USML | The Liturgical Institute

Hillenbrand Exhibit

Sacred Heart Parish

Coming to Sacred Heart Parish, Hubbard's Woods, Illinois
appointed July 15, 1944

Though Hillenbrand's tenure at Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary was notable for its liturgical and theological innovation, several forces converged so that he would be “promoted” to the pastorate at Sacred Heart parish in Winnetka, Illinois. Though Hillenbrand’s fame grew on the local and national levels, mixed responses came to his policies and products, as pastors, faculty and business leaders protested his ideas. The newly ordained men coming from the seminary were appearing in parishes full of new ideas on liturgy and social justice not always appreciated by their pastors. Hillenbrand worked systematically to replace the Mundelein-appointed Jesuit faculty with hand-picked diocesan priests sympathetic to his own ideals, and business owners saw him as unswervingly biased in favor of labor. Moreover, Hillenbrand’s many commitments required frequent travel and took him away from the seminary. Hillenbrand’s famously aloof personality did not help his cause.

On July 15, 1944, Cardinal Samuel Stritch appointed Hillenbrand to the pastorate at Sacred Heart, where he wasted little time in bringing his ideas about liturgy and parish life to the parochial setting. Immediately he began preaching about the liturgy, explaining the liturgical seasons, the need for active participation and the social teachings of the Church. Within a year, Hillenbrand introduced the dialog Mass, a method of saying Mass in which the people recited the parts proper to them proper to them. While not completely unheard of and even recommended by some popes, the use the dialog Mass was unusual at the parish level at the time.

As the years progressed, Hillenbrand expanded his program to help parishioners understand and participate fully in the Mass. He began a boys’ choir in 1945, and in 1948 established a parish library including works on liturgy, the Mystical Body, Catholic Action, the spirituality of the laity, and social justice. Hillenbrand also started a parish-wide music program, inviting two groups of parishioners to study Gregorian chant so that they might be the foundation singers for chanting the Mass in a parish setting. He formed 16 small groups which learned the Latin chants of the Mass and helped other members of the congregation sing the chants as well. This music program earned a great deal of interest and brought Sacred Heart parish and Hillenbrand himself into the national liturgical spotlight.


Hillenbrand is shown at left in Sacred Heart Church after the 1957 parish renovation. As a pioneer of liturgical reform, Hillenbrand sought permission to say Mass “facing the people” in the late 1950s, shown here in the short interim period when tabernacles were still placed on altars.

Renovation of Sacred Heart Church

The 1957 renovation of Sacred Heart Church was Hillenbrand’s most significant intervention in the parish’s physical plant. Hillenbrand knew well the artistic leaders of the Liturgical Movement, and was himself a member of the Board of Directors of Liturgical Arts magazine. Hillenbrand was greatly influenced by the architectural standards of the day, which saw the altar, freestanding tabernacle, crucifix and rear wall hanging to constitute the “liturgical altar.” His renovation, which did not occur without significant resistance on the part of some parishioners, reveals the somewhat radical influence of the dominant architectural establishment, which considered historical styles “fakery” and preferred singularity of image to multiplicity. The Gothic high altar was given to St. Mary’s Church in Fremont Center, Illinois (where it remains today) and side altars were removed so as to have only one altar in the church. The crucifix and sculptures of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph were completed by Ivan Mestrovic. Hillenbrand’s signature intervention was the “Vine and Branches” sculpture by Joseph O’Connell on the rear wall of the sanctuary, a reminder to the people of their status as Mystical Body of Christ. The baptistery was moved to the front of the church to reinforce the connection between baptism and Eucharist. While Hillenbrand’s renovation was certainly foreign to the architectural lines of the existing church, it nonetheless preserved the use of high quality marble for the altar and sanctuary and the highest level of craft, reiterating the importance of the sacred building and sacral action.

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