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Saving iconic religious art in Chicago: Loop stained glass, River Grove mosaic at risk

There are fears over what could happen to a towering stained-glass work at financially troubled Chicago Loop Synagogue and a mosaic at River Grove’s old Guerin Catholic high school.

This towering stained-glass window inside the Chicago Loop Synagogue was created by late artist Abraham Rattner and installed in 1960.
This towering stained-glass window inside the Chicago Loop Synagogue was created by late artist Abraham Rattner and installed in 1960.
Kyle Brown / Sun-Times

The Chicago Loop Synagogue has been at 16 S. Clark St. since 1958. For most of that time, a stunning stained-glass window has covered an entire interior wall overlooking the main worship space there.

Created by the late artist Abraham Rattner, the artwork stretches 30 feet high and 40 feet across, filled with hues of yellows, blues and reds with numerous symbols of Judaism.

But the synagogue — which has long offered a space to pray for people who work downtown — has been facing financial strains in recent years, its membership declining even before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc. With people working from home this past year, the synagogue now offers only an in-person Saturday service for now.

Supporters worry about its future — and about what would happen to the towering stained-glass art were the synagogue to close.

“We are not going to close our doors tomorrow,” says Lee Zoldan, the Chicago Loop Synagogue’s president. “But people need to understand that we do not have an endowment, and there’s no guarantee that we will be around forever.”

An iconic stained-glass window overlooks the main worship area at the Chicago Loop Synagogue downtown.
An iconic stained-glass window overlooks the main worship area at the Chicago Loop Synagogue downtown.
Kyle Brown / Sun-Times

“We need support from the community,” Zoldan says. “Religious affiliation, not only among Judaism but across all types of religions, is really going down across the country.”

That’s also evident in River Grove, where the Catholic church’s Guerin College Preparatory High School was located until closing last year amid declining enrollment and financial worries.

Now, Guerin alumni are frantically working to save an 18-feet-tall, eight-feet-wide mosaic on an exterior wall there from destruction as the campus is redeveloped. Created in 1962, the artwork is titled “Our Lady of River Grove.”

The mosaic titled “Our Lady of River Grove” is embedded in an exterior wall of the former Guerin College Preparatory High School in River Grove.
The mosaic titled “Our Lady of River Grove” is embedded in an exterior wall of the former Guerin College Preparatory High School in River Grove.
Provided

The mosaic, which pictures Mary among bright flowers and fish, is made of small stone and glass tiles with some porcelain squares, according to a 1963 Chicago Sun-Times story that noted Mary’s eyes are two small pieces of stone from a fifth century mosaic at the Vatican.

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, part of the leadership team of the Sisters of Providence that ran the former Guerin College Preparatory High School in River Grove, was surprised there’s been such intense interest from alumni about saving the “Our Lady of River Grove” mosaic. She was the principal of Mother Guerin from 1991 to 1997 and again from 2001 to 2002. “The kids really didn’t talk about the mosaic much, but it had come to be, for them, a symbol of the school.”
Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, part of the leadership team of the Sisters of Providence that ran the former Guerin College Prep.
Provided

It’s unclear when and how the property will be redeveloped, but Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, part of the leadership team of the Sisters of Providence that ran the school, says there’s a sense of urgency to save the mosaic.

She says the developers are fine with relocating the mosaic as long as supporters can raise the money to do that but that, because the art is embedded in an exterior wall, it might not be possible to remove the mosaic. She’s consulting with an expert on that and hoping to find somewhere else in River Grove to move the work.

Hagelskamp says she was surprised there’s been such intense interest from alumni about saving the mosaic. She was the principal of Mother Guerin — an all-girls high school that, after a merger, became Guerin Prep — from 1991 to 1997 and again from 2001 to 2002 and says students didn’t seem terribly interested in it.

“The kids really didn’t talk about the mosaic much, but it had come to be, for them, a symbol of the school,” Hagelskamp says.

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