Nearly every Sunday and Holy Day throughout the year, our family worships and serves liturgically at the same suburban parish in the Chicago archdiocese. And so we considered doing something completely different for this secret-shopper-style exercise: going into the city and attending a Spanish-language Mass, or an African-American community, or a campus Mass or a young-adult-focused community. Maybe even a Latin Mass. But in the end we chose another suburban, middle-class parish: St. Michael the Archangel in Wheaton. We reasoned that suburban parishes are where a large plurality—perhaps a majority—of Chicago-area Catholic worshipers are likely to worship from weekend to weekend. As a snapshot of Sunday Mass around here, it didn’t seem a bad choice.
St. Michael’s parish history dates well back into the nineteenth century, but the faith community made news about fifteen years ago when an apparently troubled college student who’d attended the parish elementary school set fire to the church, rendering the building unusable. The parish community pulled together and managed to raise $13 million to build a replacement—an extremely impressive fund-raising achievement and surely the envy of many parishes around here, including our own, that have undertaken capital campaigns in recent years. So the look of this new building was one item of interest.
Another had to do with the parish’s location. It is less than a mile from the campus of Wheaton College, one of the nation’s premier seats of Evangelical higher learning (its most famous alumnus: Billy Graham). Would that proximity influence St. Michael’s liturgical approach in any way, either by borrowing from Evangelical preaching style and music, or alternatively by emphasizing Catholic identity?
We chose the 10:30 a.m. Mass, reasoning that it was likely to draw young families: late enough to roll teens out of bed, early enough that toddlers won’t be starving for lunch halfway through. Our own parish needs to appeal more to young families, so St. Michael’s ability to attract millennial parents and their children was something else we were curious about.
We arrived about ten minutes early to soak in the space and the ambience before Mass began. Not knowing our way around, we entered through a door that led into what seemed to be a small library area, then down a hall into the narthex. While it may not rise even to the level of venial sin, nobody greeted us. The parish website lists a ministry of hospitality, parenthetically adding that these are the ushers, but we managed to make the passage into the worship space without anyone actually saying hello. As cradle Catholics, our expectation of being greeted by ushers is not very high in any case.