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It is a prime example of the so-called 'Polish Cathedral style' of churches in both its opulence and grand scale. The church is located on 17th Street between Paulina Street and Ashland Ave in the Pilsen area of Chicago. St. Adalbert has served generations of Polish immigrants and their American-born children; at its peak, parish membership numbered 4,000 families with more than 2,000 children enrolled in the school. Today the church is an anchor for the Mexican immigrants that have made the Pilsen area their home.
St. Adalbert's parish has seen many changes in the surrounding area since it was founded in 1874 to serve the needs of Chicago's Poles. This mother church of all the later Polish parishes on the West and South sides now serves the many Mexicans of the Pilsen neighborhood and has masses in Polish language as well as Spanish. A shrine of the Mexican patroness Our Lady of Guadalupe bears witness to the Mexican presence. The church itself is the gift of the Poles not just to the people of the surrounding area but to all of Chicago. It is truly a city treasure.
Henry J. Schlacks designed St. Adalbert Church and the adjoining rectory at 1650 W. 17th Street. The Italian Renaissance church with its twin towers and copper domes was modeled after St. Paul's Basilica in Rome. It was completed at an estimated cost of $200,000-on the north side of 17th St., between Paulina street and Ashland Ave.
Twin 185-foot Renaissance-style towers with copper cupolas complete the façade of this imposing buff-colored basilica-type edifice which rises above the smaller buildings of the old Pilsen neighborhood. One enters through a shallow portico with eight massive grey-flecked, rose-colored polished granite columns, from there to pass through a narrow vestibule with four large recessed fonts in its back wall, and finally to enter the immense main body where one finds the most magnificent marble work to be found in any church in Chicago.
A stern large white-marble statue of the church's patron St. Adalbert, the evangelizer of Poland and martyr, stares down from the massive and elaborate thirty-five ton Cararra marble altar whose ten spiral pillars are capped with a dome-shaped ciborium. On the chancel arch above the altar are inscribed the opening words of the Polish hymn Bogurodzica which Adalbert himself is said to have composed. And in an F. X. Zettler window to the west, Adalbert again, in green vestments, stands preaching to the surly, slumped Prussian, an unwilling listener whose response would be to martyr Adalbert. Legend says that the King of Poland Bolesław I ransomed back Adalbert's body by paying its weight in gold.
The original balustered white-marble altar rail complements the white marble of the many-tiered altar behind and above it and serves the additional aesthetic purpose of visually reinforcing the line made by the pilasters which demark the north wall. The altar rail also complements the original high, white marble pulpit. Square and elaborately carved with large figures of the four evangelists on its corners and smaller figures of the six prophets on its sides, it rises west of the sanctuary against one of the ponderous beige-and-grey marble pillars with gold capitals that line the nave on either side. The white- marble side altars have paintings of Our Lady and St. Joseph respectively instead of the more customary statues. The original east transept marble shrine holding the Pietà (once matched by a similar shrine in the west transept) is still intact.
The mural on the upper portion of the north wall above the sanctuary portrays on the left the wedding of Queen Jadwiga of Poland and Prince Jagiello of Lithuania and on the right the 1655 victory of Our Lady of Częstochowa when by the Virgin's intervention an army of 9,000 invading Swedes failed to take a monastery held by only 250 monks. The predominant muted orange-red tones of the mural are repeated in the present color of the ambulatory wall and also in the ceiling coffers and panels of the clerestory. Although these panels and coffers are painted in this solid color today, it is possible that they were originally intended for murals such as the large ones of St. Francis and St. Anthony in the west transept and the others of various subjects that have been completed in the panels around the main lower body of the church.
The pews retain their period-authentic molasses-dark varnish; both their finish and their classical broken-curve top ornamentation matches that of the original confessionals in the east transept. On the south (or entrance) end of the church rises a spectacular two-story choir loft with curving ranges of organ pipes on either side and a rose window of St. Cecilia in the center. The aisle floors are a handsome inlay of sections of red, black, and gray terrazzo .
Several rows of pews have been removed from the back, truncating Schlacks's long processional aisle. The floor where the pews were removed has been patched with vinyl tile that attempts to match the pattern and colors of the surrounding tan and black terrazzo floor.
The west transept shrine has been truncated to accommodate a new baptistry.
A large polychrome rood (crucifix) which may have originally hung in the sanctuary has been placed in the remaining portion of the west transept shrine to which has been added a false back to bring the surface out to meet the back of the crucifix.