Driving past the parks, country clubs, and big lawns of this natty Chicago suburb, one would never suspect that The End of the World has a home here as well.
But it is here -- if you know where to look -- on the shady, quiet grounds of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Monastery.
The Carmelite religious shrines are popular with the local Polish-American community. They were founded by Carmelite friars who served in the Free Polish Army during WWII, emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, and would have emigrated sooner if they hadn't been deported to Siberia in the interim.
Small shrines and prayer spots populate the grounds. There's a memorial to the Polish Underground; a shrine (surrounded by barbed wire) to skinny Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr priest of Auschwitz; and another to St Therese of Lisieux, the "Little Flower of Jesus," who is sculpted as she tells her tearful dad that she's off to join the Carmelites.
"Carmelite" sounds like a rock, so it's fitting that the friars used rock as their principal building material. The biggest structure -- The Grotto of the Holy Mother -- resembles a giant ball of candy popcorn, and shelters three floors of inner shrines. The friars began work on it in 1954. They imported 250 tons of sponge rock from a mine in Arkansas, had people from Chicago come down to clean it, and then painstakingly glued it into place.
Windy City faithful still make annual pilgrimages to the Carmelite Shrines on foot -- a 40-mile trek from Midway Airport -- although we suspect that some of them walk because it's faster than driving through all of the construction and traffic.
It's dark inside the Holy Mother Grotto, and warm -- hundreds of candles are burning. Decoration is sparse, with occasional marble sculptures, stained glass windows, and accents of fluorite, dogtooth calcite, dolomite, and rose quartz to enliven the gloom. Overall, this place seems more like a twisty sponge rock catacombs than a religious shrine.
We expected the same when we walked down a path to the Holy Sepulchre Chapel, but it has some surprises. Inside is the Flagellation Chapel, with a marble Jesus tied to an alabaster pillar. The official guide, for sale in the gift shop, calls it a "beautiful statue of the scourged Christ, notable for His facial expression of intense pain." In an adjoining alcove lies dead Jesus on his bier (Jesus on his "deathbed," as tipsters have referred to it). He's guarded by statues of two Roman soldiers. Beneath his carved pillow and blankets is an impressive altar crafted from giant minerals -- a huge backlit ball of crystals evokes the image of a glowing sacred heart.
Around the corner -- easy to miss in the gloom -- is Memorial Chapel, a black light extravaganza of the archangel Gabriel and Jesus raising the dead. The sun is falling, hands are reaching up out of the ground, and yellow crosses race across the ceiling. It looks like something out of The Wall, or a scene from one of those anti-communist cartoons from the 1950s, with the skies filled with waves of Soviet bombers -- a metaphor that the friars obviously did not intend. The room is so dark that it takes several minutes to get your Apocalypse eyes, but it's worth it. The rocky walls are lined with bronze plaques, paid for by the families of the dead, which the official guide explains are "asking Christ to raise those people one day and to admit them to His company in a happy eternity."
Calvary stands atop the Holy Sepulchre, with Jesus nailed to the cross. This is not exactly accurate, but it is efficient. Holy Stairs lead to the top -- 28 steps that are symbolic replicas of the Holy Stairs in Rome's Sancta Sanctorum (said to originate from Pontius Pilate's palace, where Jesus climbed them). In Munster, as in Rome, Holy Stairs are only ascended on one's knees. Auxiliary staircases are provided for less reverent foot traffic.
Friars in brown robes are everywhere on the grounds, and are happy to help. Father Edward told us that the grottoes used to be accessible all week, but are now open only on Sundays, or if you call in advance. "We have had problems with the bad boys breaking things," he said.
Those punks had better hope that Gabriel doesn't toot his trumpet any time soon.