The Eritrean Orthodox Church of St. Mary
This church was once owned by the First Swedish Methodist Church of Chicago. This group formed the first congregation in 1853. At that time they built a small wooden church at Market and Illinois Streets. The congregation grew from two dozen members in 1853 to over 600 members in 1874. The congregation suffered the loss of their first church in the Chicago fire of 1871. After the fire the church moved to a new location which had been purchased prior to the fire at Oak and Orleans streets. With this move the attendance dropped but eventually grew again so that in 1887 there were more than 800 members. The First Swedish Methodist Church supported the forming of many other affiliated churches in the Chicago area.
As the neighborhood around the church became less Swedish and the new pastor, Rev. C.J. Anderson supported the interest in relocating, the congregation approved the purchase of land at the NW corner of Highland and Paulina. This church was built in 1918 and dedicated in 1919. At the new location the name was changed to the Highland Avenue Methodist Church.
The architects were Fugard and Knapp designed a brick structure with many Gothic influences including Gothic styled windows in colorful but simple stained glass. The contractor was A. Lundstrom. The building is anchored on the corner by a bell tower which also provides two entrance doors. Above these doors are stained glass panels with floral designs. The facade of the church faces Paulina with the bell tower, a main large section for the nave and a side section that is a smaller version of the bell tower. Windows on the facade include lower level windows at ground level, middle level windows with ornate designs and tracery sections of stained glass and a rose window above. In the right section of the facade there is a simple window below and a stained glass lancet window that matches the window in the bell tower.
Limestone is used as an accent on the building. There is a limestone band around the base of the church and square sections of limestone have been added as accents. The unusual detailed brick work, called a drip stone above each of the Gothic windows shows the attention to detail by the architects. At the west end of the church a transept crosses the nave of the church. This includes the area for the preparations for worship.
In 1942 the name Swedish was dropped from the name. It seems to be an indication that many Swedes had moved from the area. This church worshiped here until 1968 when it closed. Another congregation bought the church and made some changes in the interior. One of the owners was the Holy Nativity Romanian Orthodox Church. More recently the church was purchased by the Eritrean Orthodox Church of Saint Mary.
The interior of the church has been adapted to the needs of its new congregation which is called orthodox but is also known as Coptic Christian. The worship of this congregation follows some ancient traditions. Shoes must be removed to enter the sanctuary which refers to the entire church. The entrance doors are original oak doors. A main central aisle was created by moving the original pews that are oak and are curved and were once used to accommodate three aisles. At the rear is a choir loft that is designed with a curving edge.
The ceiling has been painted blue, a blue color known as the blue of St. Mary. The roof is outlined in sections of raised moldings which are also blue. Along the sides of the nave are stained glass windows in light and beautiful colors with a floral design.
The apse of the church is divided from the nave by a depressed arch which is a design to extend and flatten the arch shape. The space beneath the arch has been used to create a partial wall with central curtains. This wall has an ancient origin and is familiar to many orthodox believers. It separates the congregation from the offering at the altar. On the wall are various pictures of Jesus and Mary and the saints. Above the partial wall can be seen an enlarged version of DaVinci’s last supper. The Eritrean Orthodox Christians are happy to have a beautiful place to meet as a community and worship. It is good to see that a new congregation has taken over the care of this neighborhood church.