Featured Image: St. Michael Church, bell tower, 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.
By John P. Walsh
The story is told that if you can hear the five 2-to-6-ton bells peel from the 290-feet-tall tower of St. Michael Church you live in Chicago’s Old Town – yet it depends on which way the wind blows. St. Michael Church is one of the oldest parishes and church buildings in Chicago. Founded by German Catholics in 1852 – they remained the city’s most numerous ethnic group from their first arrival in the 1840’s until World War I – the immigrants soon headed north out of downtown to North Avenue known as “German Broadway.” The Central European community expanded to settle a four-mile square area called “North Town.” St. Michael Church was placed in North Town’s virtual center on land donated by successful German-born Chicago brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869).
The church building is built of red brick with limestone trim in the Romanesque style. Construction started in 1866 and finished three years later. In 1871 the new building was destroyed along with the entire “North Town” neighborhood in the Great Chicago Fire. Only the church’s exterior walls remained. Using the existing walls the fire-gutted St. Michael Church was rebuilt and rededicated in two years. Ashes from that famous conflagration are still present in the church basement. In 1876 the church hoisted its five new bells cast by McShane Company into the tower. Twelve years later the tower’s four-sided clock was put in place. The cross that sits atop the steeple is twenty-four feet tall and weighs over a ton.
In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago with a population of around 30,000 was the twenty-fourth largest city in the United States. Ten years later, in 1860, before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Chicago’s population had nearly quadrupled and ranked in the country’s top ten largest cities. In that time the mainly Irish Catholic hierarchy in Chicago looked to religious orders to handle the tidal wave of non-English- speaking immigrants such as the Germans. At St. Michael Church the charge was entrusted in 1860 to the historically Italian religious order of Redemptorists founded in 1748. The Redemptorists with their German congregation built the church that can be visited today. Over 160 years later they still shepherd the parish.
St. Michael Church is named for wealthy beer maker and Chicago alderman Michael Diversey’s patron saint.The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one more image – others are in stone, wood and paint – found in the interior decoration depicting the archangel mentioned in the the Book of Daniel, Epistle of Jude, and Book of Revelation.
There are five altars in the church – the main one is the High Altar of the Angels. The church sanctuary looks basically as it did in 1902. That was the year the stained glass was installed as well as the 56-foot-high carved wood retable behind the main altar. Atop this heavy-painted construct (a new local foundation had to be dug for it) is the figure of St. Michael described in the Book of Revelation garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels from heaven. Michael is flanked by archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Also depicted are the nine choirs of angels and saints Peter and Paul. Smaller human figures are the four evangelists identified by their Christian symbols. The five altars were all made by E. Hackner Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an early twentieth century designer, manufacturer and importer of artistic ecclesiastic furnishings. The motivation for the church’s extensive redecoration in 1902 was the parish’s increasing prosperity in the later 1890’s as well as its Golden Jubilee.
The nineteenth century history of St. Michael Church is a study in the rise of the German population to a dominant position in Chicago that was itself rising, in less than 50 years, from a literal swamp to the second most populated city in the United States. Between 1874 until after World War I Chicago’s swift emergence on the world stage would be accompanied by “Deutschtum” or “Germanness” in its culture. As Deutschtum appeared to be invincible, the kaiser’s defeat in Europe in 1918 signaled the beginning of a dismantling of German cultural dominance in Chicago that continued after World War I until its further demise in the 1930s and 1940s.
Sources: G. Lane and A. Kezys, Chicago Churches and Synogogues; P. d’A Jones and M.G. Holli, Ethnic Chicago; D.A. Pacyga and E. Skerrett, Chicago, City of Neighborhoods; D. McNamara, Heavenly City; St. Michael Church website.
Photographs taken February 13 and 17, 2013.