The Renovation of the Church
Originally begun in 1920 and completed in 1924, the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross underwent extensive renovation in 1983. During the eight months of its renovation the church was closed and Masses were held in the gym of Holy Cross School, as there was no parish center then. Directing the renovation at the invitation of then-pastor Msgr. Bernard Render was Holy Cross parishioner and celebrated artist Harry Breen, a professor in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois. The facts about the renovation have been chronicled before, but they bear repeating here for parishioners who were not with Holy Cross in the 1980s.
With an eye for preserving the sacred while renewing the interior design, Harry coordinated with Italian marble works, engineering contractors, painters, and other craftsmen. As much as possible, the original materials were reused. The marble itself came from Italy. The marble in the old communion rail was remade into the new altar at the front of the sanctuary, though one section of the rail stands intact at the front of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The ambo (pulpit) and the chair where the priest sits during the Liturgy were also created from the original marble.
The deep blue of the high arched ceiling at Holy Cross with its gold stars represents heaven. The warm dark colors of the floor and pews suggest the earth, while the soft colors of the walls represent Illinois prairie fields at harvest. The overall color scheme helps to emphasize the rich luminous colors of the stained glass windows in the way they reflect and refract light to establish the mood in the church. The windows came from Germany and were later reinforced and reconditioned.
The unique bronze crucifix in the sanctuary was designed especially for Holy Cross by Peter Fagan. It is based on the image of the Shroud of Turin concerning the head of Christ and the placement of the nails in the wrists rather than the hands. The canopy over the crucifix represents the rich silk and gold brocade that was carried over monarchs when they rode in processions. Called the baldachino (after ‘Baldacco,’Baghdad, where the cloth originated), it was part of the original design at Holy Cross Chruch and extends over the great high altar which was the focus of the Mass before Vatican II. Although the balcachino was removed in many churches after Vatican II, it was retained at Holy Cross because it is so integral to the church’s architecture.
To the west of the sanctuary is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel set apart by marble railings and by draperies. It contains the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle house, which itself was constructed by readapting marble formerly used in the church. The red and gold mural of seraphim on the back wall was created by Harry. By tradition the seraphim hover around the throne of God in perpetual adoration.
The Baptistry to the east of the sanctuary suggest an entrance portico and the merger of heaven and earth. At its center is a circle, the monogram of God. Centered on the circle is the font of flowing water, they symbol of God’s grace. The mural on the back wall was also done by Harry and depicts the Illinois prairie, including its native sunflower which symbolized the faithful Christian. As the sunflower follows the sun, the faithful Christian follows Christ. The peacock represents the immortality of the soul and is an ancient Christian symbol. It stands on a truncated tree, which represents the crucifixion of Christ. The vine climbing up from the trunk symbolizes the Church as established by Christ.
One little known fact is that when the renovation was completed it was already paid for: the artisans, the contractors, the labor, the materials, etc. Harry took no payment for his work. He felt so privileged to have the opportunity to renovate such a sacred space as Holy Cross Church. In his words when the renovation was completed, “The church as a physical presence can help to sustain and nurture the spiritual life of the assembly it houses; it can celebrate; it can teach; it can pray; it can inspire.”