Sometimes, All You Have To Do Is Ask

It’s so easy to assume you’ll get a big fat “no.” As a photographer, I always assumed I’d just “get over” this fear, whether it’s keeping me from asking to make someone’s portrait on the street, or preventing me unpacking a full bag of gear in the middle of a church. Turns out you never do, or at least I haven’t yet.

But sometimes people surprise you, and that’s an important lesson.

I’ve been wanting to shoot Holy Name Cathedral since the first time I looked in the door (and, incidentally, that’s all I did the first time – I was walking through the neighborhood and opened the door to look inside as I walked by).  But I had always assumed they had fairly restrictive policies around such things.  Lots of churches, especially ones that get a lot of tourist traffic, have a blanket ban on tripods, for example.

So last week, @Ashamar dropped by my desk and asked if I wanted to walk over there and shoot later in the week.  Apparently, he had just called them up and asked how they felt about our kind.  To hear him tell it, the conversation went something like this:


Woman Who Answers Phones (WWAP): Holy Name Cathedral.

@Ashamar: Hi, I want to come take pictures in your church. I promise to make lots of noise, trip tourists with my equipment, and generally piss everyone else in the building off.  Oh yeah, and I want to bring a bunch of friends who are equally considerate of others.

WWAP: Ok, you just need to talk to Deacon Michael McCloskey about setting up a tour. Hold please.

Deacon Michael McCloskey


Michael: Hello?

@Ashamar: Hi, I want to come take pictures at your church… (etc)

Michael: Sure, come on by.  We have a mass tomorrow ending at 12:30 – how’s  12:45?

@Ashamar: Any restrictions we need to know about? Are tripods and flashes ok?

Michael: How much equipment do you have? Do you need a flat truck to get your stuff up the elevator?

The guy just couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming.  When we got there (fortunately, only two of us could make it in the end – we had originally planned a group of four roving disturbances of piety).

In the end, Deacon Michael spent an hour and a half with us, giving us a private tour of any part of the building we could think to ask to see.  We went around back to see the private chapels, offices, even the Metropolitan Cross, which is obscenely valuable and normally not left laying around for people like us to step around while we look for the best angle from which to photograph it. We were even invited to put tripods over the chair at the back of the altar where only five posteriors have been (four cardinals and a pope, for those keeping score) – though he asked us not to sit in the chair, he encouraged me to place a tripod in front of it and lean back, my irreverent keister hovering mere inches above the cushion.

He imparted upon us an immense amount of information which, if I hadn’t been snapping photographs constantly, I might even have been able to absorb.  After giving us a thorough history of the building and the Archdiocese of Chicago, he left the church to us and asked us to let the security guard know when we were leaving.

In fact, it was such a great experience, we plan to make a tour of local churches as we can sneak a few vacation hours from the office now and again.

Several of the photos I took that day are below; this set on Flickr will continue to grow as I have time to process them.

Looking East, from the Narthex

Organ and Choir Loft


A Pew, Bathed in Light from the Stained Glass

Columns of Light I

Columns of Light

Resurrection Crucifix

Resurrection Crucifix


  1. Drea says:

    Wow, Nat, these are stunning. I like your stuff in general….these make me feel like I’m there. Great story too.

  2. ncarling says:

    Thanks d! It was an incredible experience and I can’t wait to go back –

  3. So… are you going to start asking then, now that you see what can happen when you do take a risk and ask the question? I need closure on the story!

  4. R. Johnson says:

    Thanks for posting these beautiful pictures! It is all the more amazing that you were able to take them at all, because just one year and 17 days before your posting date, there was a massive fire in the attic above the beautiful ceiling. The cathedral was nearly lost. Eight firemen who dragged hoses 200 feet up a narrow stairway are credited with saving the building. They remained there until it was feared that the roof would collapse. The attack on the fire continued from the outside for hours until it was extinguished. Tons of water poured through the ceiling into the sanctuary causing extensive water damage. The fire left gaping holes in the roof, and the attic space and roof structure needed extensive rebuilding. Although the interior was untouched by the fire, restoration of the water damage took months. Both organs happened to be in areas where water did not come through, otherwise they would have been ruined.

  5. ncarling says:

    Amazing, isn’t it? There was a bright side, though – the deacon pointed out some of the improvements they had had the opportunity to make since the fire a year ago as we walked around.

    He told us how, once the pews had been moved (to avoid water damage), they got out huge floor squeegees and had to literally push the water out the front door over the marble floor.

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