1930s, ‘40s Films Uncovered at Historic Rogers Park Church
Throughout Chicago’s history, small neighborhood churches – from simple middle-of-the-block brick buildings to soaring architectural masterpieces – have anchored communities. One such church, St. Paul’s Church by-the-Lake in Rogers Park, recently got a glimpse into its own history thanks to University of Illinois at Chicago grad student and Rogers Park resident Jeff Nichols, who helped uncover a treasure trove of films of the church and its congregants in the 1930s and ‘40s. (You can watch selections from the films, including a film made for the church’s 50th anniversary called “The Church that Marches On,” throughout this story.) St. Paul’s by-the-Lake Rev. John Heschle says the church plans to show the films in their entirety at a screening event in the fall.
Nichols, who considers himself a friend of the parish, rediscovered the films when he was researching the parish for its 135th anniversary celebration. “I thought it’d be nice to do a little search in the digitized newspapers of Chicago. That’s where I stumbled upon a news item explaining that during the golden anniversary they had hired ‘motion picture men’ to film the celebration. That’s when I asked Father Heschle, ‘Hey, do you have any films?’ At the bottom of the archives were three reels, and they were in really good shape considering their age.”
The films, which Nichols had digitized, show a thriving parish bursting with people. Nattily dressed congregants – including a number of fez-festooned Shriners – file into the church for “mobilization days,” a service meant to bring the parish together on a non-holy day; choir boys unsuccessfully suppress grins in white robes and black bows; children in smocked dresses and tidy suits monkey around for the camera along Estes Street; worshipers bow their heads to receive communion at St. Paul’s altar.
Viewing the vintage films, it’s impossible to miss that the congregation is entirely white, reflecting Rogers Park’s largely German and Irish population in the first half of the 20th century. It’s a very different picture from the St. Paul’s by-the-Lake of 2017, when about 60 percent of Rogers Park residents – and most of the church’s congregants – are nonwhite and many are refugees or immigrants.
When Heschle was instituted as rector in 1993, Rogers Park was in the midst of a cultural transition as African, Latino and Asian immigrants settled there, turning the mostly German/Irish and later Eastern European/Jewish neighborhood into one of the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the city. At the same time, neighborhood churches, St. Paul’s-by-the-Lake among them, were seeing their congregations shrink.
Heschle spotted opportunity for his church in the neighborhood’s transformation. “We always put underneath [our name] ‘the Episcopal Anglican church in Rogers Park since 1882’ to let people know that this is not Roman Catholic, it’s not Greek Orthodox, it’s Anglican, it’s Episcopal,” Heschle says. “We sized up the neighborhood and figured out if we used the word ‘Anglican,’ a lot of these people who are refugees or immigrants are going to recognize the word ‘Anglican.’ Remember, the sun never set on the British Empire, right? Wherever Queen Victoria’s empire went, there the Anglican Church went, and sure enough, the Nigerians found us, the Caribbean people found us, the Burmese found us. We have like 10 different African nations represented here. That’s what really made this parish come back to life – people from all over the world could identify with us, you know, ‘Oh, that’s my church, that’s what I was baptized in back in the Congoland.’”
One group in particular – Sudanese men – began to arrive in Chicago in the 1980s and ‘90s after civil war broke out in their home country. By the 2000s, many of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” had settled in Rogers Park and nearby Edgewater, creating an enclave of the strongly Anglican-identifying immigrant families. Soon after, the church launched a weekly Sunday service in Sudanese Dinka to minister to their community’s newest members.
As a result of their outreach, St. Paul’s by-the-Lake has managed to keep people in their pews while dwindling attendance shutters churches across the city. “I was upset that we closed the Episcopal Church in Logan Square just recently,” said Heschle. “It’s so frustrating. I think it was the lack of will to keep it going. I thought, Logan Square! It’s going like gangbusters! This is where millennials are going to look for their first apartment! It’s like, open your eyes! I can’t say that I could go there and revive that church, but somebody can. The right person, the right priest working that neighborhood could do it. The church can’t sit in isolation; the church has to find ways in which it connects to the community.”
Ironically, one of the ways St. Paul’s by-the-Lake connects to its modern-day community is by keeping its rites traditional and visually familiar. While celebrating Mass, Heschle dons vestments that he says art historians called excellent representatives of 1920s ecclesiastical textile art. The church also is in the process of restoring vestments that were used at Soldier Field for the massive Eucharistic Congress of 1926. Heschle says, “Jeff [Nichols] hopes to work with a woman in the parish who is interested in photographing each of our vestment sets.”
Nichols is well-known in Chicago history circles. In 2015, he uncovered the first known moving images of the 1915 SS Eastland disaster (and appeared on Chicago Tonight to talk about his find). Thus it seems fitting that, in addition to facilitating the films’ digitization, he would volunteer to digitize St. Paul’s paper archives using a low-cost process he developed. “I got a grant last year from UIC to document and fine-tune a system I developed in which you can digitize archival material about as quickly as turning a page. It uses an iPhone as an overhead camera. I started digitizing their archive as something they could share with their parishioners and with their diocese.”
Nichols sees his DIY system as a method other neighborhood churches could adopt to preserve their own histories. “Many churches have archives like this that would be of interest to not just parishioners but also members of the neighborhood. I digitized 4,200 pages of unbound documents in a day. It takes quite a bit of time to process it, but the entire digitization can be done rapidly without damaging the archive material. So I’m hoping that this system to digitize will be used with many different archives.”
As Nichols points out, Chicago history enthusiasts also have a lot to learn from the films, which offer a window into the Rogers Park of yesterday as well as ecclesiastical history. In the film of a 1947 consecration, the crosier-bearing bishop ends a processional into the church in full vestments as a green-and-white Chicago Motor Coach flies past on Ashland Avenue. In the 1952 mobilization day film, a woman smiles for the camera in front of an ad for Blatz beer on a passing CTA bus. Notably, many of the surrounding buildings visible in the films are still standing in 2017.
The church’s quaint “by-the-Lake” designation traces back to when Rogers Park was not yet part of Chicago. When neighborhood residents formed the parish in 1882, Rogers Park was its own village and the church simply named St. Paul’s. But when Rogers Park was annexed in 1893, the young church had a problem – another church in South Side Kenwood was also named St. Paul’s. Rather than change the name entirely, the congregation requested they add the “by-the-Lake” to distinguish the two. “That way, they could keep their dedication to St. Paul and not be in conflict,” Heschle said.
Keeping its roots in tradition while keeping an eye to the future, Heschle says, is borne out in their philosophy of bringing the church to the community. He recalls early conversations with his parish about what they believed their church to be. “People kept saying we’ve always been known as just part of the community. We weren’t the best music. We weren’t the best Sunday school. We weren’t the country club. We were always just a good community church. If you’ve got to have professional music, if you’ve got to have a big parochial school, if you’ve got to find a church where people all wear minks and drive Cadillacs, you can drive two miles in any direction and find that. We will help you find it, even, we will help you find whatever brings you closer to God. But we’re just reflective of the community; an average and at times lower-middle class, middle-class sort of community. That’s who we want to be.”
April 20: For nearly a decade, the website Forgotten Chicago has documented the city’s storied past. Meet the site’s co-founder and editor, Jacob Kaplan.
April 11: Dan O’Brien has embarked on what he calls his “Lenten architectural pilgrimage” for about 10 years. “The artistic effort that was put into designing these spaces ... were all meant to tell a story,” he says.
Feb. 9, 2015: The Eastland Disaster of 1915 marks the capsizing of the SS Eastland on the Chicago River that claimed at least 844 lives. It is considered one of the greatest loss-of-life tragedies in Chicago history.