Far from the downtown glitter of fashionable boutiques jammed with holiday shoppers, thousands of persons have been flocking to St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in an unpretentious middle-class neighborhood called The Brickyard on the city's Northwest side.
There, the throngs behold a scarlet-and-gold icon of the Virgin Mary, which, for more than a week, has seemed to be weeping.
Visitors find themselves in a small church whose vaulted ceiling is richly decorated with scenes from the life of Christ, highlighted in gold leaf against a soft blue background. There are pews for about 250 persons, almost the entire congregation, and the air is pungent with burning incense.
Amid the hushed bustle, people file forward to see the unexplained phenomenon. The canvas-on-wood painting, showing Mary holding the baby Jesus, is part of the iconostasis, an ornate screen decorated with images of the saints and Christ that separates the altar area from the rest of the church.
In the glow of lights and candles illuminating the altar, streaks of moisture seem to have coursed down the gilded icon, tracing several faint paths from the eyes of the image of Mary. Visitors can approach no closer than the altar rail, about eight feet from the icon. A gold chain, a diamond ring and poinsettias and other Christmas decorations have been placed around the icon.
Ushers and other members of the congregation said the moisture seems to flow in spurts, once or twice a day. Many persons here one recent night said the icon's condition may be a sign from heaven.
"I came because it's a miracle," a young man said. "These things can happen, even though there are lots of people who don't believe in them. But it's a sign from God."
"Who knows what's a miracle?" asked a grade-school teacher in the line of people shuffling toward the altar rail and the apparently weeping madonna beyond. "My kids are all talking about it, and I felt I had to come and see for myself. Sure, it's curiosity. And maybe it's a miracle."
The Rev. Phillip Koufos, senior priest at St. Nicholas, said parishioners first noticed something unusual about the icon during a service Dec. 5, the eve of the feast day of St. Nicholas, the church's patron saint.
"At Friday Vespers, some said they noticed something with the Virgin's face," recalled Koufos, a native of Boston who has headed the parish for two years.
"I thought it was moisture, a trail and, when I looked closely, I saw it went right to her eyes. I knew then it was something unusual, a sign," he said.
Koufos was joined the next day in delivering the St. Nicholas Day service by the Rev. Michael Dali, who founded the church almost 30 years ago and lives in retirement nearby. At the service, the icon was weeping openly, Koufos said. "What was most awesome and inspiring was she gushed from her hands, too," he said. "That was something. How we got through the liturgy, I'll never know.
"Both of us were leading each other through it. At one point, Father Dali leaned over to me and said, 'I'm going to cry.' It was very emotional for us."
The priests announced to their flock their belief that an extraordinary event had befallen the church, built in 1961 on North Naragansett Street across from a brick factory. The brickyard has been replaced long since by a shopping center, but the neighborhood still carries the name of what had been its most familiar landmark.
Word spread rapidly in Chicago's small, tight-knit Albanian community, which numbers a few thousand. Soon, crowds of Albanian Americans thronged to St. Nicholas to venerate the icon.
It took barely two days for the rest of Chicago to begin learning of the madonna, and many people started lining up in bitter cold for a glimpse. They were soon joined by television and newspaper reporters. Now, the church telephone rings constantly, and queries have flooded in from around the country and the world.
Each day, crowds gather by 10 a.m., when the doors are opened, and continue filing through in an almost unbroken stream until the doors are closed 12 hours later for the night. Hundreds of visitors make donations or buy small, thin votive candles to light and carry inside.
Such notoriety seemed hardly possible for St. Nicholas. Not long ago, to keep up with changing times and help maintain his flock, Koufos changed the language of the service from Albanian to English. "The children want it that way. They wanted to understand what was going on, and they don't speak Albanian as much," he said.
Now, the phenomenon of the icon has made the church a familiar name to much of Chicago.
"I am shocked myself," said John Koltse, president of the parish, who was in attendance when the priests made their disclosure on the feast of St. Nicholas. "I went home and told my wife, you're not going to believe this . . . . That this should happen to our small church is amazing. Last week, no one even knew who we are, and now, the whole world is looking at us."
In a statement, the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Chicago said in part that the "mystery of the weeping icon is not simply an event with no apparent scientific explanation . . . . We understand it as an appeal from the Ever-Virgin for an awakening to the spiritual and a return to the church."
Koufos said, "What is this? How? And why? We don't know. Something is coming from that icon that has touched many . . . . People are searching and need more than reason to hold onto."