brick church building in Chicago’s tree-lined Ukrainian Village neighborhood is 155 feet long and 85 feet wide. Among its details, the building is renowned for its frescos and mosaics. St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral’s impressive design and footprint on the skyline of one of Chicago’s neighborhoods was built as a worthy emulation of the 11th century (former) St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine. The church on Chicago’s near West side was built by the firm of Worthmann and Steinbach which built many churches in Chicago in the 1910’s and 1920’s. In the mid1970s the church interior was completely renovated and restored by a Ukrainian artist. Ukrainian Catholics follow the Byzantine-Slavonic Eastern Rite and acknowledge the pope in Rome as their spiritual leader.
History of the Cathedral parish
St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic parish was founded in 1905 by a group of 51 Ukrainian working immigrants. These Ukrainians arrived on Chicago’s northside in the late 1890’s from western and Carpathian Ukraine. Irish, Germans and Poles were already well established in Chicago by this time and built churches. The Ukrainians not only arrived later, but also were committed to their eastern-rite, Greek Catholic origins. They actively looked to fend off incorporation into the Latin rite under a mostly Irish Catholic hierarchy in the Chicago diocese. To this effect, the parish board adopted a resolution stating: “[T]hat all property of said church which may hereafter be acquired be held in the name of its incorporated name but under no conditions shall said church or its priests or pastors be ever under the jurisdiction of bishop or bishops except those of the same faith and rite.”
By 1911 it became clear that a new, larger church was needed for the growing Ukrainian community. Twenty lots were purchased on Rice Street between Oakley and Leavitt for $12,000 and building began. In 1913, Bishop Soter Ortynsky blessed the cornerstone of the new church. This Ukrainian Catholic church parish community relocated out of its original site and ventured about one mile directly west to build their new church under Fr. Nicholas Strutynsky. Fr. Nicholas had recently arrived from Ukraine and remained at St. Nicholas parish until 1921.
In 1941, St. Nicholas parish was host to the Eucharistic Congress for Eastern Rites. Twenty years later, in 1961, St. Nicholas Parish became St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral when it became the seat of the Eparchy for much of the United States. Msgr. Jaroslaw Gabro, a native son of the parish, became the first bishop of the newly created Ukrainian Catholic eparchy.
Completed in 1915, the magnificent, Byzantine-Slavonic structure with thirteen onion domes representing Christ and His 12 apostles was erected. The first liturgy was celebrated on Christmas Day, January 7, 1915 (Julian calendar). A Ukrainian heritage school (Ridna Shkola) was also founded. By the early 1960s the school had over 1000 students. In 2022, St. Nicholas Elementary School has about 150 students.
When Bishop Gabro announced that churches in the eparchy would need to follow the Gregorian religious calendar that is used in the Latin west, some parishioners left St. Nicholas. In 1974 these parishioners, adhering to the ancient Julian religious calendar. erected Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church three minutes away on foot across Chicago Avenue.
In 1980 Bishop Gabro who passed away was succeeded by Bishop Innocent Lotocky and a healing began between the estranged Ukrainian churches that continues today. In 1988, an ecumenical commemoration of the millennium of Christianity in Ukraine brought together Ukrainian churches in Chicagoland. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, a new wave of immigrants from Ukraine began arriving in Chicago and joined St. Nicholas Cathedral. In 1993 Bishop Innocent Lotocky retired and was succeeded by Bishop Michael Wiwchar. In 2003 Bishop Michael Wiwchar was succeeded by Bishop Richard Stephen Seminack.
The height of the cathedral building is appreciated looking up from its north side near its main entrance. Metal onion domes turned green by a century of oxidization cap the building’s 16 towers.
The architecture, supported by columns, is curvaceous and spectacularly colorful.
The gold and blue fresco above the altar includes a pair of depictions of the former 11th century St. Sofia Cathedral in Kyiv on whose design and appearance St. Nicholas Ukrainian Cathedral is inspired. Kyiv is the capital city of the Ukraine and its cathedral is one of the finest examples of East Russo-Byzantine architecture. Kyiv/Kiev, Ukraine became the first capital of proto-Russia in the mid9th century as Slavic lands were organized by Norsemen who, simultaneously, as the fierce Vikings were plundering through much of Europe as they transported their culture.
Before the 9th century was over, the first Christian missionaries had arrived from Constantinople to the south into Russia and Ukraine and many Slavs became Christian. From the 10th to 13th centuries Kyiv, like Moscow to its north centuries later, became the intellectual and religious center of the country, where there were established innumerable monasteries, churches, and convents.
The entirety of murals and ornamentation are permanently affixed on interior surfaces by being painted directly on them. The only icon that was not renovated at this time was the one at the rear of the sanctuary depicting Christ with his apostles and Mother Mary. It was kept from 1928.
Hanging from the center highest dome of the church is a 9-tiered golden chandelier with 480 brilliant lights. The chandelier was made in Greece and is one the largest such chandeliers in North America. The ceiling is in gold leaf and wall decorations depict Christ and the Virgin with Old and New Testament figures such as saints, prophets, and patriarchs, all in bright colors.
A propensity of brown and gold in a color scheme that works. The formidable dome is an integral aspect of the interior decoration.
Hanging from the highest dome, a stunning chandelier of 9 tiers and 480 lights crafted in Greece sets aglow the church interior. The artwork depicts the Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-13). The 12 apostles with Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, are seated in bright primary colors as they are gathered together to receive the Holy Spirit symbolized by a dove from Heaven. This event immediately followed the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus into Heaven.
The subject matter and detailed application of artwork in St. Nicholas Ukrainian Cathedral is derived from the mosaics in the 11th century former Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv, Ukraine. Renovated between 1974 and 1977, the Interior of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral was led by Boris Makarenko (1925-2008), a specialist of Ukrainian Byzantine artwork.
Boris Makarenko was born in the Poltava region of Ukraine between Karkiv and Kyiv. With the outbreak of World War II, Ukraine was thrown into turmoil and Boris was drafted into the Soviet Army. He deserted with a group of friends and joined the Ukrainian Resistance. Boris fought his way across Europe and was eventually recruited into the British Army. Unable to return to his homeland, Boris immigrated in 1950 to the United States. He worked under the famed Ukrainian sculptor Mykola Mukhyn and eventually in a German-based firm where he learned and mastered the techniques of interior ecclesiastical art, restoration, and design. By the late 1950s, Makarenko founded his own studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Using classical methods, mosaics are created by utilizing pieces of smalti and gold whether the mosaics are on the exterior and or in the interior of the church building.
Typically, Italian smalti is poured thicker and cut into thinner pieces. Since they are cut from the inside of exposed molten glass they are more vibrant, consistent and reflective in colors. Italian smalti can provide a coarse or smooth surface depending on how they are laid into a working surface. To begin to understand the complexity and richness of the frescos and mosaic interior of St. Nicholas, the general rule is for each square foot of mosaic surface, about 600 pieces side to side are required. The amount of pieces for the cathedral are into the many tens of thousands.
The altar was built to face ad orientem, properly, “to the east.” This was the tradition and practice of the Catholic Church for nearly 2,000 years. The gold and decorations are outstanding.
Icons are visual symbols of eternal truth in the Christian Faith: the designs are based on archetypal images preserved and regenerated from the very beginnings of Christianity. Iconographers write icons in traditional media using egg yolk tempera and oil-based pigments. The predominance of the gold color that marks these interior paintings and decorations is gold leaf. Called “gilding,” the use of gold leaf pertains to iconography. plaster carvings, wood carvings, and metal.
Stained Glass by Munich Studio of Chicago
The colorful stained-glass is original to the 1915 church. They depict saints of the Catholic Church and were created by the Munich Studio of Chicago. The walls include tall, faceted windows displaying a hybrid of traditional and dalle-de-verre type glass techniques. Akin to mosaic, the latter stained-glass technique lends itself to abstract and highly stylized designs. The Munich Studio of Chicago was a major stained-glass studio in Chicago composed of skilled craftsmen and artists. In addition to the hagiography the windows depict, they also represent the artistic investment of the founding parishioners of St. Nicholas. While the term stained glass covers “colored, enameled, or painted glass”, Chicago’s pioneer “glass stainers” were primarily glass painters who used dark brown vitreous oxide and silver stain to paint designs on pieces of colored and/or opaque white glass. After the kiln firing the pieces were assembled like fragments of a puzzle and connected to each other with strips of malleable lead – called cames – which were fitted and soldered around each piece to create the full window.
The founder of The Munich Studio, Max Guler, was of middle-European extraction, as were the congregations of many of the churches who commissioned his firm for their windows. Guler came to Chicago about 1896 from the city of Munich, Germany where he had studied China painting. In 1898 his name appears in the Chicago city directory as an artist. Four years later the firm of Guler, Kugel and Holzchuh, presumably a small glass shop, is listed; and in 1903 the Chicago city directory first lists The Munich Studio, stained glass, 222 W. Madison, 5th f1r., with Guler as president. Catalog listings from 1910 to 1925 note thirty-two major church installations in Chicago and scores more elsewhere.
In 1913 the company moved from Madison Street to larger quarters at 300 West South Water Street (now Wacker Drive), and in 1923 to 111 West Austin Street (now Hubbard Street), at that time employing over 30 craftsmen, seven doing only glass painting. The Munich Studio imported most of its glass from France and Germany with domestically-made glass from firms in Indiana and West Virginia. As with European stained glass, they were painted with iron oxide and yellow stain and fired in ovens. The Munich Studio continued to prosper until 1930 when the Great Depression brought all building to a near standstill. Since it depended primarily upon the construction of new churches for its business, the economic downturn caused the company’s closing in 1932.
Mosaics of the Stations of the Cross were created by Boris Makarenko.
St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral’s regal appearance and design is inspired by the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv. This includes its 13 domes, symbolic of Christ and his 12 apostles. The Chicago cathedral is also similar to the Kyiv model in that it has 5 major domes.
On the steps of the main entrance the facade of the cathedral includes a treasured mosaic depicting “Our Lady of Pochaev.” Above that is an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder (or Miracle) Worker, the cathedral’s namesake.
Story of “Our Lady of Pochaev”
Ukraine had been Christianized for about 200 years when, in 1198, when St. Francis of Assisi was about 17 years old, a monk climbed Pochaiv mountain in western Ukraine in order to pray. A pillar of fire appeared to the monk and some nearby shepherds. When the flames subsided, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared. The apparition left her footprint out of which a spring of water flowed. This supernatural event led to many others so that the region became dedicated to Mary.
In 1559, Metropolitan Neophit sent to Anna Hoyska an icon of our Lady of Pochaev. The icon shows our Lady wearing a crown and holding the infant Jesus. She holds the end of her veil in the other hand. It is an icon where the cheek of the baby Jesus touches Mary’s face as the infant gives a blessing with his hand. At approximately 11×9 inches in size, the original icon is small. Made from red-pitched cypress, the artist and circumstances of its creation are unknown.
The icon immediately worked a miracle as Anna Hoyska’s blind brother regained his sight. Following her death, the icon was donated to a Basilian Monastery and eventually placed in the Church of the Dormition of the Blessed Mother. Monastery chronicles record numerous miracles during the icon’s stay at their Church.
In 1773, the icon was crowned by Pope Clement XIV. In 1831 Russian Czar Nicholas I expelled the Basilians and gave the monastery to Orthodox monks. In 2001, the icon was moved from Pochaev to The Cathedra of the Trinity of The Danilov Monastery in Moscow.
Who is St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker?
St. Nicholas of Myra (270-340) is one of the church’s most popular and revered saints. He was the bishop of the ancient Lycian town of Myra in the eastern Mediterranean which is today’s Demre in Turkey. St. Nicholas Church that exists today in Demre (Myra) was built around 520 A.D. It was built over the older church where St. Nicholas was bishop and which became the saint’s burial place. St. Nicholas’s corpse remained incorrupt and exuded a fragrant odor of myrrh. For centuries St. Nicholas’s relics were in the cathedral in Myra. In 1087 his relics were moved from Myra to Bari, Italy, where they are today. The sweet myrrh smell that exudes from the saint’s body is said to still take place in 2022. St. Nicholas is an important religious figure for Latin and Eastern Rite Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. St. Nicholas, who is the historical inspiration for Santa Claus, is the patron saint of children and those in dire need. He is also patron saint of prisoners, the falsely accused and convicted, and travelers. Nicholas is patron saint of Greece, Apulia in Italy, Sicily, and the Lorraine in France. Many miracles have been attributed to St. Nicholas during his lifetime and after his death which caused him to be called “the Miracle or Wonder Worker” of Myra.
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Stained Glass Ecclesiastical Art Figure Windows, catalog issued by The Munich Studio, circa 1915.