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November 8, 2009

Resting place of the bishops Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside is home to the Bishops Chapel, a mausoleum that is a burial site for our deceased shepherds

By Michelle Martin


When visitors step into the Bishops Chapel at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, they enter through the gates of heaven.

Not literally, of course, but artistically and symbolically.

The bronze gates that flank the entrance doors, also made of bronze, symbolize the gates of heaven, said Marilyn Ferro, a LaGrange woman who has made a study of the art and architecture of the chapel, which is the final resting place of the remains of seven of the bishops and archbishops who have been ordinaries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“It’s all about resurrection,” said Ferro, who was moved to learn about the chapel after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was entombed there following his death in November 1996.

“This is not it. It’s the resurrection. It’s the next life,” she said.

The message starts with the word “resurrecturis,” meaning, “to those who will be resurrected” carved above the entrance, and the statue of the Angel of Resurrection on the top of the chapel.

Inside, mosaics designed by architect Aristide Leonori include many early Roman symbols of resurrection, with themes used in the early Christian churches and the catacombs.

The mosaic behind the altar shows Jesus presiding as the dead climb out of their graves. Also behind the altar is a banquet scene, perhaps a funeral, because the guests look gloomy.

In the dome, there is an image of the Risen Christ with a tri-radiant crown.

He is standing at the intersection of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden, the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates, which flow from the throne of God.

“God is irrigating the earth with the water of life,” Ferro said, another visual reference to eternal life.

Dome representations

The dome also includes representations of the four evangelists, who were responsible for spreading the Gospel, which is also the job of the bishop. Mark is portrayed as a lion, because he started his Gospel with John the Baptist, the “lion of the desert”; John is an eagle, because his Gospel account rides “on eagle’s wings,” Ferro said; Luke is shown as a calf or an ox, because he gives a full account of Jesus’ sacrificial death; and Matthew is a man, because he gives the human descent of Christ.

Around the dome are four scenes from the Old Testament Book of Jonah, which tells the story of the reluctant prophet who is cast overboard, swallowed by a whale or great fish and spit out after three days, newly willing to carry God’s message to the city of Nineveh.

The story clearly prefigures Christ’s death and resurrection after three days, Ferro said, and because of that, it was a popular subject for art in the catacombs.

“Jonah is depicted as a beautiful, very handsome young man,” Ferro said. “In ancient Rome, he was modeled on Endymion, a beautiful youth from Greek and Roman mythology, who was allowed to keep his looks and life in a state of eternal sleep.

The scenes show Jonah being swallowed up, being regurgitated, being saved and, at the end, lying at ease under a grapevine — another reference to Christ, who said “I am the vine and you are the branches,” Ferro said.

Around the dome are patterns of more grapevines and peacocks, also an early Roman symbol of resurrection and eternal life.

“The Roman pagans saw the peacock as a symbol of immortality, because its flesh was believed to be incorruptible,” Ferro said. “The early Roman Christians adopted the peacock as a symbol of eternal life, and of resurrection, because this is a bird that loses its feathers every year and grows a more beautiful set. … All of these things were early symbols of Christianity. The crucifix was not; it was not incorporated until later.”

Roman influence

The design of the chapel makes it difficult for modern American Catholics to interpret, Ferro said.

“This is a completely Roman design, entirely consistent with early Christian churches with very, very early Christian art,” she said.

On the sides are two women praying, “orans” figures also common in the catacombs, depicting people praying both for those entombed in the chapel and for us. “They’re pretty interesting when you look at them,” Ferro said. “It can be scary if you look too long. It’s like they are looking right into your soul.”

Work on the chapel started in 1905 and was completed in 1912, although it was the brainchild of Archbishop Patrick Feehan, who died in 1902 after leading the archdiocese for 22 years.

Archbishop Feehan — the first archbishop of Chicago — wanted a suitable place for burial of the archdiocesan ordinaries, Ferro said. The idea for the mosaic- encrusted interior may have been inspired by a chapel built by the Tiffany Co. at the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair hosted by Chicago in 1893, Ferro said.

In any case, he left money in his estate for that purpose, and property was available in Mount Carmel Cemetery. Funds undoubtedly came from other donors as well, Ferro said.

The Bishops Chapel will be open to visitors in the spring. Contact Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago for dates and times, (708) 449-6100.