Something Big Is Happening

May 06, 2012


Clearly something big is happening at Chicago's 65 East Huron Street, and it involves much more than steel frames and cranes and concrete. The massive, ongoing renovation exemplifies people of faith's abiding belief in the importance of presence for the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Chicago.

"This is a high impact project for the diocese," said Nick Chabraja who, along with his wife Eleanor, is a lead donor for the renovations at St. James Commons, a property that includes the Episcopal Church Center, St. James Cathedral and the plaza.

"In my view, as Episcopalians, it is our responsibility to take care of the episcopacy," Chabraja said. "I think this project, if properly executed, may very well energize the diocese. And that is what you hope for."

Nearly $5 million of the $8 million project has been raised, and March 2013 is the projected completion date for construction. Plans for the property include a garden and labyrinth at the corner of Wabash and East Huron, leading passersby, office workers who eat lunch on the plaza, concertgoers, and other visitors toward a newly constructed entrance that will make diocesan headquarters and St. James Cathedral accessible to all.

Inside, the new Welcome Center will provide a wheelchair-accessible and weather-tight space that connects diocesan offices with the cathedral, and the first floor will be transformed into a bright, art-filled, technologically sophisticated gallery.

The newly renovated complex will provide flexible space for the Cathedral’s growing congregation and a more accessible place for leaders from across the diocese to gather for workshops, meetings, and gatherings devoted to fostering growth, promoting vitality, and building networks for mission and ministry in all of northern Illinois’ 123 Episcopal congregations.

Sitting as it does at the heart of Chicago, the renovated space will offer a stunning, joyful, open embrace of the surrounding community and the congregations it serves. The diocesan center will be transformed into a place of grace and gladness that brings the church “out” into the downtown streetscape, even as it invites downtown neighbors and diocesan leaders “in” to newly accessible, attractive and comfortable gathering spaces.

It was the opportunity to fund the labyrinth, with its promise of a place for contemplation and spiritual reflection, that attracted another lead donor, Anne Bent, whose family has a long history of supporting the Diocese of Chicago.

Anne_Bent_II_copy.png"There is a plaque on the wall in the part of the diocesan building that was donated by my grandparents," Bent said. "So it's a very sweet thing to think that my family has been involved in helping the diocese for a couple of generations."

Bent, a member of Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, has been involved in the planning and the design of the labyrinth, including the decision to make it larger than originally envisioned. Donating to that part of the project has been particularly gratifying, Bent said, because walking the labyrinth can offer such a respite and oasis from the bustle and stress of the city.

"The idea of a labyrinth is that you approach it with a petition or a prayer, or sometimes just a desire to become empty," she said. "You move from the outside to the inside, and when you come into the center it is a space to stop and collect yourself."

Part of the beauty of the labyrinth experience, Bent said, is that it requires one's total focus, which is hard to come by in today's world.

"You have to use 100 percent of concentration to get out; you can't be distracted because you will lose your way on the path," she said. "To have that opportunity is a real gift for 21st century people because we are always multi-tasking. How are you supposed to find the still, small voice of God if you are multi-tasking? That's what I love about the experience of walking the labyrinth. You have to focus on the now, not look ahead or behind; there is no multi-tasking.

"Even if you look ahead you can't tell where you are going. The whole point is you put one foot in front of the other, and you follow the path, and that is a metaphor for our spiritual life —being present."

Deciding to contribute to the renovation of the diocesan office building and its grounds was an easy one for the Chabrajas, who, like Bent, are members of Church of the Holy Spirit. Asked why he contributed, Nick Chabraja replied, "The bishop asked me to. I'm not in the habit of saying no to him."

Plus, the project was clearly worthy of support, he said. Nick and Eleanor had several conversations with Bishop Jeffrey Lee, who invited them for lunch and a walk through the diocesan building.

The condition of the building "was embarrassing," Eleanor said, partly because of deferred maintenance.

Nick added, "There was no integration of this gothic Cathedral with this highly contemporary design of a small office building. There was no way to get architecturally from one to the other. Part of the plan was to design a space that would serve as a way to take people from the Cathedral to the office building without being in the elements."

In addition to being lead donors, the Chabrajas have hosted an event at their home to familiarize people with the need for the renovation project, and they plan to hold another one this summer.

Both Bent and the Chabrajas noted the importance of Bishop Jeffrey Lee's leadership and vision in creating a new diocesan center that that will offer a welcoming respite to the multitudes of passersby while at the same time better equipping and energizing church members and congregations to do the work God calls them to do—ministering to each other and to the world.

"It is a highly worthwhile project, and it was easy to give to that," Nick Chabraja said. "I think people from the parishes will enjoy coming down to St. James Commons and making it their own."

Category: St. James Commons