The Featured Image is St. Michael Church’s bell tower at 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. In 1876 the church hoisted five new bells cast by McShane Company into the tower. Twelve years later, in 1888, the tower’s four-sided clock was put in place. The twenty-four-foot cross that sits atop the steeple weighs more than a ton.
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 is blowing. St. Michael Church is one of Chicago’s oldest parishes and church buildings. It was founded by German Catholics in 1852. From their arrival in the 1830s and 1840s until World War I, German immigrants of all faiths made up Chicago’s most numerous nationality. They quickly migrated out of downtown Chicago the two miles or so north to North Avenue, a thoroughfare which became known as German Broadway. This Western and Eastern European community expanded to settle a four-mile square area that was called North Town. St. Michael Church was placed in the virtual center of North Town on land donated by successful German-born Chicago businessman-brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey had immigrated to the United States in the 1830s from Saarland in western Germany.
St. Michael Church stands today on land donated for that purpose by successful German-American brewer Michael Diversey. It is named for that wealthy beer maker’s patron saint whose limestone figure stands in a high niche on the façade (see photograph below). Diversey’s so-called Chicago Brewery, first established in Chicago in 1839, grew to become one of the most extensive establishments of its kind in the West.
In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago’s population was around 30,000 making it the twenty-fourth largest city in the United States. Ten years later, in 1860, right before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Chicago’s population had almost quadrupled and now 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 that charge was entrusted in 1860 to the religious order of Redemptorists founded in Italy in 1748. The Redemptorists with their German congregation built the church in Chicago that is seen today. More than 160 years later, the Redemptorists continue to shepherd the parish.
The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one more image—others in stone, wood and paint—in the interior and exterior decoration of St. Michael Church. The archangel is mentioned four times in the Bible: in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude, and the Book of Revelation. St. Michael the archangel is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Daniel where in the first instance he helps the prophet Daniel and in another he is linked to the “end times” of the world. In the Epistle of Jude St. Michael the archangel guards the tombs of Moses and Eve and combats Satan to protect these holy sites. In the Book of Revelation St. Michael and his angels do battle with the “dragon.” St. Michael the archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, police, and doctors.
The spacious, airy, and dramatic church sanctuary today looks basically as it did by 1902. That was the year the stained glass was installed along with the 56-foot-high carved wood retable of the High (or main) Altar of the Angels. There are five altars in St. Michael Church but the main altar is the most spectacular, drawing the eye forward and upward. Crowning this painted construct—which is so heavy that it required a new local foundation to be dug for it—is the figure of St. Michael described in the Book of Revelation. He is garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels out of heaven. Michael is flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Also depicted are the nine choirs of angels and the saints Peter and Paul. Smaller human figures depict the four evangelists identified by their Christian symbols— specifically, the Winged Man (Matthew), Winged Lion (Mark), Winged Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). The five altars were 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 its Golden Jubilee as well as one expression of the parishioners’ decided prosperity by the later 1890s.
Created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich in 1902 for St. Michael Church’s Golden Jubilee, the tall and thin stained glass windows —the fourth set of windows to be installed into architect August Walbaum’s original design— depicted biblical and other scenes and drew on centuries of craft and technique. As with other American church building adaptations of earlier European architectural styles, the use of Romanesque rounded arches and corbels accentuated the use of Gothic-style glass in the Old Town Roman Catholic church.
The ceiling mural over the central nave includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists. Its filigree evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as perhaps one of the scenes from the Book of Genesis painted in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice in the fifteenth century.
The history of St. Michael Church is a study in the rise of the German population to a dominant position in a new American city that was also rising. In less than 50 years Chicago developed out of an onion swamp into the second most populated city in the United States. Between 1874 until after World War I Chicago’s rapid emergence on the world stage was accompanied by Deutschtum (or “Germanness”) in its culture. While Deutschtum appeared to be invincible, the kaiser’s defeat in 1918 in Europe signaled the beginning of the end for German cultural dominance in Chicago and was virtually completely dismantled by World War II.
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.