Loyola University Chicago

Department of History


Charles Heinrich Publishes Book on Madonna della Strada Chapel

Charles Heinrich Publishes Book on Madonna della Strada Chapel

Photo by Myles Ostrowski

Graduate student Charles Heinrich recently published Song in Stone: The History of Madonna della Strada Chapel. Charles has a BA in History from Loyola (and won the Paul S. Leitz Award for Historical Scholarship) and is currently a Master's student studying Medieval and Public History. He has held the James Rocks Curatorial Internship at the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) where he curated an exhibit on Madonna della Strada in connection with this summer's Crossings and Dwellings exhibit. Fellow Master's student Siobhan Heraty recently caught up with Charles to find out more about the chapel, his research, and the experience of putting his Public History education into practice.

Give us an overview of your book and how you became involved with this project.

Sometime last summer (2014), I was asked by senior curator Jonathan Canning at LUMA to start putting together some notes on the Madonna della Strada Chapel on the Lakeshore campus and the chapel's artist, Melville Steinfels. At the time, the larger exhibit Crossings and Dwellings: Restored Jesuits, Women Religious, American Experience 1814-2014 was very extensive, with hundreds of objects. A few pieces concerning the chapel went into its "20th Century Gallery." I think this is what Mr. Canning had in mind.

However, as time went on, the exhibition underwent some changes, and all of the sudden, I was asked to curate my own exhibit about the history and construction of the chapel. It was a lucky and exciting opportunity for me to do actual public history.

Fr. Michael Garanzini, S.J. saw the exhibit and my work and was very impressed. He offered me the chance to work on a booklet project to commemorate the Chapel's 75th anniversary. This would incorporate material from my exhibit, as well as topics I couldn't cover due to space and time restraints.

How did you conduct the research for the book? How did Loyola faculty and staff assist you as you explored the history of Madonna della Strada?

The booklet was thus going to be a more in-depth project. The University's Marketing and Communication division discussed with me the parameters of the project, and I submitted an outline and stipend request that we jointly agreed on. Following those negotiations, I started sifting through the archives.

That the booklet exists is in large part thanks to the help I received from Kathy Young and Ashley Howdeshell at the University Archives. Ashley was very kind in dealing with the numerous amounts of requests for material and images to scan for the booklet. I went through peals of letters, correspondences, pamphlets and the like. For the chapel's recent history, I had talked to several people involved with the Chapel during the last 30 years. This proved invaluable, as there were several gaps in the archival narrative that could not have been filled otherwise.

A special mention must be made for the family of Melville Steinfels. A chance meeting with a friend of the family at a local coffee shop led me to contact the children and grandchildren of Melville. They were incredibly helpful, sharing with me family stories, Steinfels' CV, and an extremely helpful paper written about the Chapel by granddaughter Jane Margaret Steinfels.

What is the most interesting or surprising thing you learned about Madonna della Strada as you conducted the research?

From the beginning, I think the most astonishing story is that the Chapel was ever even built. For Fr. Mertz to raise as much money as he did during the 1920s-40s is no mean feat. He was already one of the most charismatic Catholic preachers of his day (preaching at the 1926 Eucharistic Congress at Soldier's Field). He kept a monthly newsletter, scores of pages long, running it all by himself. He wrote constantly and still found time to chair a department and teach classes. The energy of that generation of Jesuits is legendary.

The other big surprise (and indeed, an "aha!" moment) was when I started learning more about the accreditation controversies facing Catholic universities in the 1910s-40s. The actions of Loyola president Fr. Samuel Wilson, S.J. -another important Loyola figure- suddenly made sense. It helped me see the Chapel as not only a place of Catholic worship, but as part of a much larger multifaceted approach by Loyola during this time to assert its own identity as a forward-thinking Catholic university against many oppositional forces. It drove home that buildings can make political statements, even if implicitly.

Your book has been well received. Why do you think this is? What do you think Madonna della Strada means to the Loyola community?

Naturally, I am very pleased with how well the book has been received. I received a personal note of thanks from Fr. Garanzini, which I found very touching. During the events in which the booklet was distributed, I was surprised by the number of people who came up to me to tell me about their own stories and memories of the Chapel and their memories of Fr. Mertz. While praise is certainly gratifying, it is equally so to see your work connect with people and encourage them to reflect on their personal histories.

A big relief came when Fr. Birely said he thought the booklet was good. He was here when it was being built! All the same, it was encouraging to hear that from a man who had been there with the Chapel and Fr. Mertz for so many years.

As to why the booklet has been well-received? Maybe I am just that good! Failing that, I think the booklet allows people to connect with the Chapel in a way they could not have before. My goal from the beginning of the project to facilitate a deeper appreciation and understanding of the building and the people who shaped it into what it is today. This could only be done with a thorough appreciation of its long and varied history. It is about seeing the big picture, and seeing yourself as part of that big picture.

The theme of faith runs through the booklet. I wanted to explore in the booklet what this Chapel meant as a place of faith, and how this has changed over time. I think keeping the project focused on an ultimately simple-to-understand concept helped keep it intelligible.

Finally, I also have to mention Joe Darrow, the booklet's designer. He and I spent many long nights in near-constant phone and email communication with one another as deadlines loomed. His expertise made an attractive product, which played no little part in its success.

How does your work on this book connect to your academic pursuits in Loyola’s graduate program and your goals as a historian?

Of course, it's these types of moments that we dream of as graduate students, right? I could have never expected to write a history booklet about much of anything while I was still attending school. As part of the Public History program, I feel like I was given a good background to approach this project. One of the important things for me was "shared authority" - that favorite phrase of the program. I was self-conscious about my own role as a potential outsider (though as a Catholic and graduate of Loyola), and wanted to include others in the historical process. This is where I received so much help from the Steinfels family, and from Campus Ministry past and present. My classes had taught me that these people have a stake in the Chapel's history too, and it would ultimately enrich the history by adding their contributions into the narrative.

I would love to keep on doing these types of projects. While they are stressful, they are also a lot of fun! I have already been approached by the School of Social Work to produce a booklet with them for their centenary celebration in May 2015. My experiences with this project and with LUMA really underline just how many opportunities I have had as a historian here at Loyola. Here's to hoping for more to come!