A NEIGHBORHOOD LANDMARK
Mount Olive Lutheran Church, in one architectural form or another, has stood at the corner of 31st and Chicago for more than 100 years. When the current Gothic structure was completed in 1931, it lacked the graceful steeple originally designed to overlook the intersection. In the face of Depression-era cost cutting, congregation leaders chose to forego the steeple, and it was never added. Still, the building dominates the corner, its brown-brick, slate-roof exterior reflecting the sturdy, no-nonsense sensibilities of its German Lutheran builders.
The interior is more dramatic. Worshippers enter a narrow, dark narthex. A large choir/organ loft looms just above and overhangs the entrance to the nave. But then, quite suddenly, the space opens to a soaring vaulted expanse with magnificent stained glass windows and hanging brass lamps.
The church is laid out in a traditional cruciform plan. There’s a center aisle with rows of pews and kneelers. Transepts (with balconies perched above them) stretch out toward each side. The pulpit (on the right) and lectern flank a carved wood and stone altar set against the east wall. The baptismal font is set toward the north transept. A sizable pipe organ swallows up the west wall above the rear choir loft.
The overall effect is that of a relatively small building—seating fewer than 500—transformed into a mini-cathedral once the organ plays and worship begins.
Indeed, the details of the church’s layout tell much about us as a parish. The church forms a cross, with the narthex, nave and chancel as the stem and the transcepts the arms. The church faces east, toward Jerusalem, as tradition suggests. Gothic arches throughout the structure point upward to symbolize the direction from which our strength comes.
In the narthex are a processional cross and torches. These are carried into the church at the beginning of worship and out again at the end. They symbolize the presence of Christ, both in our liturgies and in our daily lives.
Stained-glass windows throughout the church depict Jesus’ humanity and divinity, and they portray many figures and events in the Christian story, including the prophets, the annunciation to the Virgin Mary, the lives of the apostles, the conversion of Paul and the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses to the castle church door.
More than the lectern, the pulpit juts out into the nave to symbolize the human effort in offering divine guidance to the people. The Paschal candle, which stands near the baptismal font, symbolizes the life of Christ given to a baptized person. It is lit for baptisms and funerals and throughout the fifty days of Easter.
A parish house and an education wing, designed to match the church, were added to the north side in 1957. Extensive renovations were made to the worship and undercroft spaces in 1965, and a quarter-block parking lot was cleared in 1966. An expanded north entrance with an elevator was added in 1995 to make the building more accessible. Landscaping has been redesigned and replanted in recent years. An extensive renovation of the Parish House and undercroft kitchen was begun in 2010. It’s part of a multi-phased plan to improve social and office spaces and to update the plumbing and heating/cooling system.
COLUMBARIUM AND ICON
In 2007, a columbarium and devotional icon were added to the north transept. Votive candles and a prie-dieu (kneeler) help make the space a kind of side chapel, ideal for quiet meditation and prayer.
The columbarium is a series of small vaults containing the ashes of deceased members – a kind of indoor cemetery built into the church wall. The icon, Jesus ascending from the Mount of Olives, was written by noted Finnish iconographer Nicholas Markell.