Interior of Saint John Cantius, Chicago, photo credit: American Chamber Opera

Interior of Saint John Cantius, Chicago. Photo credit: American Chamber Opera

In the 1987 crime drama, The Untouchables, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) along with Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) organize a sting at the American-Canadian border to put away famous mobster Al Capone. Ness and Malone use some, well, questionable methods to put away the legendary criminal. The Canadian mounty expresses his disapproval, to which Ness famously replies, “Yeah, well you’re not from Chicago.” Great film.

And speaking of Chicago, as we look for ways to renew our Archdiocese of Milwaukee, we also must consider employing some “questionable methods” that have been tried and tested with great success by our neighbors to the south. For that story, we travel to the beautiful, thriving parish of Saint John Cantius on Chicago’s North Side. As someone who hails from Milwaukee, any Chicago success story is particularly painful to admit, but I cannot argue with success.

In 1987, a young priest with no pastoral experience was given charge of a run-down parish nestled in a rough community. Sensing opportunity, Fr. Frank Phillips, a modern-day John Vianney, aggressively campaigned to save the parish and restore the sacred.

Like Saint Francis of Assisi, Fr. Phillips’ first mission was to improve the physical church, and beyond. Essential maintenance had been deferred for about forty or sixty years. In fact, Fr. Phillips has since acknowledged that the church, without immediate intervention, may have had to close for that simple reason alone. It was a building hazard. Top to bottom, the church needed significant work. The boiler needed to be replaced. The free-standing altar had no physical support. Ten tons of pigeon droppings amassed atop the nave of the church, the roof was in imminent danger of collapse, and the vinyl floor was also buckling. So what did our modern-day John Vianney do? He not only repaired what was broken, but he took things a step further and beautified the parish beyond what was already there. What was once a a ticking time-bomb is now an architectural masterpiece.

Another important point: Fr. Phillips insisted on making the parish a center of culture. As you peruse the parish calendar, be prepared to see ample musical concerts and performances by renown musicians, as demonstrated by the photo credit above. (In fact, the Saint Stanislaus-based Sursum Corda young adult group plans to attend the Nine Lessons and Carols concert on December 14th. Expect a report on that here!)

You may ask, “But when did people start showing up?” Here’s where we get to those wonderful “questionable methods”. Fr. Phillips will tell you that the spike in parish attendance can be traced to the introduction of Latin in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. In other words, this is the Mass most Catholics today attend with one key difference, it’s said in Latin. He also began using the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, commonly known as the Traditional Latin Mass, or the Extraordinary Form.

Saint John Cantius is truly a Sacramental parish. Fr. Phillips will tell you that priests at Saint John Cantius hear about 350 to 400 confessions on any given Sunday! Incredible. But what would you expect from a parish that boasts loyal members who are willing to commute up to two hours for Sunday Mass?

Could a parish really be that amazing? Do “questionable methods” work? A good barometer of a thriving church is the number of vocations. If young men at a particular parish are answering God’s Call to renounce their will and serve the Church, that parish is doing something right. Listen to this. One of the priests of Saint John Cantius informed Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., the Archbishop of Chicago, that a number of young men from the parish were interested in the priesthood. The Cardinal asked how many? The answer: ten. The Cardinal shockingly replied, “Ten!?” The prelate then arranged a dinner with the young men and, instead of ten, thirty showed up! In many places, this would be a good year for an entire diocese, let alone a single parish. (I encourage any of the commenters, in a spirit of perspective and not of competition, to find out how many young men enter their diocesan seminary in a given year). In the ten years since Fr. Phillips first showed up at the doorsteps of Saint John Cantius, a religious order has been born, the Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius.

For the most part, this article is simply a movie review. I encourage everyone to watch the following EWTN video on this church and its successes. While I may not agree with all of the opinions in the video, it’s hard to argue or disagree with the triumphs of the parish. The church, formerly of just under 200 parishioners, now has about 3,000!

Maybe Fr. Phillips is not another Saint John Vianney, but he just might be a saint for our time. In light of his story, we should, in humility, take a good look at what he’s done and see if Milwaukee and the rest of the Midwest can learn something from him. Think if something like this were replicated at Saint Hedwig’s on Brady Street or at Old Saint Mary’s downtown? We’d have a Catholic renaissance in our city!

Thank God for priests like Fr. Phillips!

(If anyone is looking for a Christmas present to give to a blog contributor, feel free to introduce us to Fr. Phillips. Email James at [email protected] with ideas!)