Art at St. Benedict the African reflects experience of black Catholics

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
June 20, 2018

In the 1970s, when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin asked Catholics in Englewood what they wanted the church in their neighborhood to look like, they said, “themselves.”

The historically German and Irish neighborhood had experienced white flight and the Catholic population plummeted as the area became predominantly African-American.

Eight parishes merged into two — St. Benedict the African-East and St. Benedict the African-West — and parishioners were looking for religious images that reflected their own experience, said parishioner Arthur Eiland, who moved to Englewood in the 1950s with his wife, Ann, and their family.

The pastor at St. Benedict the African-East had an eye for art, Eiland said, and that made all of the difference. The two parishes merged in 2016.
When planning the art for the new church, the parish initially reached out to Jan Spivey-Gilchrist, who created several paintings and a tapestry for the parish, the most striking of which are two large paintings of St. Benedict the African and Mary and the child Jesus. Both are modeled after real people, and the former includes actual homes in the neighborhood.

Spivey-Gilchrist, who is the daughter of a Baptist minister and not Catholic, had been connected to the Catholic community since she was a teenager living in Englewood. She was a counselor with the neighborhood youth core, which had a site at the now-closed St. Brendan, along with the Catholic Youth Organization.

She worked as a counselor in the after-school and summer programs as an art teacher. The pastor at the time even paid for her to take Saturday classes for high school students at the Art Institute of Chicago.

She has created religious art depicting African Americans ever since.

“The only dark person I saw in the big painting of the Last Supper was Judas,” she said. “Children aren’t stupid. As a child, nobody had to tell me that good didn’t include us but I had a father who did.”

Her father helped her and her siblings see their value and worth.

“My father always made us feel that we were innately good because we were in the image of God,” she said. “Heaven has to be a place that you can go. It can’t be a country club that’s private and doesn’t include you.”

The community made that experience come to life visually when a new St. Benedict the African-East Church opened in 1990 on the site of St. Bernard Church, which was torn down in 1967 after a snowstorm caused the roof to cave in. Prior to that, parishioners worshiped in the school gym.

“They said they wanted a church that reflected our culture, and it does,” said Tiombe Eiland, the daughter of Arthur and Ann. “It’s shaped like an African hut. There’s no other church like this.”

The architecture is so unique that the church is included in the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, and it has received about 2,000 visitors each of the last two years.

When decorating the church, the parish commissioned stained glass windows that feature images of St. Benedict the African with the Chicago skyline in the background and, in the vestibule, ones featuring Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth. Other art includes original Stations of the Cross; a hand-carved wooden statue of St. Martin de Porres in a setting also featuring the Chicago skyline; a large hand-woven tapestry that hangs behind the altar; and a crucifix in the tradition of the San Damiano cross that features historical figures key to the history of black Catholics in America, such as Father Augustus Tolton.

A focal point is a large baptismal font that holds 10,000 gallons of water and other African accents in the altar and woodwork.
It’s important to see yourself reflected in the worship space, Tiombe Eiland said.

“All of us grew up with images of Christ as a white person. I’d never seen a Catholic Church that reflected the ethnicity of black people,” Tiombe said. “You might occasionally see a statue of St. Martin de Porres, but I’d never seen a church that was dedicated to showing the culture of the people and the history of the people.”

As a teenager, Tiombe questioned why there were no images in Catholic churches that looked like her.

“I didn’t see the representation of myself and I thought it was deliberate that it wasn’t there. I told my parents I didn’t like it and was angry about it,” Tiombe said.

For a time she attended other Christian churches, but never renounced her Catholic faith. She returned to Mass when the new church opened.

“I do think it’s extremely important for children and young people to see images of themselves in Christ,” she said. “If Christ embraces everyone there should be images that reflect our people and that coloring of Christ. Even where Jesus grew up, you wouldn’t think he had blonde hair and blue eyes.”

The tradition of creating art at the parish continued after St. Benedict the African-East and West merged. To mark the occasion, the parish commissioned an original Mass written by the Kevin Johnson of Spellman College in Atlanta. The Spellman Glee Club performed portions of the Mass during a concert at on April 14.

“It’s something new, something different, something African, something African-American and something Catholic, something we can share with other parishes, something that can grow and something that helps us remember what God has done and is doing through him, with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,” said Father David Jones, pastor, of the Mass.

“The art of St. Benedict the African Parish, the Catholic Church in Englewood, teaches the faith, restores the faith, collects the faith and the faithful,” Jones said. “It shows that God is in Englewood. Always has been and always will be.”

Copyright © 2018 Chicago Catholic

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