Chicago’s Oldest German Parish (1852): St Michael Church In Old Town.

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).

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A gabled three-portal main entrance recalls the cathedrals of Europe and was added to the facade in 1913 by a Chicago architect.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Not installed until 1902, tall, thin stained glass windows were part of the architect’s original design for St. Michael Church. Like other American church building adaptations of earlier European architectural styles, the use of Romanesque rounded arches and corbels accentuate the innovation of Gothic glass in the Old Town church. Of course there had always been glass in St. Michael’s window settings but they were frosted and later tinted glass. Not until 1902 for the Golden Jubilee were these colorful New Testament scenes created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich.

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Ceiling mural over the central nave includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists – from top and clockwise, Luke, John, Mark and Matthew. Filigree work evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts or perhaps one of the 24 scenes from the Book of Genesis painted in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice in the 15th century.


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A Swabian-style Pieta of the early sixteenth century – this rendition in a vestibule was made around 1913.


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Sacred Heart (side) Altar to the east side of the main sanctuary. Honoring Jesus in an apparition to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (French, 1647-1690).  The statues depict St. Alphonsus Liguori (Italian, 1696-1787) and Saint Teresa of Avila (Spanish, 1515-1582).


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Altar honors Mary, “Mother of Perpetual Help.” The image was important to Saint Alphonsus and this exact icon was given to the Chicago Redemptorists in 1865 by Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878). It had to be picked out of the charred embers after the Great Fire and, having survived intact, was set into this nearly Indo-Chinese style frame.

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.


One thought on “Chicago’s Oldest German Parish (1852): St Michael Church In Old Town.

  1. KTW

    Did you happen to see the news account today in which a man committed suicide within Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris? It seems that he was a rather elderly historian and right-wing political activist (obviously one who missed the memo on the Ten Commandments).

    It does rather cause one to wonder what such a suicide in such a place might mean? Surely the symbolism doesn’t go unnoticed in a city such as Paris.

    Now if only to decipher the symbols which the old coot used.



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