Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Edward J. Schulte

        In December I prepared the first two movements of Mendelssohn's Sonata #4 in B-flat for my organ jury. During my weeks of preparation I picked up a copy of Steven Tharp's recording of the Six Sonatas for Organ on the 1983 Casavant at St. Clement's RC Church in Chicago. I enjoyed the energy and precision of his playing and the luxurious acoustic but wasn't so fond of his tempos- too fast for me. After reading a bit about that building I decided it was high time I pay the Windy City a visit for the sake of its ecclesiastical architecture- and a friend nearby.
        So, the first week in January I hopped on a plane and luckily ended up at O'Hare. After enjoying a couple days in beautiful Rockford IL, "The Forest City," (also a burned-out industrial center full of decrepit buildings), we headed down the tollway for a Chicago Church Crawl. I put together my itinerary with the assistance of an excellent book published by the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary called "Heavenly City- The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago" by Denis R. McNamara. There are two things I especially like-impressive buildings and impressive organs. When the two mix I feel very happy.
        I found such an excellent combination of these at Ss. Faith, Hope, and Charity on the suburban North Side in Winnetka IL. I particularly looked forward to seeing this Church because it was designed by Edward J. Schulte. I have a special affinity for his work. You see, one of the first churches I ever visited was a Schulte church. In March 1987 I traveled to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Salina KS for my 98 year old great-grandmother's funeral- in-utero. Mom didn't like the church. She said it was dark and had "weird designs on the ceiling." Fortunately I've had an opportunity to visit that Cathedral since then and make the call for myself. I like it. Unfortunately I didn't take pictures and there doesn't seem to be a single interior photo on the whole internet. (Summer project?)
        Anyway, Schulte had an interesting career and published information concerning him is sparse to non-existent as McNamara notes in his book. He began his career in Cincinnati designing theater lobbies and bank foyers in that region for a number of years. His life changed when he attended a dramatic candle-lit lecture in Pittsburgh by the renowned medievalist Ralph Adams Cram. Cram, who designed St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Church in NYC, came from a Unitarian family in New England but had a dramatic conversion in Rome in 1887. His faith-inspired passion for church architecture was famously limited to the Gothic style- indeed he was undoubtedly at the helm of the Neo-Gothic movement in America. Inspired by Cram, Schulte devoted his work thereafter to the design of churches. (His unpublished autobiography is titled "The Lord was my Client.") Over time, however, his conservative Gothic tastes were influenced by modern elements.
        By the 1950's Schulte had developed a style all of his own. During this time he designed the La Crosse WI and Salina KS cathedrals. His 1962 achievement in the parish in Winnetka displays all his strengths in full color (literally). He effectively combined the Neo-Colonial style of the preexisting parish plant with a markedly modern ornamental scheme in a way which has remained unmatched in my opinion.
        Passing through the doors I found myself in a low and dark narthex. Entering the nave I encountered a "soaring, rich interior gleaming with polychrome paint, brass, marble, gold, and mahogony arranged into a complex ornamental pattern" (to quote McNamara). The space is full of brilliant contrast- simple wooden pews with an intricately designed ceiling motif above; plain earth-toned walls with shimmering stained glass reminiscent of the walls of heaven as described in Revelation 21:18-21. Behind the altar stands a sculpture-laden grill concealing the choir space which stands before a wall composed entirely of glass in blazing color.
        Typical of Schulte, SS. FH&C contains many progressive elements amidst the traditional hallmarks of church design (e.g. cruciform church): There are no columns, offering an unencumbered view of the altar; the altar itself, built before Vatican II, stands freely as well. And his light fixtures are always a treat! To the left of the altar sits a beautiful Holy Family Shrine by Leo Cartwright.
        But what was that through the grill??? I spy an organ! Because I know how these things are often arranged I soon found the choir door via the sacristy. (It was unlocked which was convenient for me and probably unsafe for them). And then I discovered a treasure- a large, split case Casavant (the console says Goulding & Wood) with quite the Romantic palette. But things kept getting better- in a very un-Catholic way the console was unlocked and I helped myself to a sonic taste-test. What I encountered I didn't believe was possible in American Catholic churches: a large, relatively recent original commission from a respectable firm with an incredible sound. I played about the last 40 bars of the Vierne Symphony I Finale to get a good sense of the sound. It was hair-raising but not hair-parting. In other words, it wasn't that dull, loud, horizontal sound that one encounters when hearing a Wicks Diapason. This was FULL, ground-shaking sonic warmth- a fortissimo that filled the space. You could feel the pedal reeds thunder- and the acoustic was pretty darn good!
        Thumbing through a parish bulletin which I snatched I found that SS. FH&C has Ed Nowak for a music director. Mr. Nowak has a number of solid and useful pieces published through G.I.A. So it seems the instrument is in excellent hands (which is never a given in Catholic Churches). Overall SS. Faith, Hope, and Charity seems to be a vibrant and active faith community. What a Church they have! And what an organ! Pictures to come...

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