East meets West in this Chinese-Italian Church

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church, a historic church in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown.  The space is a mix of old and new, full of symbols from past and present communities worshiping there.

The facade of the rectory and its accompanying garden is decidedly East Asian but the interior of the church gives away its Italian past.

St Therese Chinese Catholic Church Chicago

What I found most interesting was how the newer Chinese community found ways to integrate symbols of their tradition into the space they inherited. There are painted Chinese characters above each Roman arch lining both sides of the nave.

St Therese Chinese Catholic Church Chicago Nave
Two banners with Chinese calligraphy frame the sanctuary and all liturgical furnishings follow traditional Chinese designs.

Main sanctuary at St Therese Chinese Catholic Church

Carved into the altar’s front legs are images of the the sacrifice of Isaac (left) and sacrifice of the Mass (right).

Chinese Altar Carving

Most strikingly, there is a Chinese Tablet commemorating Chinese ancestors—yes, akin to the tablet of the famed Chinese Rites controversy! Given its checkered history, this tablet alone made up for the lack of any visual representation of Asian martyrs and Saints, at least for me.

Chinese Catholic Memorial Tablet

While it was not the original intention of the architect or the diocese, the inheritance of an Italian church by the Chinese community who moved into the area just as the Italians were moving away in the 1960s gave rise to a space that is a mix of both East and West, bearing witness to the global church today against the temptation of nativism: it pays tribute to the early Italian Jesuits’ mission to China;  it reminds us that the Church is a pilgrim-migrant journeying through space and time; and it shows us that multiculturalism is part of the Pentecost experience on the way to the Eschaton.

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